June 16, 2010

Sleep sweetly in your humble graves

On June 16, 1866, Henry Timrod stood before the graves of more than 600 Confederate soldiers at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands boarded carriages, wagons, and railroad cars despite heavy rain, passing by store fronts which closed at noon in honor of the ceremony. As the program was about to begin at 5:00 p.m., rain finally stopped.

A melodeon and choir provided the music for the ceremony overseen by the Charleston Ladies' Association. The poem which Timrod presented is generally acknowledged as his most famous, "Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead":

Sleep sweetly in your humble graves,
  Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause;
Though yet no marble column craves
  The pilgrim here to pause.

In seeds of laurel in the earth
  The blossom of your fame is blown,
And somewhere, waiting for its birth,
  The shaft is in the stone!

Meanwhile, behalf the tardy years
  Which keep in trust your storied tombs,
Behold! your sisters bring their tears,
  And these memorial blooms.

Small tributes! but your shades will smile
  More proudly on these wreaths to-day,
Than when some cannon-moulded pile
  Shall overlook this bay.

Stoop, angels, hither from the skies!
  There is no holier spot of ground
Than where defeated valor lies,
  By mourning beauty crowned!

Timrod's poem became incredibly famous, and quite rapidly. His work, among that of others, helped establish the "Lost Cause" image of the South: fallen, but proud. Timrod, himself a Charleston-born Confederate veteran,  earned the honorary title "Poet Laureate of the Confederacy." He died within two years of presenting this poem. His dirge certainly contrasted with northerner Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Hymn of Peace," presented three years later, almost to the day. Timrod was later memorialized himself, 35 years later.


  1. CT Yankee in King Arthur's CourtJune 16, 2010 at 3:45 PM

    The contrast of "cannon-moulded pile" - the solid vandal-resistant standard war memorial - and the "mourning beauty crown" - human and feeling - is thought-provoking and evocative, enriching our sense of remembrance. Thank you for sharing Timrod's insight.

  2. I think it's almost unsettling in comparison with Holmes's peace poem from the last post. I'm especially moved by the line "martyrs of a fallen cause," particularly with the idea that "there is no holier spot of ground than where defeated valor lies."