Poetry Friday: “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863”

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“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
had exited.

                     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.

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 Please be sure to visit Donna at Mainely Write for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

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8 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: “Gettysburg: July 1, 1863”

  1. When I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, the book hit me like a load of bricks. And then, years later, touring the Gettysburg battleground – The Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, the scene of Pickett’s Charge – gad, the horror of it just got burned into me. The strategies of war have changed but the consequences have not. Young people die, and bitterness lingers for decades.

    RE: The controversy about the Confederate battle flag – I wonder how many people who call the flying of that flag a matter of heritage rather than hate would sanction the flying of the German swastika in Berlin? The Germans, too, suffered a humiliating defeat, but you don’t see them waxing nostalgic about swastikas, nor do they fly a symbol of genocide on the flagpole of their capitol buildings.

    Thanks for posting these poems and your reflections on them – very thought provoking.

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    • I thought of that comparison, too. I’m sure advocates of flying the Confederate flag would come up with all kinds of distinctions between the two, but at the end of the day, I don’t see how they’re any different. And I agree with you about The Killer Angels. It’s a powerful book. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. Both are lovely sentiments, Catherine, and it is a good time to remember. I had a student once who studied this battle all the year. There is much to it, and the tragedy clings. Have a good Independence Day and weekend.

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  3. My visit to Gettysburg nearly tore my heart out. It took on a whole added meaning after seeing the film Gettysburg (based on The Killer Angels).

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  4. There are many facets to this time in our history and the war, many of which are not always made clear. It was a sad time that many wish had not happened, but it is a part of who we are and where we are.

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  5. Wow. That poem brought me to tears, Catherine. Your post today is so important and rings so true to me as well. This morning I just saw someone on FB posting a photo of a determined little boy in a General Lee dragster car. He said something like “would you ask this innocent little boy to repaint his roadster”? Yet, it wasn’t the little boy who came up with the idea to use that paint scheme in the first place, was it. So sad to witness injustices being passed down from generation to generation this way.

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  6. Somehow I’d missed this powerful Jane Kenyon poem – thanks for sharing it, Catherine, and for the JPL excerpt and for your thoughts. I do hope, as an SC resident now, to see that flag in Columbia moved to a museum. Your post also brings to mind the moving anthology by Lee Bennett Hopkins, AMERICA AT WAR.

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