Melville’s McClellan

The Victor of Antietam

by Herman Melville

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,
McClellan —
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 ghastly 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,
McClellan —
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!
McClellan, Only Antietam could atone.

You fought in the front (an evil day,
McClellan) —
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 swell;
With you they shook dread Stonewall’s spell;
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,
McClellan —
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.

5 thoughts on “Melville’s McClellan

  1. neukomment May 26, 2012 / 2:16 pm

    “And forth you rode upon a blasted way,
    Arrayed Pope’s rout, and routed Lee’s array,

    A well wrought line there Mr. Melville!

  2. wgdavis May 26, 2012 / 2:41 pm

    Well, it was seen as a major victory at the time. Indeed, it had not been subjected to the inspection history has given it until many years later, though Lincoln apparently knew.

    On the other hand, Battle Pieces was not seen as a critical success then. Perhaps it was his paean to McClellan that had the critics more or less silent [possibly in political protest]. Certainly, Whitman enjoyed much more success with his Civil War writings, Oh Captain! My Captain rings with the words and context of the times much more closely than The Victor of Antietam. Still, Melville even admits the flaws Mac had:

    “Your medalled soldiers love you well,
    …With you in shame or fame they dwell,
    Antietam-braves a brave can tell.”

    • John Foskett May 27, 2012 / 8:09 am

      Nor was it a financial success. Overlooked at times is the fact that Melville’s family were die-hard Democrats. Although Herman thought slavery was an evil, he also ardently disliked abolitionists. I’d be curious about his vote in the ’64 election. That could account for his artfully-stated vision of Antietam which doesn’t square with the facts. “Your tent was choked with captured flags that day”???? Well, one might say that it should have been – or maybe the next day (the 18th….)

  3. S. Thomas Summers May 30, 2012 / 10:09 am

    Civil War poetry…love it. Anaphora Literary Press just released my book, Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War. You might like it. In it, poem by poem, Private McGraw, each poem’s speaker, shares with us his journey through the landscapes of the American Civil War. McGraw, a Confederate soldier and racist, steps into the War in order to assure that slavery will exist long enough for him to purchase a slave with hopes to impress his love, Martha. As McGraw treks through the blood and mire, experiencing both triumph and tragedy, he begins to transform into a man of peace and compassion – a man who no longer sees a black man or a white man; he simply sees a man – a fellow, a brother.

    Anyway, I am happy to have discovered your site. I’ll return.

    All the best.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s