April 12, 2011

Harper: freedom cost too much

It is generally agreed that the Civil War officially started when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Years later, black poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper referenced the battle in her long poem "The Deliverance." The poem follows a Southern family: Master, his wife, and their son Thomas — told in the voice of an enslaved person on their farm. Harper, who earlier that year had published a poem inspiring men of Ohio to enlist, wrote about the Civil War about 12 years after the shots at Fort Sumter. Thomas predicts "We're bound to have a fight" but promises to "whip the Yankees" when he hears the news:

"They are firing on Fort Sumpter; [sic]
   Oh! I wish that I was there! —
Why, dear mother! what's the matter?
   You're the picture of despair."

"I was thinking, dearest Thomas,
   'Twould break my very heart
If a fierce and dreadful battle
   Should tear our lives apart."

Thomas assures his mother that only "cowards" would avoid the fighting and, soon enough, he volunteers.

His uniform was real handsome;
   He looked so brave and strong;
But somehow I couldn't help thinking
   His fighting must be wrong.

While Thomas's mother prayed that the Secessionists would win, the enslaved people "were praying in the cabins / Wanting freedom to begin." The narrator knows the progress of the war based on the Master's face: the sadder he looks, the closer they are to emancipation.

The poem continues through Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation as well as his assassination, then criticizes his successor Andrew Johnson. Harper then goes on to show support for Ulysses S. Grant, the General-turned-President, and discusses blacks' right to vote. Opposition suggested that blacks were too unintelligent, too uniformed, or too willing to sell their vote. Harper concludes:

Who know their freedom cost too much
   Of blood and pain and treasure,
For them to fool away their votes
   For profit or for pleasure.

1 comment:

  1. I visited Fort Sumter in February and nowhere did I come across Harper's name or work, or anything pro-“War of Yankee Aggression”. The poem is both historically informative and highly readable, with an accessible voice whose details evoke the mixed feelings of seeing loved ones go to war for a just cause. Oddly, it's a point of view that doesn't emerge as often as you'd think in poetry; most war-themed poetry is clearly biased (understandably) and heavy-handed (heavy-penned?).


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