Long before the secessionist movement to establish the political independence of the South, Southerners were engaged in a war for cultural independence. Beginning in the 1830s, Southern intellectuals became convinced that they were inherently different from their Northern neighbors and demanded a culture that would suit the needs of their region. They believed that Northern culture, and Northern literature in particular, had been corrupted by the heresies of free love, abolitionists and the quest for the almighty dollar.
Implicit in the Southern criticism of Northern culture was the assumption that if given the opportunity to disassociate itself completely from the North, the South could do better. Secession then, was viewed as such an opportunity.
“We are about to avail ourselves of the splendid opening which the impending revolution secures to every Southern enterprise,” wrote George W. Bagby, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. “The destiny of the South will be but a crude and unfinished attempt, an unmeaning, inconsequential projection into time and space, unless along with her political independence she achieves her independence in thought and education.”
There was certainly some validity to this quest for cultural independence. After all, there were educated men to write Southern textbooks, men of literary bent to create novels, dramas and poems. Dealing with the Confederacy’s brilliant struggle for independence were publishers to publish and distribute these works and a sympathetic public to consume them.
Among the exemplary works was “Macaria,” a novel by Augusta Jane Evans. “Macaria” was published by West and Johnson of Richmond in 1864 and quickly became a best seller. It was the story of Irene Huntington, the daughter of a wealthy planter who forsakes the usual girlish romances in favor of charity work. When her only true love is killed during the war, she refuses to marry a man she does not love and resolves to spend the rest of her life alone, much like those women whose husbands were also victims of the war.
Confederate poetry fared slightly better than fiction. Certainly, there was more of it. Every newspaper and magazine, no matter how obscure, contained one or more pieces of verse. The South was fortunate in having a group of poets who established reputations before the war. Henry Timrod, Sidney Lanier and Father Abraham Ryan constituted the nucleus of a literary elite. But their work represented only a fraction of the poetry published. Most poems were written by amateurs, so moved by the thrilling events of their times that they had to express themselves in lyrics.
“Where does history show more stirring motives for poetry?” asked critic Thomas De Leon. “Every road of earth, moistened and hallowed with sacred blood sings today a noble dirge, wordless, but how eloquent.” Indeed, Confederate souls poured their hearts and souls into their poetry.
All significant events were memorialized in verse. Through its poetry, one can trace the birth of the Confederacy, its initial victories in battle, rise and fall of heroes, and finally, its defeat.
Ironically, in defeat, Father Abraham Ryan’s “The Conquered Banner,” did more to gain sympathy for the South than any words or actions of the Confederate government.
One reason for the almost universal popularity of poetry was its appearance in broadside form. Quick, inexpensive, and easy to produce, the thin broadside could be passed around in camps or on the march. While major poets scorned the broadside, the lesser talents were more than happy to have their work distributed in this manner. Broadside poems also served as the lyrics for popular music. Set to familiar tunes like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Carry me back to Old Virginia,” the poems reached an even wider audience.
Southern poets proudly proclaimed the birth of their nation to the world in “Ethogenesis.” Henry Timrod expressed his joy at secession:
“At last, we are a nation among nations, and the world,
Shall soon behold in many a distant port another flag unfurled.”
When the proclamation of an early victory could not be sustained, the war poets reverted to courage and sacrifice as a motive for continuing the struggle.
No nation can call itself cultured without a vigorous press, and here the Confederacy had a full supply. Politics had been the national pastime for antebellum Southerners, so that each town usually had at least one newspaper expounding the political principles of its editor. Major cities such as New Orleans, Richmond and Charleston had several papers representing all shades of the political spectrum.
The war created seemingly insurmountable problems for Southern newspapers. Gradually, their numbers decreased until only the major dailies of the larger cities were left and these began to print upon straw paper, wallpaper or any material that was procurable. Limited in size, and drab in appearance, their publishers continued bravely on for the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the South.
The reasons for the decline of the press are not difficult to understand. Most of the South’s paper and all of its presses came from Northern manufacturers. Although Southern companies were able to replace prewar supplies to some extent, their products were not equal in quality or durability to Northern goods. As the Federal blockade around the Confederacy was tightened, these materials could not be imported from Europe. The Confederate government dealt the deathblow to many small town newspapers when it revoked the exemption for printers of conscript age.
If literature was a part of the Southern tradition before the war, then music certainly was as well. Southern music could trace its origins back to folk ballads and melodies of the first British settlers.
Like its poetry, the Confederacy’s music was both sentimental and martial. One moment, Southerners could croon dreamily about “Lorena,” and then launch into songs that promised to crush the Yankees, root hog or die. Also, the poetry and the music commemorated battles and heroes.
“Stonewall” Jackson, killed by a bullet from his own troops in 1863, was the most celebrated hero in song.
As a measure of its cultural independence, the Confederacy sought a new anthem. Various patriotic airs were offered; two used some of the lyrics and tune of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner”: “The Southern Cross” and “Flag of Secession.” Neither song became popular. “Dixie,” written by Northern minstrel Dan Emmett in the 1850s, became the universal though not official national anthem.
