Rebel Writers Gone, but Works Live On

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rebel Writers Gone, but Works Live On


Byline: Peter Cliffe, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There is often to be found a particular poignancy in the works of war poets, especially those who witnessed the horrors of battlefields at first hand.

Melville and Whitman were Northern poets, and Henry Timrod (1828-1867) became known as the "laureate of the Confederacy." Serving briefly with the 13th and 20th Carolina regiments, he was discharged in December 1862, suffering from tuberculosis. He left behind "Charleston" ("Calm as that second summer which precedes / The first fall of the snow, / In the broad sunlight of heroic deeds, / The city bides the foe."). "Ode at Magnolia Cemetery" was another of his evocative poems: "There is no holier spot of ground / Than where defeated valor lies ... ."

Tuberculosis, then known as "consumption," also cruelly cut short the life of the poet and author Sidney Lanier, who was a capable flutist and a minor composer. How high he would have risen if he had not lost his battle with a remorseless disease can only be a matter of speculation.

Of Huguenot descent on his father's side, the son of a lawyer, Sidney Lanier was born at Macon, Ga., on Feb. 2, 1842, and educated at Oglethorpe College near Midway, Ga. It was a Presbyterian institution that would founder during the Civil War. After his graduation in 1860, he accepted a tutorial post at Oglethorpe, but in April 1861, he joined the Macon Volunteers, 2nd Georgia Battalion.

Lanier must have been thrilled as he watched, with many other spectators, the duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (known to many today by its previous name, the USS Merrimack) in March 1862.

He was involved in the defense of Drewry's Bluff against attacks by Union vessels on May 15, 1862, and in the hard fighting at Seven Pines and Malvern Hill. Initially a private, he transferred to the Signal Corps and joined the staff of Maj. Gen. Samuel Gibbs French. By this time, the early symptoms of his wasting condition must have become apparent.

His fighting days ended abruptly and somewhat ingloriously. He had been given command of a blockade runner, but his vessel was captured in 1863, and he was sent to Point Lookout, Md. His incarceration there would inspire his novel "Tiger Lillies," published in 1867.

Lanier's contribution to war literature was comparatively small, but it includes "The Dying Words of Stonewall Jackson," written in September 1865. It does not contain the envenomed anger found in other pieces of his war-related verse. It was inspired by a visit he made in May 1863 to the battlefield of Chancellorsville, where one of the South's greatest generals was shot by his own men in a tragic misunderstanding. …

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