One hundred and fifty years ago today on April 12, 1861 Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, leading newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln to call for 75,000 militia for the purpose of putting down the rebellion that had started with the succession of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in January of that year.
The rest as they say, is history.
Four years and countless lives and battles later, in February of 1865 the American flag was once again raised over Fort Sumter, followed in April by the surrender of General Lee’s forces at Appomattox, a victory that was dampened by the assassination of President Lincoln that same month.
The Civil War, which was not called the Civil War until many years later, spawned many books, stories, and poems in the years during and after the War between the States.
Many sad and beautiful poems were penned by people who were there. It’s hard to pick only one for this post, but after much deliberation I’ve selected “Little Giffen” to pay tribute to this month’s tragic Anniversary.
“Little Giffen” was written by Francis Orrery Ticknor, a poet and physician, about a young Confederate soldier who was severely wounded at the battle of Murfreesboro, miraculously nursed back to health by the good Doctor, only to be killed later in another battle.
Out of the focal and foremost fire, Out of the hospital walls as dire, Smitten of grape shot and gangrene (Eighteenth battle and he sixteen)— Spectre such as you seldom see, Little Giffen of Tennessee.
“Take him—and welcome!” the surgeons said, “Little the doctor can help the dead!” So we took him and brought him where The balm was sweet on the summer air; And we laid him down on a wholesome bed— Utter Lazarus, heel to head!
And we watched the war with bated breath— Skeleton Boy against skeleton Death. Months of torture, how many such! Weary weeks of the stick and crutch; And still a glint in the steel blue eye Told of a spirit that wouldn’t die.
And didn’t. Nay, more! in death’s despite The crippled skeleton learned to write. “Dear Mother,” at first of course; and then “Dear Captain,” inquiring about “the men.” Captain’s answer: “Of eighty and five, Giffen and I are left alive.”
Word of gloom from the war one day: “Johnston’s pressed at the front, they say!” Little Giffen was up and away; A tear—his first—as he bade good-bye, Dimmed the glint of his steel blue eye. “I’ll write, if spared!” There was news of the fight; But none of Giffen—he did not write.
I sometimes fancy that, were I king Of the princely knights of the Golden Ring, With the song of the minstrel in mine ear, And the tender legend that trembles here, I’d give the best, on his bended knee, The whitest soul of my chivalry, For Little Giffen of Tennesse.
Imagine being one so young and brave. Suffering such debilitating injuries at the tender age of sixteen, yet when the call came he was ready to go to battle again.
Imagine a sixteen year old having been in eighteen battles before he’d ever learned to read or write. And what was the second letter he penned with his newly acquired skill? A letter to his Captain asking about “the men”, his comrades in arms, only to find out that “Of eighty and five” only he and his Captain were left alive. Then even after fighting months to survive his crippling injuries, Skeleton Boy against skeleton Death, when word came “Johnston’s pressed at the front, they say!” Little Giffen was up and away.
Only this time the young Tennessean was not so fortunate in battle. There was news of the fight; But none of Giffen—he did not write.
Sadly Little Giffen was not the only child to be pulled into the War of the Rebellion. Another semi famous young soldier of the war was ten year old Johnny Clem, who ran away from home and joined the 22nd Michigan, later earning the nickname of “The Drummer Boy of Chickamauga” after wounding a Confederate officer with his sawed-off shotgun.
Just how young was the youngest soldier in the Civil War? No one knows for sure, but obviously it was far too young. Did these children even know what it was they were fighting for? What the war was about? Were they trying to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and brothers, or trying to forge their own path in the making of history?
What do you think the people of America 150 years ago would think of America today?