The Confederacy did produce one genuine musical. John Hill Hewitt settled in the South before the war and his devotion to the Southern cause manifested itself in his art. Hewitt was the composer of some of the Confederacy’s most popular ballads, including “Somebody’s Darling,” “When Upon the Field of Glory,” and “King Linkum the First,” which was a satire that depicted a despotic, slightly befuddled Lincoln trying to deal with the nagging Mary Lincoln, the rapacious Ben Butler and a scheming William Seward. Ironically, the play ends with the attempted assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Southern sympathizers.
The biggest hit of the Confederate stage was a rousing melodrama called “The Ghost of Dismal Swamp.” The play featured a transparent skeleton that moved among the actors. Everyone was mystified until the Southern Illustrated News explained how it was done.
“The ghost on the stage is an optical illusion produced by means of a strong reflected light. The plan is exceedingly simple. A very large plate of transparent glass is set on the stage in front of the actors. An opening is made through the floor of the stage in front of the glass, and a skeleton is placed through the floor in front of the opening. As soon as a strong light is thrown upon the skeleton, the light passes through the opening in the floor, and is reflected in the glass, producing an image in the rear. The glass is an invisible mirror producing its image among the actors who are directly visible through the bones.”
The audience loved it. “The Ghost” was presented every other evening and on Saturday afternoons. At first the image appeared only in the third act, but at the public’s request, it began to appear on stage in the first, third and fourth acts. Richmond simply couldn’t get enough of the ghost.
Confederate drama coped under the same handicaps as the other arts. Lack of material for scenery and costumes, poor transportation to take the companies from city to city, and the urgency to produce timely plays made Confederate drama a challenge. Nevertheless, it had a loyal following. Most critics, in their desire to support all things Southern, were lavish in their praise.
Almost four years to the day after the firing on Fort Sumter, the Confederacy died, and in the moment of death, it was reborn. The “myth of the lost cause” demanded that everything and every one connected to the Confederate States of America be revered.
Poems, songs, newspapers, and letters were assiduously collected and stored away, taken out and cherished when the harsh realities of Reconstruction became too hard to bear. The minutiae of Confederate life had become sacred relics to those who had ignored them during the war.
In the words of one Confederate poet, the South would never forget its past:
“Time may bring healing upon its wings,
May bind in our hearts the shattered strings.
Forgiveness for injuries yet may come,
Though oppression be felt in each Southern home.
But ask no more! The terrible past,
Must ever be ours, while life shall last.
Ours with its memories – ours, with its pain,
Ours with the best blood shed like rain.
In sacrifices – all made in vain,
Henry Timrod was a was an American poet, often called The Poet Laureate of the Confederacy. With the outbreak of war, Timrod moved to Charleston and published his best known poems, which drew many young men to enlist in the service of the Confederacy. His best known poems of the time are “Ethnogenesis,” “A Cry to Arms,” “Carolina," and “Katie.” He was a frequent contributor of poems to Russell’s Magazine and to The Southern Literary Messenger.
The despot treads thy sacred sands,
Thy pines give shelter to his bands,
They sons stand by with idle hands,
He breathes at ease thy airs of balm,
He scorns the lances of thy palm;
Oh! who shall break thy craven calm,
Thy ancient fame is growing dim,
A spot is on thy garment’s rim;
Give to the winds thy battle hymn,
Call on thy children of the hill,
Wake swamp and river, coast and rill,
Rouse all thy strength and all thy skill,
Cite wealth and science, trade and art,
Touch with thy fire the cautious mart,
And pour thee through the people’s heart,
Till even the coward spurns his fears,
And all thy fields and fens and meres
Shall bristle like thy palm with spears,
Hold up the glories of thy dead;
Say how thy elder children bled,
And point to Eutaw;s battle-bed,
Tell how the patriot’s soul was tried,
And what his dauntless breast defied;
How Rutledge ruled and Laurens died,
Cry! till thy summons heard at last,
Shall fall like Marion’s bugle-blast
Re-echoed from the haunted Past,
I hear a murmur as of waves
That grope their way through sunless caves,
Like bodies struggling in their graves,
And now it deepens; slow and grand
It swells, as, rolling to the land,
An ocean broke upon thy strand,
Shout! let it reach the startled Huns!
And roar with all thy festal guns!
It is the answer of thy sons,
They will not wait to hear thee call;
From Sachem’s Head to Sumter’s wall
Resounds the voice of hut and hall,
No! thou hast not a stain, they say,
Or none save what the battle-day
Shall wash in seas of blood away,
Thy skirts indeed the foe may part,
Thy robe be pierced with sword and dart,
They shall not touch thy noble heart,
Ere thou shalt own the tyrant’s thrall
Ten times ten thousand men must fall;
Thy corpse may hearken to his call,
When, by thy bier, in mournful throngs
The women chant thy mortal wrongs,
‘T will be their own funereal songs,
From thy dead breast by ruffians trod
No helpless child shall look to God;
All shall be safe beneath thy sod,
Girt with such wills to do and bear,
Assured in right, and mailed in prayer,
Thou wilt not bow thee to despair,
Throw thy bold banner to the breeze!
Front with thy ranks the threatening seas
Like thine own proud armorial trees,
Fling down thy gauntlet to the Huns,
And roar the challenge from thy guns;
Then leave the future to thy sons,
Poem courtesy www.civilwarpoetry.org.