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Whittier’s War
When poetry had power.


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In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s a little story from a time when poetry could really make a difference. It is also about how the purpose for which a war is being fought can change. One of the most famous poets of the 19th century was John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born to Quaker parents in Massachusetts in 1807 and died in 1892. As an American poet, his trans-Atlantic fame was perhaps second only to that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his 80th birthday was a national event.

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Whittier is probably best known for his stirring poem “Barbara Frietchie,” set during the Civil War. Once a grammar-school favorite, this poem tells in rhymed couplets and ringing tetrameter the story of an elderly dame who, “[b]owed with her fourscore years and ten,” lives in “Frederick town,” Maryland, which though part of the South was still loyal to the Union. When Stonewall Jackson and his men march into the town, she has the temerity to hang a Union flag outside her window and then to save it from being shot down . The poem climaxes with the feisty Frietchie’s words to Jackson: “Shoot if you must this old gray head,/But spare your country’s flag, she said.” (Winston Churchill recited the poem from memory in the company of FDR as the two drove past Frederick together, much to the annoyance of the president, we are told, who evidently didn’t like being shown up on the subject of American poetry by a British prime minister, no less.)

But the story I want to tell concerns another of Whittier’s creations. Whittier was not just a poet but also an abolitionist. He had been present at the first Anti-Slavery Convention in 1833 and thereafter wrote and spoke in defense of the cause. In 1842, he broke with the radicalism of the fiery abolition leader William Lloyd Garrison. His convictions about slavery did not change, though, and he continued to write poetry in support of abolition. At the outbreak of the war, he composed a poem patterned on Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” When sung in the Union camps in the early part of the war by the famous Hutchinson Family Singers (sort of a 19th-century Trapp Family), it aroused vociferous protests from the soldiers.

The poem portrays the Civil War the way it would later be seen by history, but not the way it was perceived by “Billy Yank” in 1861. Slavery is the “poison plant the fathers spared” at the creation of the nation, and is the real cause of the war and the real enemy that must be vanquished. The Civil War is the crucible through which God would “mould anew the nation,” and dedicate it afresh to its original principles of liberty and equality.

Whittier even anticipated Lincoln’s later view in the Second Inaugural, that the suffering caused by the war was in part punishment for the evil of slavery, in which the entire country participated, whether from “East, West, South, or North”: All “who have shared the guilt must share/The pang of [slavery's] o’erthrowing!”

The poem does not villainize or demonize the South, then, only slavery itself. Indeed, it portrays both North and South as equally “victims” of the evil:

“God lifts to-day the veil, and shows
The features of the demon!
O North and South,
Its victims both,
Can ye not cry,
’Let slavery die!’
And union find in freedom?”

The problem, of course, is that abolishing slavery was not the cause for which the Union soldiers believed they were fighting at the beginning of the war. The Hutchinson Family Singers, who often sang in support of progressive causes like temperance and women’s rights, had popularized two now-famous Civil War songs, “The Battle Cry of Freedom” and “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground.” But Whittier’s poem, set to the rousing music of Luther’s hymn, and with an explicit abolitionist message, ignited the anger of the troops.

After one rendition, Robert Penn Warren writes in his essay on Whittier, “the performers were driven out of camp, and one of the Federal officers who helped them on their way was, in fact, reported to have said that he didn’t like abolitionists any better than he liked Rebels,” which, according to Warren, was “a perfectly logical position for a good Unionist.” The Hutchinsons’ appearances in the Union camps were eventually banned by General George McClellan as “incendiary.”

The singers brought the matter to the attention of the commander-in-chief himself. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase read the verses at a Cabinet meeting, and Lincoln responded by saying, “It is just the character of song that I desire the soldiers to hear.” The Cabinet agreed, calling the poem the “right kind” of music for the soldiers. The ban was overturned and the Hutchinsons resumed singing in the Union camps.

Lincoln’s response may at first seem puzzling, since it is well known that his primary purpose in the early years of the war was to preserve the Union and not to abolish slavery. But he never doubted that slavery was a great evil that would eventually have to end. In the early days of the war, he was still hopeful that the Southern slaveholders could be persuaded by reason and logic to relinquish their human “property.” As James McPherson writes in Battle Cry of Freedom, Lincoln was at this point “a gradualist who hoped to end slavery without social dislocation and with the voluntary cooperation of slaveowners.” Whittier’s song could serve as an expression of “the mounting pressures against the institution” which would change the minds of the slave-owners, and more immediately, of the all-important Union Army upon which the cause of Union depended.

Through the months of 1862, Lincoln gradually redefined the purpose of the war, expanding it to include the abolition of slavery–an expansion that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in preliminary form in September of 1862 and officially promulgated on New Year’s Day of 1863. Although the Proclamation freed slaves only in the rebel states, it was the beginning of the end for the “peculiar institution.” Lincoln was by that time confident enough that the Union Army would not defect upon hearing of this redefined purpose, writes Brendan January in his excellent little children’s book, The Emancipation Proclamation. To be sure, some Union soldiers were disappointed with the Proclamation, but others were inspired. One officer said, “It was no longer a question of the Union as it was… it was the Union as it should be. The war was ennobled; the object was higher.” This was a change of heart in which Whittier’s poem had no doubt played its part.

Carol Iannone is editor-at-large of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.



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