Professor to speak about Civil War poetry at Peters Library

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Poetry was an important means of expression during the Civil War, a Duquesne University English teacher says.

People turned to poetry in the 1860s to talk about the war because poetry was a medium they encountered almost every day in newspapers, school and lectures about political causes, Faith Barrett tells audiences. Ms. Barrett is an associate professor at the university.

She will speak on “American Poetry and the Civil War” at 7 p.m. June 19 in Peters Township Public Library. 

The presentation is part of "Civil War 150!," a collaboration between The Library of America and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ms. Barrett, of Edgewood, said poetry had a different cultural position in this era than it does in contemporary society.

 

“For many people, poetry was the genre they turned to to think about the meaning of the war, loss of the soldiers, and to think about new ideas of what the nation meant in both the Union and the Confederacy.”

Ms. Barrett said the divide between amateur and professional poets didn’t apply because many people who were writing and publishing poetry had other means of livelihood.

She described works by soldier poets and others who would have been considered nonprofessionals as powerful, moving and very accomplished.

Poetry also provided a safe and nonthreatening way for people to express their opinions and anger about the war, she said, and it restrained some of the more radical political content.

For example, while the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe, really emphasized the pro-Union message, she said they also contain interesting traces of the author’s personal anxieties and concerns about the war.

“Even poems that look to be kind of simplistic in their expression of nationalist sentiments, typically have a kind of personal investment mixed in with that,” she said.

While the Civil War clearly changed American poetry, Ms. Barrett said Civil War poetry also changed the way Americans understood their relationship to the Union, the Confederacy and the United States.

“Poetry actually has an impact on the things that happen on battlefields, not just reflecting what happens, but also shaping what happens,” she said. “These are things we wouldn’t expect poetry to be able to do.

“There’s a quick response time that makes poetry a genre that’s very well placed to actually have an impact on things that happened midway through the war,” she said.

For example, at that point, President Abraham Lincoln called for a second set of volunteers, which spurred the song, “We Are Coming, Father Abraham, 300,000 More” by John S. Gibbons, who sang the song to Lincoln at the White House..

Though it was written in response to Lincoln’s decision, Ms. Barrett said it was also written to inspire a mixture of patriotic courage and paternal love for Lincoln and no doubt had an impact on how the second wave of men who chose to volunteer felt about their decision.

The talk is free at the library, 616 E. McMurray Road. For details or to register: www.ptlibrary.org or 724-941-9430.

Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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