Any Woman to a Soldier?

Any Woman to a Soldier
by Grace Ellery Channing

The day you march away let the sun shine,
Let everything be blue and gold and fair,
Triumph of trumpets calling through bright air,
Flags slanting, flowers flaunting not a sign
That the unbearable is now to bear,
The day you march away.

The day you march away this I have sworn,
No matter what comes after, that shall be
Hid secretly between my soul and me
As women hide the unborn
You shall see brows like banners, lips that frame
Smiles, for the pride those lips have in your name.
You shall see soldiers in my eyes that day
That day, O soldier, when you march away.

The day you march away cannot I guess?
There will be ranks and ranks, all leading on
To one white face, and then the white face gone,
And nothing left but a gray emptiness
Blurred moving masses, faceless, featureless
The day you march away.

How I happened upon this poem is part of a convoluted story which isn’t very interesting, so I will just link to my blog which hints at the path my mind has hiked this morning.  Suffice to say, in reading period literature and thinking about Channing’s poem compared to my own “The Red Flagged House,” I began to wonder how women perceived women’s role in war and in 19th century society.

The women in “The Red Flagged House” nurse wounded and dying soldiers in their “home-turned-makeshift-hospital,” former dwellings marked by red flags rather than the traditional yellow flags.  While I have included a photo of the Stone House of Manassas Battlefield National Park in my book, and while soldiers did indeed hide in the house, suffer in the house, die in the house and were treated there, “No evidence exists that any surgical operations took place inside the house.” The voices of the women in the poem are  my synthesized perceptions of the medical and civilian women who worked in the field and of the women whose homes had been seized for the war cause.

In reading Lousia May Alcott who nursed the soldiers, and considering what we know about Civil War medicine, I cannot imagine most women found the experience palatable.  In her book Louisa May Alcott, Ruth MacDonald writes, “To any Victorian woman the sight of wounded men would have been shocking; the duty of undressing and scrubbing new casualties so that the extent of their injuries could be determined would have frightened other women to the extent that they would have fled back to the comfort of their homes”–that is, of course, unless their homes had been commandeered.

In an excellent paper, this unknown author from Northwest College writes, “Not only did these women suffer from the indignation and frustration of being treated so poorly by the male hospital personnel, they also had to deal with the shock and horror of the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital.”

Combine these perceptions with our understanding of Civil War medicine, injury and illness:

According to Dr Julius Bonello, MD, “Of the injuries during the war, 94 percent were due to gunshot wounds, 6 percent to artillery, and less than 1 percent were secondary to bayonet or saber. According to official records, 33 percent of all wounds involved the arms, 35.7 percent involved the legs, 18 percent involved the trunk and 10 percent involved the head….Three-quarters of all the operations performed during the Civil War were amputations. All limbs with open fractures were amputated, usually within the first 24 to 48 hours….Approximately 80,000 amputations were performed under chloroform or ether anesthesia….Of 174,000 Union army wounds of the extremities, almost 30,000 soldiers underwent amputation with an overall mortality rate of 26 percent….Of the nearly three million soldiers who participated in the conflict, approximately 618,000 died— two-thirds by disease, one-third in battle.”

Now let us return to the poem and its author, Grace Ellery (Channing) Stetson.  The author, “was born on December 27, 1862, in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of William Francis Channing and Mary (Tarr) Channing. Her grandfather was William Ellery Channing, the founder of the American Unitarian Church, and her father (WFC) was an inventor who patented a portable electro-magnetic telegraph (1877), an electric fire alarm, a ship railway, and other inventions.

“As an author, GECS was well regarded in her lifetime both for the didactic quality of her stories and as a stylist. In a critical essay in l905 the editor of Harper’s praised her ‘subtle disclosure of truth…in English that was not simply reproachless, it was satisfying…, having the positive charm of sureness and ease.’ William Dean Howells wrote (l908), ‘Your work I constantly admire in Harper’s where I can assure you that all Franklin Square unites with the public in valuing it.'”

If “Any Woman to a Soldier” reflects Channing’s personal perceptions, experiences and/or beliefs, I wonder that she seems to be somewhat removed from the women who served their soldiers in the Civil War.  Though she hints at the horror with a poetic prowess I could only hope to master, to me, the poem does not communicate true horror.

Then again, if Channing were to read my poems, she would most likely assert I bash readers over the head with the horror.  But Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Why Channing’s subtlety?

In his Nov. 13, 1851 journal entry, Henry David Thoreau writes of his encounter with Mary Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt.  According to Thoreau, “Miss Emerson expressed tonight a singular want of respect for her own sex, saying that they were frivolous almost without exceptions, that woman was the weaker vessel, etc.; that into whatever family she might go, she depended more upon the ‘clown’ for society than upon the lady of the house.  Men are more likely have opinions of their own.”

While more affluent women were reared to marry and avoid deep thought, to dabble in arts and literature but go no further, and while working women were the guts and bones of societal infrastructure, it galls me that the granddaughter of the great founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing–a woman who lived not long after the war, a woman of strength–did not seem to grasp how important it was to ensure the war ended and communicate the stark tragedy as other authors such as Alcott did.  Instead, Channing writes, “Let everything be blue and gold and fair/Triumph of trumpets calling through bright air.”

Would not such action on the part of fate instead encourage government to go to war, to tell their troops, “It is a good day to die,” to celebrate war as glorious when the diaries and letters of soldiers clearly indicate it was not?

Colonel William C. Oates, in the Southern Historical Papers of April 6th, 1878, writes, “My dead and wounded were nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.”

Alcott writes in Hospital Sketches, “In they came, some on stretchers, some in men’s arms, some feebly staggering along propped on rude crutches, and one lay stark and still with covered face, as a comrade gave his name to be recorded before they carried him away to the dead house.”

Compared to harsh reality, what does Channing’s ethereal poem say about the era, the women, society and the war–any war or any soldier or any woman?  Did the poem truly represent all women of the period?

I am not saying Channing had no ‘opinions of her own.’  Neither am I saying she was one bred only to flirt with thought.  Her daring to suggest women might not be as fond of their stations as society wanted to believe was a kind of bravery, though admittedly not in the brash way of Alcott.

But still, I wonder.  Are we, in putting on only brave faces for our loved ones, condoning war?  Perhaps this is too strong of a condemnation of us all, but I believe it is something we should think about, especially since we as modern women have more power to protest that which takes our husbands, sons, daughters and loved ones away.  And while I certainly do not endorse haranguing our soldiers or wishing them pain (in fact, I do believe we should love them to tears), and while I believe our freedom necessitates sacrifice, I do endorse haranguing our government and the world at large, something the women of the 19th century could not do.

Do we really need war?  Even if so, at this moment when humanity is not as evolved as it should be, we must never stop searching for an alternative.

My women in “The Red Flagged House” call themselves “we women who don’t want war.”  Can we say the same for ourselves?  And should we consider more than the foreign wars where our men and women fight for us?  What about our domestic wars, our cultural wars, those which take place on our own soil just as the Civil War did?

Those are the questions and thoughts I had as I wrote this book, though I admit my knowledge of history is still sorely lacking and I continue to study in order to understand even my own work.

Still, I hope “The Red Flagged House” presents a different perspective and that it communicates something vital, that it encourages readers to ask the questions.  I suspect it does.

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