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“Though the rebellion is dead, though slavery is dead, both rebellion and slavery have left behind influences that will remain with us, it may be, for generations to come.” —Frederick Douglass, 1894
Frederick Douglass’ words were prophetic. The Civil War sesquicentennial offers educators an opportunity to investigate and reflect upon this important period in our nation’s history. Why not celebrate National Poetry Month by exploring a sampling of the thousands of Civil War poems written by everyday citizens of the time.
Now to the field again I’ll go,For the union to defend,Until Jeff Davis is made to knowHis kingdom is about to end.And now if I would not live,To hear freemen shout for joy,This miniature to you I give,In memory of a soldier boy.
Meet Private William P. Haberlin of Battery B, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, pictured in his uniform. One of more than 700 photographs featured in the Liljenquist Collection, this image is special because a handwritten poem accompanied the photo. Examining this picture and reading the words can help students understand what it might have felt like to go off to war in the 1860s.
And what happened to the families left at home? This image of an unidentified woman was acquired with a newspaper clipping of a love poem from the time. Has her father or brother or husband gone off to fight the war? Take time to view the rest of this amazing collection—the photographs show weapons, hats, canteens, musical instruments, painted backdrops, and other fascinating details of Civil War life. Watch for a new Library of Congress exhibition—The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection—which opens on April 12, 2011, and will be available online. You can also enjoy this collection on Flickr, where public comments provide additional information about images in the set called Civil War Faces.
Check out J. Patrick Lewis’ The Brothers’ War for contemporary poems inspired by Civil War photographs. More than 1,100 photographs made under the supervision of Mathew Brady are available online in the Selected Civil War Photographs Collection. Use these to inspire your students to write their own poetry.
A Variety of Poems
The Civil War Poetry Web Guide highlights a selection of poetry written by soldiers and citizens from the North and the South—all available on the Library of Congress website. Poems appeared in a variety of print formats, including newspapers, periodicals, broadsheets, and song sheets. Close reading of these poems will help students better understand the role of poetry during the war years and how poetry helped unify citizens, inspire troops, memorialize the dead, and bind the nation’s wounds in the aftermath of the war.
Have students explore different types of Civil War poems. Samples include:
The Civil War Poetry Web Guide also highlights examples of:
The Teachers Page offers resources to guide you in teaching with poetry. Lyrical Legacy explores 18 American songs and poems from the digital collections of the Library of Congress. Each song and poem is represented by an original primary source document, along with historical background information and, in many cases, sound recordings and alternate versions. Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! is the featured poem for the Civil War era.
The Poet at Work Collection Connection offers teaching tips for using Walt Whitman’s Notebooks with students.
The exhibition Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and the Leaves of Grass traces Whitman’s life through primary documents and in particular his experiences during the Civil War. As they write their own poems, have students study Whitman’s list of synonyms for the poem “Ashes of Soldiers” as an example of the pre-writing techniques he used.
More Civil War Books and Other Online Resources
Hundreds of books have been written for young readers about the Civil War. Two personal favorites include Patricia Bauer’s B Is for Battle Cry and Barbara Kerley’s Walt Whitman.
In B Is for Battle Cry, each letter of the alphabet covers a Civil War topic and is represented by a colorful painting, a short verse, and additional facts. This could easily be used as a model for students as they create their own poetry alphabet books.
Focused primarily on Whitman’s Civil War experiences, Walt Whitman highlights the poet’s efforts to provide company and comfort to wounded soldiers. Lines of poetry illustrate Whitman’s thoughts about the war, with full-text poems or sections of poems included at the end of the book.
A few more poetry resources to explore:
Encourage students to continue reading Civil War poetry. Have them follow the links in a selected bibliography of online poetry anthologies and collections. As they read these personal poems from the past, encourage them to remember that the poems they write today might become treasured words for future generations.
B Is for Battle Cry: A Civil War Alphabet. By Patricia Bauer. Illus. by David Geister. 2009. 40p. Sleeping Bear, $17.95 (9781585363568). 973.7. K–Gr. 3.
The Brothers’ War: Civil War Voices in Verse. By J. Patrick Lewis. 2007. 32p. illus. National Geographic, lib. ed., $25.90 (9781426300370). 811. Gr. 6–9.
Gail Petri, a 2000 American Memory Fellow and former teacher librarian from the Rochester, New York, area, has worked as an Education Resource Specialist for the Library of Congress since 2002. Petri is also a contributing author to Uncovering Our History: Teaching with Primary Sources, by Susan H. Veccia (ALA Editions, 2003).
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