Civil War Poetry: Famous Poems & Poets

Instructor: Joe Ricker
During the Civil War, some of the most notable American poets offered more than just their words to convey their feelings on the war, such as political influence or physical aid during the war.

The Purpose of Poetry

Poetry has a purpose. Whether it's to impress a potential suitor, make something easier to remember or to convey an emotional response, poetry has been a popular type of literary expression. During the American Civil War, poetry was used to rally support, express loyalty or to exemplify the tragedies of war. While every poet finds a different purpose for their poetry, writers during the American Civil War used poetry to convey their support, horror or even despair in the events of war.

Emily Dickinson

The extent of Emily Dickinson's poetry wasn't realized until after her death. Often referred to as eccentric, Dickinson's reclusiveness kept her locked in her room, and her reluctance for social interaction eventually became so severe that she would only communicate with visitors through the door of her room. Despite her lack of social contact, Dickinson was one of the most prolific American poets.

Dickinson was a Union supporter, and maintained correspondence with Colonel Higginson, who, before the war, had published an advice piece to poets in the 'Atlantic Monthly'. The period of the Civil War is believed to be Dickinson's most prolific period, when it's estimated that she wrote at least half of her poems. Because of her reclusive nature, her poems on the war weren't directly connected to her during her lifetime (the ones she did publisher were published anonymously). One particular piece unveils the dread Dickinson felt about the war, which is evident in the first stanza of (444):

'It feels a shame to be Alive --

When Men so brave -- are dead --

One envies the Distinguished Dust -'

George Henry Boker

Before the Civil War, George Henry Boker was mostly known for his plays. After the war broke out, however, Boker contributed poetry to exemplify his perspective. Because of the war, Boker became a Republican, and was crucial in the party's reestablishment of their focus and values. After the war, Boker served the United States government as minister to Russia and Turkey.

Boker's collection of poetry titled: 'Poems of the War' was published in 1864. Among them was In the Wilderness, which showed Boker's devotion to the Union cause and support of the men who enlisted for the Union. The last lines of the poem attribute his perspective on the glory of bravery.

'And as we cheered him, for the path was wild,

He only looked upon his flowers and smiled.'

Henry Timrod

The North wasn't the only side with writers who produced poetry for the cause. Henry Timrod, became famous for his poetry dedicated to the Confederacy and its cause. He wrote prolifically on matters of the South and their position in the civil war, which earned him the title: Poet Laureatte of the Confederacy.

His poems The Unknown Dead, Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead and Carolina, which is South Carolina's state song, became glowing representations of Southern literary prowess. Ode is considered one of the most perfectly written poems, and solidified Timrod's place as one of the best poets from the south next to Edgar Allen Poe. In Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead, Timrod's devotion to the Confederacy is seen in the following lines:

'Sleep sweetly in your humble graves,

Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause!--'

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