It’s probably not surprising that I’m always on the look-out for Civil War poetry. There’s a ton of it — often in newspapers or magazines of era and later in the various memory publications created by veterans and supporters from both sides.
April 12, 2021 will mark the 160th Anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War and the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. As I was reading through resources related to this incident this week, I came across this piece of poetry in The Southern Poems of the War Between The States which was published in 1867. As the clues in the title suggest, it’s a collection of Confederate poetry and memory views, including this piece about Fort Sumter.
I’ve emphasized a few phase for commentary below)
The Fall of Fort Sumter, April 1861.
By A.L.D., Raleigh, North Carolina
'Twas in the early morning, all Charleston lay asleep, While yet the purple darkness was resting on the deep. In the middle of the channel Fort Sumter stood afar, Above it waved the banner which yet bore every star. Outside the bar, at sunset, seven steamers we could see, We knew they brought the slaves of slaves who would coerce the free. At midnight came the order, that when the day should break, The guns from out our batteries must then their challenge speak. 0, how anxiously we waited for the dawning of the day! There was little sleeping all that night in the forts of Charleston Bay. All night along the sea-shore, and up the shelving strand, Like the ghosts of our old heroes, did the curling sea mist stand. They saw their children watching there, as they had watched before, When a British fleet had crossed the bar and threatened Charleston shore. But when the first loud gun announced the dawning of the day, The mists they broke, and lingering, slowly rolled away. When the first red streak upon the East, told of the rising sun, 'Twas then the cannonading from the batteries begun. All day the cannon thundered along the curving shore, All day the sea resounded with Sumter's steady roar. When the land - breeze from the city brought the noon chimes clear and strong, We saw the starry flag no more, which had floated there so long; For while the fight was raging, we'd seen that banner fall, A round shot cut the staff in twain, and tore it from the wall. But when they raised no other, our General sent them one, For they'd kept the lost one bravely, as true men should have done. The fleet turned slowly southward, we saw the last ship go, We had saved old Carolina from the insults of the foe; O, we were very thankful when we lay down to rest, And saw the darkness fall again upon the harbour's breast. For now above Fort Sumter floats a banner yet unknown, Upon it are but seven stars, where thirty-two had shone.
“the slaves of slaves who would coerce the free.” What is going on with this statement? It’s an intentional dig or insult at abolitionists and a clear upholding of the Southern view of state’s rights. It’s accusing northern men of being “enslaved” by their desire to free the actual enslaved men, women and children in the South, which—according to this writer’s views—would impinge on the slaveholder’s freedom and “rights” to “own property.” It’s a subtle reminder that slavery was one of the main causes of the Civil War.
When a British fleet had crossed the bar and threatened Charleston shore. This reference also caught my eye. Part of the justification and story that the poetry’s author is telling is a defense of homeland story and the imagery from the Revolutionary War period is evoked. Charleston was captured and occupied by the British, and this poem wanted to liken the Federal ships trying to resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter to an invasion of the self-declare South Carolina republic and Confederacy.
We saw the starry flag no more, “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key had been written several decades earlier but it wasn’t super popular yet. Thus, I’m not sure if the author was intentionally using language reminiscent of that War of 1812 poem and the phrase “but our flag was still there.” But to my modern mind, it makes an interesting comparison of historic poetry and incidents.
a banner yet unknown, Just to clarify—with the seven stars, this is referencing the First National flag of the Confederacy which had a blue field in the upper left corner. A red horizontal stripe across the top, parallel with a white and second red strip. Seven stars—representative of the seven states which had declared secession at that point—were circled on the blue field. (Sometimes this flag is mistaken for a “Betsy Ross flag” from the Revolutionary War; it’s different.) Eventually, the Confederacy would add thirteen stars to some of their flags; eleven states declared secession and joined the Confederacy, but they “claimed” two border states to make thirteen and there would be several redesigns of the official Confederate flags and many versions of regimental and battle flags used during the conflict.
Poetry is not historical fact and this poem gets a few facts of the firing on Fort Sumter misreported. However, I think this is a valuable piece of writing to help reminder us of the attitudes and feelings of the moment and early memory of the April 12 firing from a pro-Confederate perspective. It helps us see a mood, some justifications, and a declaration of victory with little apparent thought about what the coming weeks and years would hold as a result of those sunrise shots and days of bombardment at Fort Sumter.
P.S. Yes, we’ll look at “Yankee” poetry next week…