“To Light Us to Freedom and Glory Again”:
The Role of Civil War Poetry
During the Civil War, thousands of poems about the conflict were written by everyday citizens. These poems appeared in a variety of print formats, including newspapers, periodicals, broadsheets, and song sheets. Drawing upon the Library of Congress' online
collections, this page offers a selection of poetry written by soldiers and citizens
from the North and the South. These poems enable us to better understand the role of poetry during the war years and how poetry helped unify citizens, inspire troops, memorialize
the dead, and bind the nation's wounds in the aftermath of the war.
To read other examples of Civil War poetry, please review the selected bibliography of online Civil War poetry anthologies and collections.
MAJOR CIVIL WAR POETS
to Drum-Taps." Leaves of Grass. New
This first issue of the 1867 edition of Leaves of
available through the Walt
Whitman Archive, includes the 18 poems of Sequel
to Drum-Taps, which were originally published as part of the second
edition of Drum-Taps (1865-1866).
reprint of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" with
comments by author, 9 February 1888.
and Aspects of the War (1866)
John Greenleaf Whittier
Barbara Frietchie (Audio)
THE PERVASIVENESS OF WAR
George Henry Boker
"Blood, blood! The lines of every printed sheet"
TYPES OF CIVIL WAR POETRY
Many types of poetry were written during the Civil War era. This section
highlights several of these types, and provides access to representative examples
in the Library of Congress's American
Type One: Early Poems Of Unity
Leading up to the Civil War, and during the early periods of the war, a number of poems attempted to unite the citizens of the North or of the South.
Poem: "Ethnogenesis" (also
found on pages
100-104 of The Poems of Henry Timrod.)
Written by Henry Timrod, known as the "Laureate of the
Confederacy," during the first the meeting of the Confederate Congress
in February 1861. The poem envisions a separate Southern nation, one heading
to battle with God and all of nature on its side.
room of the first Confederate Congress
of the Confederate Congress, First Session
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America
for the South"
for the Union!" (found on page
Type Two: Calls to Arms
Calls to arms appealed to men of
the North and South to become soldiers and fight for their side.
One of several Southern "Marseillaise" poems and songs (e.g., "The
Audio of "La Marseillaise"
Cry to Arms" (found on pages
troops trying the arms (Charleston, S.C.)
Written by James Ryder Randall in response to the April 19, 1861 shooting
of Baltimore civilians who had attacked soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts
Infantry as they marched to Washington. Randall's poem was a call for Maryland
to secede from the Union, and became a popular rallying cry. Although Maryland
did not join the Confederate cause, it did adopt "My Maryland" as
its state song in 1939.
The Lexington of 1861
to 'My Maryland'" (found on pages
It was common during the Civil War for one poem to be written in response
to another, and it was also common for one side to alter the content of a
poem written by the other side in order to turn it against them.
Poem: "Three Hundred Thousand
This poem, by John S. Gibbons, was written to aid Lincoln's 1862 call for
300,000 more Union troops. Originally published in the New
York Evening Post.
Flag of Our Union"
Type Three: Poems about Individual Soldier's Experiences
Although the calls to arms, poems of unity, and the other types of poems mentioned
above were published throughout the war, another type of poetry that was published
during the war and grew more popular as the war progressed was poetry that
focused on the individual soldier's experience of war. This type of poetry
helped people face the grim reality of the war, to
make sense of soldiers' sacrifice, and to memorialize their efforts. It was
also a way to connect the experiences of soldiers, who were often far away
from home, with those remaining at home.
Darling" (found on page
Dying Confederate’s Last Words”
Type Four: Poems about Women's Contribution to the War
Another type of poetry published early during the war was written by women
and grappled with the issue of how women, who did not fight in the war, might
contribute to the war effort.
Poem: "A New Song of the Shirt"
Will for the Deed"
of the Southern Women"
Type Five: The Quest for a National Song
Other poems written during the war were set to music and attempted
to function—or became so popular that they effectively did function—as
national songs that represented the ideals and missions of each side.
This poem, written by George Tucker, is patterned after
"The Star-Spangled Banner" and is an attempt to adapt it to the Confederate
cause. First published in The Southern Literary Messenger (March,
1861), it was soon printed in broadside form with the note that it was
to be sung
to the air of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Image of the Southern
text, and audio of "The Star-Spangled Banner"
Hymn of the Republic"
Although written to the tune of "John Brown's Body," "The
Battle Hymn of the Republic" was originally published as a poem in the
Atlantic Monthly (Volume 9, Issue 52, Feb. 1862).
text, and audio of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"
Image of Julia Ward Howe
Volunteers Marching into Dixie"
Marching Union Soldiers
Julia Ward Howe's
personal account of how the "Battle Hymn
of the Republic" came
to be written; found on pages
706-709 of The Atlantic Monthly. (Volume 83, Issue 499, May
Type Six: Humorous and Satirical Poems
There were other types of poems published during the Civil War as well, including
humorous and satirical poems on all subjects.
The poem is set during the Battle of Malvern Hill (Virginia), which took
place July 1, 1862, and in which the Union Army, outnumbered, was able to
hold off Confederate troops thanks in part to the gunpowder of the Union
warship USS Galena. This poem appears to be criticizing General George B.
McClellan for remaining safely away from the heat of the battle while the
Galena, out of harm's way, shelled the Confederate
troops from offshore.
Revised plan of battle of Malvern Hill, July 1st, 1862
Extracts from the log book of the Galena for July 1, 1862
"The Gunboat Candidate at the Battle of Malvern Hill"
Type Seven: Postwar Poems
There were many different types of poems written after the war. Some poems
memorialized fallen heroes; some Southern poems expressed continued defiance
towards the North despite losing the war; and some Northern poems depicted
the South as an evil overcome by the forces of good. For the most part, though,
poems written by the North and South weren't hostile to the other side.
Conquered Banner" (found on page
Written by "Moina," the pseudonym of Abram Joseph Ryan, who was
born in Maryland and spent part of his childhood in Virginia. He served as
a chaplain during the Civil War, and his war poetry quickly led to him becoming
known as the "poet-priest of the South." The night he found out
that Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, he wrote the poem "The
Conquered Banner," a memorial to the South's failed efforts in the war.
Image of "The Conquered Banner"
of "The Conquered Banner"
with the South"
Blue and the Gray" (found on pages
Virginia. Graves of Confederate Soldiers in Hollywood Cemetery"
Standing at Graves of Federal Soldiers" (Antietam, Maryland)