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A Weekly Look Back at the Civil WarJuly 8, 1861/2011

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the Civil War. Longfellow's Wife Dies of Burns


July 9, 1861. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was the best-known and most popular American poet of his time. He was born in Portland, Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts (which is why Maine is the only state other than Massachusetts that observes Patriot's Day, commemorating the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord). He attended Bowdoin College, and then, after traveling in Europe, became a professor at Bowdoin, and then later at Harvard College. He was a fervent abolitionist; Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist politician, was his closest friend. Indeed for years, using income from the sale of his poetry, he quietly bought slaves their freedom.  


His antislavery poem "The Witnesses" dates from 1842; he wrote it while on a ship sailing from Europe back to the United States:


In Ocean's wide domains,

            Half buried in chains,

Lie skeletons in chains,

            With shackled feet and hands.


Beyond the fall of dews,  

            Deeper than plummet lies,

Float ships, with all their crews,

            No more to sink nor rise.


There the black Slave-ship swims,

            Freighted with human forms, 

Whose fettered, fleshless limbs

            Are not the sport of storms.


These are the bones of Slaves;

            They gleam from the abyss;

They cry, from yawning waves, 

     "We are the Witnesses!"


Within Earth's wide domains

 Are markets for men's lives;

Their necks are galled with chains,

Their wrists are cramped with gyves.


Dead bodies, that the kite
            In deserts makes its prey;
Murders, that with affright
            Scare school-boys from their play!


All evil thoughts and deeds; 
            Anger, and lust, and pride;
The foulest, rankest weeds,
            That choke Life's groaning tide!


These are the woes of Slaves;
            They glare from the abyss;                            
They cry, from unknown graves,
            "We are the Witnesses!"


After the war Longfellow remained deeply desirous of reconciliation between the North and the South.

Longfellow is perhaps best known today for his poem "Paul Revere's Ride," which was first published in the January 1861 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. Coming as it did just weeks after South Carolina's secession from the Union, the poem would have been understood to be an homage to shared American values and courage, and a call to action in a moment of peril. Its final stanza is as symbolic as it is narrative:


So through the night rode Paul Revere;

And so through the night went his cry of alarm

To every Middlesex village and farm,---

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,

A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

And a word that shall echo for evermore!

For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,

Through all our history, to the last,

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,

The people will waken and listen to hear

The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,

And the midnight message of Paul Revere.


On July 9, 1861, Fanny Appleton, Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was melting a stick of wax to close a letter when her dress caught fire. Her husband tried to snuff the flames out with his body, but she died the next morning. In the process of trying to save her, Longfellow was badly burned; the long beard for which he is known from his portraits was grown to cover the scars.


Just over a year later, Longfellow's son Charles was badly wounded fighting in the Union army. Longfellow and another son rushed to Washington to bring Charles home to recover.

Longfellow's poem "Killed at the Ford" speaks eloquently of a soldier's death and the impact it can make on loved ones back home:


He is dead, the beautiful youth,

The heart of honor, the tongue of truth,

He, the life and light of us all,

Whose voice was blithe as a bugle-call,

Whom all eyes followed with one consent,

The cheer of whose laugh, and whose pleasant word,

Hushed all murmurs of discontent.


Only last night, as we rode along,

Down the dark of the mountain gap,

To visit the picket-guard at the ford,

Little dreaming of any mishap,

He was humming the words of some old song:

"Two red roses he had on his cap,

And another he bore at the point of his sword."


Sudden and swift a whistling ball

Came out of a wood, and the voice was still;

Something I heard in the darkness fall,

And for a moment my blood grew chill;

I spake in a whisper, as he who speaks

In a room where some one is lying dead;

But he made no answer to what I said.


We lifted him up to his saddle again,

And through the mire and the mist and the rain

Carried him back to the silent camp,

And laid him as if asleep on his bed;

And I saw by the light of the surgeon's lamp

Two white roses upon his cheeks,

And one, just over his heart, blood-red!


And I saw in a vision how far and fleet

That fatal bullet went speeding forth,

Till it reached a town in the distant North,

Till it reached a house in a sunny street,

Till it reached a heart that ceased to beat

Without a murmur, without a cry;

And a bell was tolled, in that far-off town,

For one who had passed from cross to crown,

And the neighbors wondered that she should die. 

Wadsworth and Fanny Appleton
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife Fanny Appleton Longfellow. Longfellow is pictured as a younger man without his famous long, white beard. He grew the beard because the facial injuries from the fire that killed Fanny prevented him from shaving.

-- Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council




Mrs. Longfellow: Selected Letters and Journals of Fanny Appleton Longfellow  


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 


Longfellow and The Atlantic 

Union General McClellan Gets Noticed


George B. McClellan
Major General George B. McClellan, 1861, by Mathew Brady

July 11, 1861. 

The victor at the now seldom-remembered, two-hour-long Battle of Rich Mountain, in western Virginia (July 11), was a young Union general named George Brinton McClellan. The modest victory won him newspaper acclaim that gave him a reputation greater than he merited, and that acclaim was instrumental in Lincoln putting him in command of the Army of the Potomac two weeks later, just after the Union defeat at Bull Run.

 -- Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council




Richard Wheeler, Voices of the Civil War, p. 25.


Rich Mountain Battlefield Foundation


Rich Mountain Battle summary 

Battle of Rich Mountain
The title of this map reads: "Sketch of the Site of the O[pe]rations of the 10th, 11th, & 12th, July 1861, at Rich Mountain near Beverly, Randolph Co., [West] Virginia, between the U. S. Forces under Major Gen. Geo. McClellan and the Confederate troops, by Lieut. O. M. poe, U. S. Topl. Engrs." Click on image to see larger.
More information about the Battle of Rich Mountain Map
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