The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing
2013, Volume 34
"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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ON PICKET DUTY.
Within a green and shadowy wood, Circled with spring, alone I stood: The nook was peaceful, fair, and good.
The wild-plum blossoms lured the bees, The birds sang madly in the trees, Magnolia-scents were on the breeze.
All else was silent; but the ear Caught sounds of distant bugle clear, And heard the bullets whistle near—
When from the winding river's shore The Rebel guns began to roar, And ours to answer, thundering oer;
And echoed from the wooded hill, Repeated and repeated still, Through all my soul they seemed to thrill.
For, as their rattling storm awoke, And loud and fast the discord broke, In rude and trenchant words they spoke.
"We hate!" boomed fiercely o'er the tide; "We fear not!" from the other side; "We strike!" the Rebel guns replied.
Quick roared our answer, "We defend!" "Our rights!" the battle-sounds contend; "The rights of all!" we answer send.
"We conquer!" rolled across the wave; "We persevere!" our answer gave; "Our chivalry!" they wildly rave.
"Ours are the brave!" "Be ours the free!" "Be ours the slave, the masters we!" "On us their blood no more shall be!"
As when some magic word is spoken, By which a wizard spell is broken, There was a silence at that token.
The wild birds dared once more to sing, I heard the pine-bough's whispering, And trickling of a silver spring.
Then, crashing forth with smoke and din, Once more the rattling sounds begin, Our iron lips roll forth, "We win!"
And dull and wavering in the gale That rushed in gusts across the vale Came back the faint reply, "We fail!"
And then a word, both stern and sad, From throat of huge Columbiad— "Blind fools and traitors! ye are mad!"
Again the rebel answer came, Muffled and slow, as if in shame— "All, all is lost!" in smoke and flame.
Now bold and strong and stern as Fate, The Union guns sound forth, "We wait!" Faint comes the distant cry, "Too late!"
"Return! return!" our cannon said; And, as the smoke rolled overhead, "We dare not!" was the answer dread.
Then came a sound, both loud and clear, A godlike word of hope and cheer— "Forgiveness!" echoed far and near;
As when beside some death-bed still We watch, and wait God's solemn will, A blue-bird warbles his soft trill.
I clenched my teeth at that blest word, And, angry, muttered, "Not so, Lord! The only answer is the sword!"
I thought of Shiloh's tainted air; Of Richmond's prisons, foul and bare; And murdered heroes, young and fair—
Of block and lash and overseer, And dark, mild faces pale with fear, Of baying hell-hounds panting near.
But then the gentle story told My childhood, in the days of old, Rang out its lessons manifold.
O prodigal, and lost! arise And read the welcome blest that lies In a kind Father's patient eyes!
Thy elder brother grudges not The lost and found should share his lot, And wrong in concord be forgot.
Thus mused I, as the hours went by, Till the relieving guard drew nigh, And then was challenge and reply.
And as I hastened back to line, It seemed an omen half divine That "Concord" was the countersign.
- "On Picket Duty" is attributed to "Mrs. W. T. Johnson" in the table of contents for volume 13 of the Atlantic Monthly. The poem appeared in the April 1864 issue of the magazine. (According to the magazine's convention, poems were typically unattributed in the body of the magazine, but tables of contents attributed the works.) Laura Winthrop Johnson (1824–1889) was the sister of Major Theodore Winthrop, an Atlantic Monthly contributor and one of the Union's first martyrs. In 1862, after Winthrop's death, Laura became good friends with Annie Fields, wife of Atlantic editor James T. Fields. They discussed literature, and Laura showed Annie some of her verses. Annie gave one of them, "On Picket Duty," to her husband (Rita K. Gollin, Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002], 150–51).
- The blood of slaves. The Union declaration—at once an acknowledgment of the national sin of slavery and a pledge to fight for abolition—causes the tide of battle to turn in the Union's favor. Johnson suggests that, because God willed slavery's destruction, Union armies would only meet with success once the government attacked slavery as a matter of moral necessity.
- A Columbiad was an "American cannon invented by Colonel Bomford, of very large calibre, used for throwing solid shot or shells" (Colonel H. L. Scott, Military Dictionary [New York: Van Nostrand, 1863], 164). Civil War Columbiads weighed between 9,000 and nearly 49,000 pounds. Captain Thomas Rodman's innovative casting technique was used to make the largest guns for coastal defenses (see Scott).
- The miasma over the Shiloh battlefield. Approximately 20,000 soldiers were killed or wounded during the Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862). The battle introduced mid-nineteenth-century Americans to warfare on a new and terrible scale. On the battle's second day, advancing Union soldiers were confronted with the previous day's dead and wounded (James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The American Civil War [London: Penguin, 1991], 413).
- Reports of the horrific conditions in Richmond's military prisons caused outrage in the North, and provided Union editors with ammunition in the ongoing propaganda war. In early December 1863, Harper's Weekly published a double-page illustration of skeletal Union prisoners at Richmond's Belle Isle, heavily guarded by well-fed, smiling men. More shocking illustrations followed in the latter half of the war. Focused on the enemy's crimes, Johnson does not consider the brutal conditions in Union prisons. As Benjamin Cloyd points out, "grim statistics" show that each side failed "to care appropriately for prisoners of war" (Benjamin G. Cloyd, Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010], 11).
- See the parable of the lost or prodigal son, Luke 15:11–32. Johnson casts the South as the lost son, and the North as his righteous elder brother. In the biblical parable, the "kind Father" is God. However, readers who encountered "On Picket Duty" in the spring of 1864 may have interpreted Johnson's figure as a forgiving Lincoln. The president had issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on December 8, 1863. For more on the Proclamation, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), 35.
- Although the Anglo-African credited the Atlantic Monthly as the source of "On Picket Duty," the newspaper appears to have actually reprinted the poem from the National Anti-Slavery Standard of May 7, 1864. The Anti-Slavery Standard version is distinguishable from the Atlantic Monthly text in several small ways, including the typographical error "oer" in place of "o'er" in line 12, and variant end-of-line punctuation in stanza 22, among others. The Anglo-African version includes these same textual idiosyncrasies, which suggest it was reprinted from the Standard rather than from the Atlantic Monthly.