It was the last action of the Army of Northern Virginia,
the final skirmish that made it bend its knee.
A smaller fight than many, still, it was the most crowded,
savage, no-quarter-given-or-asked, bloody, desperate
action of the war.
Muskets were useless, except as clubs;
bayonets, knives, rocks, nails—teeth if you’d any left—
all were born into that melee: hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye,
rage-to-rage. The Rebs were tired, starved, ragged phantoms
of sinew, hunger and misery; the Yankees were toughened
campaigners and ready for their end game; they even jeered
‘surrender’ on their first charge, but after dying to a man,
the second wave was cannier. And so both sides became
what each had pent up for so long: pure hate,
purer desperation and there at the end, purest hope, so that
the green-green grass was green no more with the slick of it.
And then it was done. The Union soldiers, on seeing the state
of their Confederate prisoners, opened their packs to share
what food they had. Days later, Lee wore his ceremonial sword
to Appomattox, but Grant refused to ask for it, instead offering
terms gentler than had been sought. With permission,
the two officer corps sought out the friends left living
on the other side. And that night, Lincoln, too tired
to give a speech, asked the band, instead, to play Dixie.
The crowd sang along ’til the end.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the bloodiest and most savage conflict the United States has ever engaged in. Although Southern revisionists argued after the war (and since) that the real issue at the heart of the conflict was ‘states rights,’ truthfully it was about slavery and its need to be purged from the land.
The events described in this poem are authentic and exact and were taken from the book Killing Lincoln, which I read recently. This is the first of two poems inspired by the end of the Civil War, the second is I hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me.
For the non-Americans reading this post, a few notes:
1) The two sides of the conflict were: in the North, the Union forces, popularly referred to as Yankees, fighting to preserve the country in its entirety and end slavery; and in the South, the Confederate forces, popularly referred to as the Rebels, or Rebs, who were fighting for secession (the right to leave) from the United States of America to form a separate country, the Confederated States of America (also known as ‘the Confederacy’) which would be built on an economy of slavery.
2) President Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest President the country has ever known, pursued the war with great vigor, but clearly wanted a policy of forgiveness and reconstruction for the South after the conflict was over, to bring it firmly back into the Union. Tragically, this great man was assassinated just after the war and his policies not clearly followed. Jefferson Davis was his Confederate counterpart. By the time of the events of this poem, the Confederate capitol of Richmond had fallen (on April 3rd, not May 10th, as accounted in the popular song by The Band, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) and Davis was on the run, soon to be captured on May 10th. (Hence the confusion.) Although held for two years, neither he, nor any of his government, were ever tried for treason.
3) General Ulysses S. Grant was the head of the Union forces and a brilliant campaigner, while General Robert E. Lee, although the titular leader of the Confederate forces, was actually only directly in control of the Army of Northern Virginia. This was the army Lee had lead—his campaigns are still studied by military strategists today—in all his battles throughout the war; they were tough, committed and brave veterans who adored and trusted Lee and would follow him everywhere and anywhere. However, by the end of the conflict, their numbers were greatly reduced through battle, disease, starvation, exhaustion and (once the point seemed useless) desertion. In the last week alone the army’s numbers dwindled from 30,000 to less than 8,000 men.
4) Appomattox (pronounced apho-MAT-ix) was the spot where Lee, finally cut off and surrounded, surrendered to Grant. Grant refused to ask for Lee’s sword, although Lee had worn a large ceremonial one for just that purpose. The terms given by Grant originated with Lincoln and were simple: that every soldier would be cared for and then be free to return home if they did so peacefully; and that no officers, including the generals, would be tried for treason. While Lee’s surrender left over 140,000 Confederate forces still in the field, these held out only for a short time. That surrender at Appomattox, owing to Lee’s popularity and charismatic leadership, was the end of the war.
5) Dixie was a popular minstrel song in the 1850’s throughout the United States. Although not official, it was the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remains identified with it to this day.
The main consequences of the war were the preservation of the United States, the abolition of slavery (although by no means was this the end of the black struggle for equality) and the creation of an American consciousness: prior to the war, individuals identified with the state they were from; after the war, people, both North and South, saw themselves as Americans. The country had paid for that right in blood.
Thank you for reading Sailor’s Creek. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.
The photograph was taken at dawn in a Civil War era cemetery just outside of Pomfret, CT. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.
Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.