I recently finished a Dover Thrift anthology of Civil War poetry, collected by Paul Negri. (It’s entitled, Civil War Poetry: An Anthology. I know. You’re stunned.) It’s a small book – only about a hundred pages – but it’s a good collection. Not everything in there is gold, but it contains enough different poets and perspectives for you to feel like you’ve got a good feeling for the mood of the war.
One thing I really like is that most of the poets show respect for the dead of their opponent. A few poems condemn the cause of their enemies, while still praising the courage to fight. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that kind of forgiveness and group mourning come from any other war.
I had favorites and less-favorites (Walt Whitman, I’m lookin’ at you.) I’ll include a stanza from Ambrose Bierce’s “The Hesitating Veteran:”
“…With saints and sages on each side,
How could a fool through lack of knowledge,
Vote wrong? If learning is no guide
Why ought one to have been in college?
O Son of Day, O Son of Night!
What are your preferences made of?
I know not which of you is right,
Nor which to be the more afraid of.
The world is old and the world is bad,
And creaks and grinds upon its axis;
And man’s an ape and the gods are mad! –
There’s nothing sure, not even our taxes.
No mortal man can Truth restore,
Or say where she is to be sought for.
I know what uniform I wore –
O, that I knew which side I fought for!”