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“To Light Us to Freedom and Glory Again”: The Role of Civil War Poetry

The Picket Guard
"The Picket Guard."

America Singing: Nineteenth Century Song Sheets.
Library of Congress.


During the Civil War, thousands of poems about the conflict were written by everyday citizens. These poems appeared in a variety of print formats, including newspapers, periodicals, broadsheets, and song sheets. Drawing upon the Library of Congress' online collections, this page offers a selection of poetry written by soldiers and citizens from the North and the South. These poems enable us to 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.

To read other examples of Civil War poetry, please review the selected bibliography of online Civil War poetry anthologies and collections.


Walt Whitman

Drum-Taps, 1865.

"Sequel to Drum-Taps." Leaves of Grass. New York, 1867.

This first issue of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, available through the Walt Whitman Archive, includes the 18 poems of Sequel to Drum-Taps, which were originally published as part of the second edition of Drum-Taps (1865-1866).

Corrected reprint of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain" with comments by author, 9 February 1888.

Herman Melville

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866)

"The Portent"


John Greenleaf Whittier

Barbara Frietchie (Audio)


George Henry Boker

"Blood, blood! The lines of every printed sheet"


Many types of poetry were written during the Civil War era. This section highlights several of these types, and provides access to representative examples of each in the Library of Congress's American Memory collections.

Type One: Early Poems Of Unity

Leading up to the Civil War, and during the early periods of the war, a number of poems attempted to unite the citizens of the North or of the South.

Poem: "Ethnogenesis" (also found on pages 100-104 of The Poems of Henry Timrod.)


Written by Henry Timrod, known as the "Laureate of the Confederacy," during the first the meeting of the Confederate Congress in February 1861. The poem envisions a separate Southern nation, one heading to battle with God and all of nature on its side.

Supplemental Resources:

"Ethnogenesis" song sheet
Meeting room of the first Confederate Congress
Journal of the Confederate Congress, First Session
The Constitution of the Confederate States of America

Poem: "Hurrah for the South"

Poem: "Hurrah for the Union!" (found on page 45)

Type Two: Calls to Arms

Calls to arms appealed to men of the North and South to become soldiers and fight for their side.

Poem: "The Texan Marseillaise" (found on page 385)


One of several Southern "Marseillaise" poems and songs (e.g., "The Virginia Marseillaise")

Supplemental Resources:

Audio of "La Marseillaise"

Poem: "A Cry to Arms" (found on pages 83-85)

Supplemental Resources:

Volunteer troops trying the arms (Charleston, S.C.)

Poem: "My Maryland"


Written by James Ryder Randall in response to the April 19, 1861 shooting of Baltimore civilians who had attacked soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Infantry as they marched to Washington. Randall's poem was a call for Maryland to secede from the Union, and became a popular rallying cry. Although Maryland did not join the Confederate cause, it did adopt "My Maryland" as its state song in 1939.

Supplemental Resources:

The Lexington of 1861

Poem: "Answer to 'My Maryland'" (found on pages 241-244)


It was common during the Civil War for one poem to be written in response to another, and it was also common for one side to alter the content of a poem written by the other side in order to turn it against them.

Poem: "Three Hundred Thousand More"


This poem, by John S. Gibbons, was written to aid Lincoln's 1862 call for 300,000 more Union troops. Originally published in the New York Evening Post.

Supplemental Resources:

"The Union Volunteer"
"The Flag of Our Union"

Type Three: Poems about Individual Soldier's Experiences

Although the calls to arms, poems of unity, and the other types of poems mentioned above were published throughout the war, another type of poetry that was published during the war and grew more popular as the war progressed was poetry that focused on the individual soldier's experience of war. This type of poetry helped people face the grim reality of the war, to make sense of soldiers' sacrifice, and to memorialize their efforts. It was also a way to connect the experiences of soldiers, who were often far away from home, with those remaining at home.

Poem: "Somebody's Darling" (found on page 450)

Poem: “The Dying Confederate’s Last Words

Poem: “The Picket-Guard

Type Four: Poems about Women's Contribution to the War

Another type of poetry published early during the war was written by women and grappled with the issue of how women, who did not fight in the war, might contribute to the war effort.

Poem: "A New Song of the Shirt"

Poem: "The Will for the Deed"

Poem: "Song of the Southern Women"

Poem: "Hospital Duties"

Type Five: The Quest for a National Song

Other poems written during the war were set to music and attempted to function—or became so popular that they effectively did function—as national songs that represented the ideals and missions of each side.

Poem: "The Southern Cross"


This poem, written by George Tucker, is patterned after "The Star-Spangled Banner" and is an attempt to adapt it to the Confederate cause. First published in The Southern Literary Messenger (March, 1861), it was soon printed in broadside form with the note that it was to be sung to the air of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Supplemental Resources:

Image of the Southern Cross
History, text, and audio of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

Poem: "Battle Hymn of the Republic"


Although written to the tune of "John Brown's Body," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was originally published as a poem in the Atlantic Monthly (Volume 9, Issue 52, Feb. 1862).

Supplemental Resources:

History, text, and audio of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"
Image of Julia Ward Howe
"Yankee Volunteers Marching into Dixie"
Marching Union Soldiers
Julia Ward Howe's personal account of how the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" came to be written; found on pages 706-709 of The Atlantic Monthly. (Volume 83, Issue 499, May 1899)

Type Six: Humorous and Satirical Poems

There were other types of poems published during the Civil War as well, including humorous and satirical poems on all subjects.

Poem: "The Craven"


The poem is set during the Battle of Malvern Hill (Virginia), which took place July 1, 1862, and in which the Union Army, outnumbered, was able to hold off Confederate troops thanks in part to the gunpowder of the Union warship USS Galena. This poem appears to be criticizing General George B. McClellan for remaining safely away from the heat of the battle while the Galena, out of harm's way, shelled the Confederate troops from offshore.

Supplemental Resources:

Revised plan of battle of Malvern Hill, July 1st, 1862
Extracts from the log book of the Galena for July 1, 1862
"The Gunboat Candidate at the Battle of Malvern Hill"

Type Seven: Postwar Poems

There were many different types of poems written after the war. Some poems memorialized fallen heroes; some Southern poems expressed continued defiance towards the North despite losing the war; and some Northern poems depicted the South as an evil overcome by the forces of good. For the most part, though, poems written by the North and South weren't hostile to the other side.

Poem: "The Conquered Banner" (found on page 452)


Written by "Moina," the pseudonym of Abram Joseph Ryan, who was born in Maryland and spent part of his childhood in Virginia. He served as a chaplain during the Civil War, and his war poetry quickly led to him becoming known as the "poet-priest of the South." The night he found out that Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, he wrote the poem "The Conquered Banner," a memorial to the South's failed efforts in the war.

Supplemental Resources:

Image of "The Conquered Banner"
Image of "The Conquered Banner"

Poem: "Acceptation"

Supplemental Resources:

"Compromise with the South"

Poem: "The Blue and the Gray" (found on pages 369-370)

Supplemental Resources:

Sheet Music
"Richmond, Virginia. Graves of Confederate Soldiers in Hollywood Cemetery"
"Soldier Standing at Graves of Federal Soldiers" (Antietam, Maryland)


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  April 27, 2011
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