Memorial Poems: Civil War Literature in Context

Memorial poems posterAlthough Walt Whitman famously claimed that “the real war will never get into the books,” the American Civil War did in fact call forth a vast range of literary responses, in genres as diverse as poetry, popular song, novels and other prose genres.  How does this literature depict the war, and how does it grapple with Whitman’s claim that there is something unrepresentable about the war’s carnage?  In Fall, 2008, we explored these questions in an upper-level seminar, English 71: The Civil War in Literature (Professor Colleen Boggs), which fulfilled the “culminating experience” requirement in the English major.  Students explored primary texts in the classroom and beyond: each student developed a research project that contextualized the literature we had studied by drawing on primary materials from special collections and the college archives.  The work of three students -- Virginia Deaton, Nicole LaBombard, and David Schmidt -- is displayed here; it represents their original research.

The exhibition was created and installed by Virginia Deaton '09, Nicole LaBombard '09, and David Schmidt '09 and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries in Rauner Special Collections Library from February 3 to March 31, 2009.

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: MemorialPoems (2.4 MB) You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: Memorial Poems.

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. The Home Front: The Dartmouth Experience In the War

  1. A. S. Wheeler diary, April 14, 1865. Wheeler Family Papers. ML-86, Box 30, Folder 16.
    1. This diary carefully notes the death of Lincoln, as recorded by New Hampshire native A. S. Wheeler. Though much of the diary contains reminders, appointments, and addresses, the April 14 entry takes up the entire space for the day. Wheeler writes, "President Lincoln shot by an assassin at Ford's Theater in Washington at about 9:30 pm. -- Secy. Steward about the same hour stabbed in his home." It is interesting to note that this news could not have reached a rural New Hampshire newspaper on the evening of April 14, so Wheeler must have written this entry after the day had passed, and therefore after Lincoln's death.
  2. Civil War Patriotic Envelopes. Iconography 1251.
    1. These envelopes, a precursor to the modern postcard, were a way for senders to express their political beliefs and patriotism through the mail. The top envelope envisions the demise of the South, with a drunken, tattered Confederate soldier floating down the river on a leaky CSA barrel, while a similar envelope depicts a hanged Jefferson Davis (J. D.) surrounded by starts labeled as Confederate states and titled, "The New Constellation." Another depicts a beautiful allegory of "Dixie," being strangled by the oppressive snake of "Secession." The last envelope depicts two children play-fighting, one holding a Confederate flag, the other a Union flag. In the bottom corner, these same children are tucked into bed together, covered with a Union flag and watched over by the allegory of Liberty. The captions read, "As it is," and "As it will be," indicating hope for a peaceful end to the war.
  3. Mourning Notice for Lincoln, April 17, 1865, addressed to Daniel P. Wheeler. Wheeler Family Papers. ML-86.
  4. Class Day Exercises Program, Tuesday, July 19, 1864.
    1. On July 11, 1864, a Confederate Army under Lieutenant General Jubal Early advanced inside the boundaries of the District of Columnia. Though they were repulsed on July 12, it was the closest the Confederates came during the war to taking the Federal capital. In Hanover, meanwhile, it was Senior Week for the outgoing Dartmouth Class of 1864. And on June 19, the College held its Class Day program. This pamphlet, in addition to outlining the exercises of that Class Day, includes "Bonny Doon," an ode delivered that day by its author William Harvey '64.
      1. But who'll forget those College Days,
      2. these scenes removed from world-turmoil,
      3. These moments crowned with pleasure's bays
      4. Those seasons of ennobling toil?
  5. The Aegis. September 1862 and April 1863. Reference LD1447 .A2  1858-1866 
