Saturday, September 17, 2011


As part of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War I've occasionally
posted poetry here dealing with that conflict.  On this day in 1862
the bloodiest single battle in American history took place in Maryland
near Antietam Creek. 23,000 men died. Herman Melville wrote a
poem about that battle, or more perhaps more properly, about the
Union Army commander, General George McClellan.

Those of us who read Moby Dick might not be aware that after his
career as a novelist met with little success, he turned for a time to writing
poetry. He wrote many about the Civil War which were published in
1866 in the collection Battle Pieces and Aspects of War including this
one,  "The Victor of Antietam"

Some background: 
One of Melville's cousins served under the command of General McClellan
and Melville's family were supporters of the Democrat Party. After
McClellan failed to follow up his bloody victory at Antietam he left the
Union Army and ran for president against Lincoln in 1864. This is why
the poem seems a commentary by Melville on what he sees as the
unfair treatment of a great man:

When tempest winnowed grain from bran;
And men were looking for a man,
Authority called you to the van,
Along the line the plaudit ran,
As later when Antietam's cheers began.

Through storm-cloud and eclipse must move
Each Cause and Man, dear to the stars and Jove;
Nor always can the wisest tell
Deferred fulfillment from the hopeless knell--
The struggler from the floundering ne'er-do-well.
A pall-cloth on the Seven Days fell,
Unprosperously heroical!
Who could Antietam's wreath foretell?

Authority called you; then, in mist
And loom of jeopardy--dismissed.
But staring peril soon appalled;
You, the Discarded, she recalled--
Recalled you, nor endured delay;
And forth you rode upon a blasted way,
Arrayed Pope's rout, and routed Lee's array,
Your tent was choked with captured flags that day,
Antietam was a telling fray.

Recalled you; and she heard your drum
Advancing through the glastly gloom.
You manned the wall, you propped the Dome,
You stormed the powerful stormer home,
Antietam's cannon long shall boom.

At Alexandria, left alone,
Your veterans sent from you, and thrown
To fields and fortunes all unknown--
What thoughts were yours, revealed to none,
While faithful still you labored on--
Hearing the far Manassas gun!
Only Antietam could atone.

You fought in the front (an evil day,
The fore-front of the first assay;
The Cause went sounding, groped its way;
The leadsmen quarrelled in the bay;
Quills thwarted swords; divided sway;
The rebel flushed in his lusty May:
You did your best, as in you lay,
Antietam's sun-burst sheds a ray.

Your medalled soldiers love you well,
Name your name, their true hearts swell;
With you they shook dread Stonewall's spell,[A]
With you they braved the blended yell
Of rebel and maligner fell;
With you in shame or fame they dwell,
Antietam-braves a brave can tell.

And when your comrades (now so few,
Such ravage in deep files they rue)
Meet round the board, and sadly view
The empty places; tribute due
They render to the dead--and you!
Absent and silent o'er the blue;
The one-armed lift the wine to _you_,
And great Antietam's cheers renew.

Whatever just military criticism, favorable or otherwise, has at any time 
been made upon General McClellan's campaigns, will stand. But if, 
during the excitement of the conflict, aught was spread abroad tending
the unmerited disparagement of the man, it must necessarily die out, 
though not perhaps without leaving some traces, which may or may 
not prove enduring. Some there are whose votes aided in the re-election 
of Abraham Lincoln, who yet believed, and retain the belief, that General 
McClellan, to say the least, always proved himself a patriotic and honorable 
soldier. The feeling which surviving comrades entertain for their late 
commander is one which, from its passion, is susceptible of versified 
representation, and such it receives.

No comments: