McClellan poetry: Melville's paean

SATURDAY | After a quiet period of almost 10 years, Herman Melville was moved, by the fall of Richmond, to pen his poetic impressions of the war into a book. He is said to have written to please himself mainly; the reviews were bad and only recently has his poetry been regarded as "epic" and comparable to Whitman's.

Melville was a certain kind of conservative, drawn to the other outstanding conservative intellectual in letters at that time, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and sympathetic, perhaps, to McClellan. If not drawn to his politics per se, Melville might have at least noticed the literary quality of the tragedy of his wartime career.

Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War remembered Ball's Bluff, Malvern Hill, and emphatically Antietam. Despite the clamor against McClellan, Antietam was not, even by 1865, demoted to a draw in popular imagination, nor was McClellan in Melville's view, guilty of giving up a total annihilating victory against Robert E. Lee.

In his various Battle Pieces, there is a persistent and deep melancholy. "The Victor of Antietam" is excepted, being something like a paean. It is the only piece in his collection devoted to a victorious general, the "unprosperously heroic" McClellan.

The Victor of Antietam

When tempest winnowed grain from bran;
And men were looking for a man,
Authority called you to the van,
Along the line the plaudit ran,
As later when Antietam's cheers began.

Through storm-cloud and eclipse must move
Each Cause and Man, dear to the stars and Jove;
Nor always can the wisest tell
Deferred fulfillment from the hopeless knell—
The struggler from the floundering ne'er-do-well.
A pall-cloth on the Seven Days fell,
Unprosperously heroical!
Who could Antietam's wreath foretell?

Authority called you; then, in mist
And loom of jeopardy – dismissed.
But staring peril soon appalled;
You, the Discarded, she recalled—
Recalled you, nor endured delay;
And forth you rode upon a blasted way,
Arrayed Pope's rout, and routed Lee's array,
Your tent was choked with captured flags that day,
Antietam was a telling fray.

Recalled you; and she heard your drum
Advancing through the glastly gloom.
You manned the wall, you propped the Dome,
You stormed the powerful stormer home,
Antietam's cannon long shall boom.

At Alexandria, left alone,
Your veterans sent from you, and thrown
To fields and fortunes all unknown—
What thoughts were yours, revealed to none,
While faithful still you labored on—
Hearing the far Manassas gun!
Only Antietam could atone.

You fought in the front (an evil day,
The fore-front of the first assay;
The Cause went sounding, groped its way;
the leadsmen quarrelled in the bay;
Quills thwarted swords; divided sway;
The rebel flushed in his lusty May:
You did your best, as in you lay,
Antietam's sun-burst sheds a ray.

Your medalled soldiers love you well,
Name your name, their true hearts s well;
With you they shook dread Stonewall's spell, [6]
With you they braved the blended yell
Of rebel and maligner fell;
With you in shame or fame they dwell,
Antietam-braves a brave can tell.

And when your comrades (now so few,
Such ravage in deep files they rue)
Meet round the board, and sadly view
The empty places; tribute due
They render to the dead – and you!
Absent and silent o'er the blue;
The one-armed lift the wine to you,
And great Antietam's cheers renew.