    1. The edition of The Aegis yearbook from September 1862 honors those of Dartmouth "who exchanged the quietness of the student's life for the perils of the battle-field." And yet the quietness of the student's life continues for those choosing to remain at the College on the Hill: the very next column reports fondly on the annual Sophomore-Freshman football game. To compound that point, the April 1863 edition lists members of Psi Upsilon and Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternities, among others. Thus while thousands died at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, the Dartmouth Bubble managed to preserve fraternity life.
    2. Though The Dartmouth, the College's student newspaper, ceased publication during the war, The Aegis went to press three times a year during the 1860s.
  6. Herman Melville. "On the Slain Collegians." In Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1866. Melville 25
  7. William Tecumseh Sherman, Commencement Address, Dartmouth College, July 19, 1866. Manuscript 866419 
    1. A year after the war's conclusion, Dartmouth gave an honorary degree General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union commander credited with taking Atlanta and, by extension, breaking the back of the Confederacy. In his speech to the Class of 1866, Sherman addresses how privileged the outgoing graduates were to be born with the advantages of wealth and education -- a position of favor that allowed them to escape the war. Sherman begs his audience to be aware of the advantages they have, that Sherman himself did not.
      1. Unfortunately, I was not so favored in my youth; and I regret now and always shall regret to the end of my life what I was compelled to pick up what little knowledge I possess by grasping it through brambles and pricking my hands pretty sharply too. You have had instructors here whose minds have been stored with all the knowledge of the past and present.
  8. Asa D. Smith. "Supremacy of Righteousness," Baccalaureate Address, July 17, 1864. Alumni S6423su
    1. Asa Smith took over as the College's 7th president in 1863, after his predecessor Nathan Lord's pro-slavery leanings forced his resignation. Upon assuming the Presidency, Smith took on all the duties of the office, including addressing the graduating class in its Baccalaureate assembly. Unlike Lord, who made only overtly religious references without mentioning the war, Smith addressed the conflict and Dartmouth's role in it. The speech mentions by name the Class of 1864's five classmates slain in the war: Bacon, Rand, Starr, Ewins, and Breed.
    2. But ultimately the Baccalaureate Address is meant to be a Christian sermon. And Smith stays true to that notion in writing, "And can we fail to see in the events now passing, the tokens of his unswerving righteousness? Comes he not forward in these storms of war, as the avenger of the oppressed?"
  9. David Boutelle '62 to his sister, May 19, 1861, and June 2, 1861. Manuscript 861257
    1. In the spring of 1861, David Boutelle's letters home to his sister comment on Dartmouth during the first few months of the war. The letters emphasize how isolated Hanover was from the war, particularly at its start. News of the new war brought initial excitement. In a letter dated May 19, Boutelle writes to his sister, the "2nd regiment of Vermont is inclined to rendezvous at Norwich." And Norwich, being just across the river fro Hanover, would give Boutelle and his classmates "a fine opportunity for seeing them drill."
    2. But by June 2, the initial enthusiasm on campus had waned. "The spirit of war and devastation has greatly subsided here in college," Boutelle writes, "Only one of our whole number is in the Army." Through a spring of War, Dartmouth escapes unharmed and unchanged.
  10. William Greene to Dartmouth College President Asa Smith, September 8, 1864. Manuscript 864508 .1
    1. On his son's return to Dartmouth President Asa Smith asking that the faculty keep a close eye on his son's academics -- as though his marks were the only thing that mattered in 1864. Greene writes of his son: He goes back with the understanding between him and myself, that he must devote himself to his studies and duties of every kind--that if there be any neglect of them in any particular, I am to be informed at once by the Faculty.


