September 8, 2013

War Poetry of the South: favorable or inverse

William Gilmore Simms dated his preface to the anthology War Poetry of the South as September 8, 1866. Written in Brooklyn, the introduction to the book explains the editor's reason for collecting such a book: the South's sufferings have prompted a high degree of mental and artistic development. Further, Simms writes, though the sentiments seem sectional and anti-Union, the Confederate states' re-assimilation into the fold means the rest of the country assumes these writings as part of their history. He continues:

The emotional literature of a people is as necessary to the philosophical historian as the mere details of events in the progress of a nation. This is essential to the reputation of the Southern people, as illustrating their feelings, sentiments, ideas, and opinions — the motives which influenced their actions, and the objects which they had in contemplation, and which seemed to them to justify the struggle in which they were engaged. It shows with what spirit the popular mind regarded the course of events, whether favorable or adverse; and, in this aspect, it is even of more importance to the writer of history than any mere chronicle of facts.

Facts, says Simms, do not show the emotion which poetry and song allow. These works are without reservation and, therefore, "gush freely and freshly from the heart." His hope is that these poems will be recognized, "not only as highly creditable to the Southern mind," but also as a sincere expression of Southerners — people whose rich sentiments sustained them through war. The book opens with Henry Timrod's "Ethnogenesis" (a poem announcing the birth of a new people) and ends with a few post-war verses. The most emotional are the poems which express grief, as in "Only a Soldier's Grave," credited to "S. A. Jones of Aberdeen, Mississippi":

Only a soldier's grave! Pass by,
For soldiers, like other mortals, die.
Parents he had — they are far away;
No sister weeps o'er the soldier's clay;
No brother comes, with a tearful eye:
It's only a soldier's grave — pass by.

True, he was loving, and young, and brave,
Though no glowing epitaph honors his grave;
No proud recital of virtues known,
Of griefs endured, or of triumphs won;
No tablet of marble, or obelisk high;—
Only a soldier's grave — pass by.

Yet bravely he wielded his sword in fight,
And he gave his life in the cause of right!
When his hope was high, and his youthful dream
As warm as the sunlight on yonder stream;
His heart unvexed by sorrow or sigh;—
Yet, 'tis only a soldier's grave: — pass by.

Yet, should we mark it--the soldier's grave,
Some one may seek him in hope to save!
Some of the dear ones, far away,
Would bear him home to his native clay:
'Twere sad, indeed, should they wander nigh,
Find not the hillock, and pass him by.


  1. This is certainly a beautiful, and highly emotional piece of American literature. What is the exact date or year that it was published?

  2. I'm glad you like the poem! As for the date, I haven't found any publications of it earlier than 1866 (the year of Simms's compilation). It likely was already published in a local newspaper or magazine. Either way, I'd positively date it between 1861 and 1866.