“If war is nothing more than lists of battles then human lives count less than saber rattles.”
~ J. Patrick Lewis ~
As we gear up to celebrate our nation’s birthday tomorrow, its seems appropriate, this year especially, to pause and remember the battle of Gettysburg, which ended 152 years ago today after Pickett’s disastrous charge.
It is impossible to recall this battle today without thinking of the profound words spoken by Abraham Lincoln four months later at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery:
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Equal. How is it that after all this time, our nation is still grappling with this issue? I don’t like to get political in this space, but I do think Lincoln’s words are a reminder of how pernicious and divisive the public display of the Confederate flag truly is. The conclusion of Lincoln’s remarks further remind us that we still have far to go to reach this ideal:
“It is rather for us to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s speech is a masterpiece, full of poetic and rhetorical devices that move us, but “the honored dead” of whom he speaks are nameless and faceless to 21st century readers. Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863” does for this bloodiest battle of the war what poetry does best: it shines a light on one anonymous soldier’s death, and helps us see the humanity of the 7,863 soldiers who died over those three days.
The young man, hardly more
than a boy, who fired the shot
had looked at him with an air
not of anger but of concentration,
as if he were surveying a road,
or feeding a length of wood into a saw:
It had to be done just so.
The bullet passed through
his upper chest, below the collar bone.
The pain was not what he might
have feared. Strangely exhilarated
he staggered out of the pasture
and into a grove of trees.
He pressed and pressed
the wound, trying to stanch
the blood, but he could only press
what he could reach, and he could
not reach his back, where the bullet
He lay on the earth
smelling the leaves and mosses,
musty and damp and cool
after the blaze of open afternoon.
Read the rest of the poem here.
To bring this conflict to life for younger readers, turn to J. Patrick Lewis’s fine collection, The Brother’s War: Civil War Voices in Verse (National Geographic Society, 2007). Lewis’s poems give voice to soldiers, slaves, and abolitionists. Accompanied by period photographs, Lewis looks beyond the romantic notions of the nobility of warfare, and offers a compelling introduction to the stark realities faced by the rank and file during this brutal war.
Here are the final two stanzas of the last poem in the collection, “Passing in Review.”
Salute the boys
You never knew
For valor. It’s long overdue.
Young men still passing in review
Do not require
A great parade,
A big brass band or cavalcade
To sing the sacrifice they made.
Please be sure to visit Donna at Mainely Write for the Poetry Friday Roundup.