Case 2. The Empty Sleeve: Post-Civil War Reconstruction

The literature and consumer culture of the postwar years reflects the social upheavals taking place in the newly reunited nation, from the enormous loss of life and limb during the war, to women’s increased freedom during the war years, to the debate over the rights of newly freed slaves. Songs, poems, and images produced for public consumption dealt with the losses suffered by Americans, but many did this in a way that hearkened back to prewar ways of thinking. Though material culture of the time may have vacillated between the old and the new, the suffering brought on by the war made the return to pre-Civil War America impossible.
  1. Winslow Homer. "Our Watering Places: The Empty Sleeve at Newport." Harper's Weekly, 9. (August 26, 1865): 534. Available online.
    1. Before his career as a painter, Winslow Homer filled the role of "Special Artist" for Harper's Weekly, a popular nineteenth-century magazine. This image shows a young couple driving a carriage along the beach. The lighthearted subject matter is marred by the prominent display of the man's left sleeve, empty and tucked into his jacket. The woman takes on a masculine role, driving, while the man sits idly by, relegated to the traditional female role. The image and the short story which it illustrates focus on a soldier's return home after the way and his struggle to reconcile his masculinity with the loss of a limb.
  2. Edward Willett. Frank Starr's Ten Cent American Novels, the Loyal Specter or the True Hearts of Atlanta. New York: Frank Starr and Co. Publishers, 1876. Dime Novels 148
    1. A mass-produced novel for cheap public consumption, this dime novel tells the story of a wealthy southerner whose pro-union (and very attractive) female cousin "haunts" him until he realizes that his true calling is with the Union cause. In the end, the two abandon the Confederacy, marry and travel north to start their new lives together. Imagining pro-Union southerners, a rare find in reality, was a way for Americans in the Reconstruction period to reunify the country.
  3. P. A. Hannaford. The Empty Sleeve: A Song with Chorus. Music by J. W. Dadmun. Boston: Oliver Ditson and Co., 1866. Sheet Music SC 684
    1. Meant to be played in the home, this song is an upbeat tune published a year after the war's end. The chorus begins with the line "That empty sleeve is a badge of bravery and of honor," citing amputations as a physical mark of patriotic service to the Union.
  4. Memorial Poems: A Collection of Choice Gems of Poetry, Appropriate for Grand Army Gatherings. Bradford NH: A. P. Howe, 1888. NH B73 1881
    1. Many of the poems in this volume, published 23 years after the war's end, focus on aging veterans, and implore younger readers to respect the sacrifice these men made for the country and to be thankful for their contribution to the preservation of the Union.
  5. Ethel Lynn Beers. "All Quiet on the Potomac." In All Quiet on the Potomac and Other Poems. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1879. Baker-Berry 816 B392 O2 [not available in Rauner]
  6. Luke Collin. Protect the Freedman: Songs and Chorus. Sung by Skiff and Gaylord's Minstrels. Music by J. P. Webster. Chicago: Lyon and Healvy, 1866. Sheet Music SC 768
    1. This song is addressed "To the Honorable Thirty-Ninth Congress," and implores the listener to push for equal rights between black and white men, citing blacks' heroic contribution to the war effort as the primary reason. This song was published in 1866, before the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments had granted equal voting and citizenship rights to freed slaves.
  7. J.R. Bagby. "The Empty Sleeve." In War Poetry of the South. Edited by William Gilmore Simms. New York: Richardson and Company, 1866. Val  816Si5 Y5

Case 3. Remembering a New Hampshire Soldier: Private Words for the Brother and Public Texts for the Hero He Was to Become

