Book Review: Poets Of The Civil War

Poets Of The Civil War, edited by J.D. McClatchy

The Civil War presents the writer or editor of a work such as this with a difficult challenge.  Ever since post-Reconstruction period it has been common to see the blue and the gray as being equals, equally courageous and brave, despite the fact that the cause of the North was relatively just and the cause of the South was among the worst known to man [1].  This book definitely falls into that trap.  In many ways, this collection of poems wants to have it both ways–to give equal attention to poets of the North and South (and even some border state poets), to celebrate the different perspectives on nationalism and identity that were represented by the two sides, and also to earn some points by pointing to the fate of blacks in the society.  It appears as if the editor of this book is trying too hard to curry favor with those who would most appreciate a book about the Civil War and not enough time being honest about what was at stake.  To be sure, the editor shows himself unwilling to support jingoistic odes, but he appears to have no qualms about encouraging neo-Confederate readers to wish for Maryland’s secession or to celebrate the ethnogenesis of the Confederacy.

As appears to be common in this series, this book is organized by the birthdate of the poet, and this has an interesting result, in that many of the older poetic heavyweights skew towards the beginning of this book–William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier being four of the first five.  A few poets have large amounts of their work included–Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, obviously enough, but less obviously enough Henry Timrod, and quite deservedly Emily Dickinson as well, who is not often considered a Civil War poet even though this book includes some stellar examples of her war-inspired poetry.  This is a book that provides about 200 pages worth of mostly good Civil War poetry, and if you like American military history and poetry this is certainly a worthwhile read.  I happen to enjoy both of those subjects and so reading this book was certainly a no-brainer.  I wonder how large of a market there is for civil war poetry books, but there is at least room for one.

That is not to say that this is a perfect book.  It is unlikely that anyone would be able to tackle the mess that is the Civil War and do it to the satisfaction of everyone, or perhaps even anyone.  While the author seems to think there were no great epic poems that came out of the Civil War, this book includes quite a few examples of modest triumphs–if you can consider O Captain, My Captain, or the striking poems about elderly Union citizens who bravely and stoutly defended the honor of the flag during those rare rebel invasions.  And there are quite a few poets which do justice to the battles of the Civil War–there is a great one about Thomas at Chichamauga, a ballad of the siege of Vicksburg, and a thoughtful discussion of the Battle of Melvern Hill.   All of these demonstrate that those who complain about the quality of Civil War poems don’t really have a leg to stand on–there is plenty of good material to be found and that is worthy of appreciation, and it is likely that most readers will at least find something that they enjoy here regardless of which side they cheer on and where their loyalties lie.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Poets Of The Civil War

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson | Edge Induced Cohesion

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