The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

III. Poets of the Civil War II

§ 3. The Outbreak of Hostilities

The Civil War aroused intense emotions that found expression in a large body of lyric poetry, written by some men who were professedly poets and by more who were but occasionally such. It is difficult for one of the present generation to realize the unity and the fervour of the Southern people at the beginning of the war. Most intelligent Southerners would now agree with President Wilson that the principles for which the South fought “meant stand-still in the midst of change; it was conservative, not creative; it was against drift and destiny; it protected an impossible institution and a belated order of society; it withstood a creative and an imperial idea, the idea of a united people and a single law of freedom.” But it was given to few men, if any, on either side to understand the issues thus clearly defined. In fact, as soon as Fort Sumter was attacked and Maryland was invaded there was no longer a question of political issues—it was rather, to Southerners, a struggle of human passions, of liberty against despotism, and of the invasion of the sacred rights of home and commonwealth. As Sidney Lanier, himself then a young man just graduating at a Georgia college, said:

  • An afflatus of war was breathed upon us. Like a great wind it drew on, and blew upon men, women, and children. Its sound mingled with the serenity of the church organ, and arose with the earnest words of preachers praying for guidance in the matter. It thundered splendidly in the impassioned appeals of orators to the people, it whistled through the streets, it stole into the firesides, it clinked glasses in bar-rooms, it lifted the gray hairs of our wise men in conventions, it thrilled through the lectures in college halls, it rustled the thumbed book leaves of the schoolrooms, it arrayed the sanctity of a righteous cause in the brilliant trappings of military display, it offered tests to all allegiances and loyalties,—of church, of state; of private loves, public devotions; of personal consanguinities, of social ties.