Haldimand Sumner Putnam was a Civil War Soldier, mortally wounded in July of 1863 during an attack on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner… 1,000 miles from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. To the public Colonel Putnam was a martyr, an American hero, and the epitome of all things glorious and honorable. To his youngest sister, Lucy, he was the judge of her latest photograph and contributor to her flower collection. To the media, Putnam was a leader and role model for all young American boys. To his own brother, Samuel, he was the one to lend an ear to complaints of sisters and boyhood woes.
Nineteenth-century popular culture was all too eager to memorialize soldiers like Haldimand in a grandiose and sentimental fashion. Public texts speak of deeds on the battlefield and unparalleled achievements, turning these men into heroes unrecognizable to their families back home. Fortunately, letters survive that succeed in bringing the private sides of these soldiers to light—through the written words of those who loved them best. Haldimand Sumner Putnam was a brother as well as a soldier. Just ask Belle, Lucy or Samuel. And perhaps their letters’ shaky penmanship and poor spelling speak more to Haldimand, the man, than any printed text.
  1. Samuel Putnam to his brother, Haldimand Sumner Putnam, 18 December 1863. MS-742 
    1. "Bell and I are going down to the Cupola to a dancing school … it begins next Tuesday[.] Clay, Chas Smith and all the good boys are a going[,] I think we shall [have] a verry pleasant time … my colt has grown verry well this summer[,] there was not any thing for him to eat but grasshoppers … he got kicked one and made a great bunch on him and that took six weeks to get well … I had to bring him home and keep him in the barn."
    2. "I have not had a mite of peace since I begun to write Lucy and Bell have made so much noise singing that about half of this letter is spelt rong … I must stop now as we shall late to the sing."
  2. Rev. Malcolm Douglass. A Sermon Commemorative of Haldimand Sumner Putnam … Preached on the 30th August 1863 in Trinity Church, Cornish, N. H. by the Rev. Malcolm Douglass, Rector of St. Paul's Church, Windsor, VT. Claremont, New Hampshire: Press of the Claremont Manufacturing Company, 1863. NH Claremont 1863
    1. Newspaper clippings on the death of Col. Putnam laid in
  3. Obituary of General Haldimand Sumner Putnam, Claremont, New Hampshire, 1863. [Possibly newspaper clippings from A Sermon...]
    1. "In the death of this officer the Union army loses one of its best and bravest commanders. He will be mourned as one who united with the highest military talent a pure and spotless character and the most endearing qualities of head and heart... The recollection of his pure life and heroic death will ever be sacredly cherished by a large circle of kindred and friends, as well as by the thousands of soldiers who have served in his command, while a grateful nation will embalm his memory in her deepest and holiest affections."
  4. Elisabeth P. Spalding to Mrs. Putnam, 30 January 1864. MS-742 
    1. "My dear friend, I mingle my tears with yours. May He who gave to you your beloved son, sustain you in his removal. Please remember me with the sincerest sympathy, to Judge Putnam, Samuel, Belle and Luxy."
  5. Charles Carleton Coffin. My Days and Nights on the Battle-field: A Book for Boys. 2nd Ed. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864. 1926 Coll C63
  6. J. Burns and C. A. Vosburgh. Tell Mother I Die Happy: Song with Chorus. New York City, NY: S. T. Gordon, 1864. Sheet Music SC 791
  7. Lucy Putnam to her brother, Haldimand Sumner Putnam, 5 May 1863. MS-742 
    1. "Mother wrote me and said that perhaps you might come home before long … Almost every train that came in I would think that perhaps you was in it. It was a great disappointment to me I can tell you … Write as often as you can."
  8. Lucy Putnam to her brother, Haldimand Sumner Putnam, 16 May 1863. MS-742 
    1. "Perhaps I have not told you that we have a new singing teacher...She encourages me considerably which is very pleasant--for as I always had an idea that I could not sing. I am glad that I really can. Next Friday she is going to give me a song. If you will come to Greenfield in about two weeks I will sing it to you."
    2. "I have a favor to ask of you. I expect you will say I am very silly and you will not be very far from the truth, but you see that I am collecting flowers, from all parts of the world where I have friends, and if you happen to think of it sometime when you write me and if it is not a bit of trouble I should like two or three posies from St. Augustine … I expect you will treat it as you did when I asked you once to send me a lock of your hair. You sent me a feather and I shall expect a log of wood or something as bad."
  9. Belle Putnam to her brother, Haldimand Sumner Putnam, 6 May 1863. MS-742 
    1. "[Lucy] is going to have her photograph taken, so you will see for yourself what sort of girl she is. Mother has had a great many presentiments that you will be home this summer, I was very much pleased to hear her say … How nice it would be for us all to be together once more."