Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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War Poetry of the South

Poetry | Richardson & Company | 1866

           In his study of the role of guerilla warfare in the Civil War, historian Daniel E. Sutherland observes that Southern authors, including William Gilmore Simms, played a significant role in promoting and advancing guerilla tactics as both a patriotic duty and a means of achieving victory; Sutherland notes that Simms had explicitly “promoted and sanctified partisan warfare.”[1]  While the author’s works about Revolutionary War figures like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion were certainly repurposed and newly understood in the context of the Civil War, Simms wrote new poetry like “The Border Ranger,” and reworked old poems, like “In Memory of Italian Patriots,” now republished as “The Guerrilla Martyrs,” to “rally the Confederacy’s guerilla defenders.”[2]  In the aftermath of the Civil War, Simms began to collect southern poems that expressed the ardent, fiery, and unapologetic sectional patriotism exemplified by guerrilla warriors; this collection, which featured many of the well-known poets of the day including several of Simms’s own poetic works, was published in 1866 by Richardson and Company of New York as War Poetry of the South.

           In the December 15, 1865 edition of the Simms-edited Daily South Carolinian, the South’s premier man of letters announced a plan to collect and publish poems related to the southern experience of the Civil War, and solicited manuscripts to be submitted for this project.[3]  This plan caught the attention of at least one northern publisher.  In a February 1866 letter to E. A. Duyckinck, Simms noted that New York publisher “Mr. [Charles Benjamin] Richardson proposes for the Southern Poetry of the War,” asking his friend for advice on whether or not to take Richardson up on this offer.[4]  In another letter to Duyckinck written a month later, Simms stated that “I am very rapidly accumulating the war poetry of the South.  It comes in to me daily, and much of it will take high rank.”[5]  Simms traveled to New York that summer to oversee the editing and publication of War Poetry, which ultimately was issued sometime in the latter part of 1866.[6]

           The poems collected in War Poetry of the South are widely variable in their quality, ranging from some of the estimable Henry Timrod’s best poetry (“Ehtnogenesis,” “The Cotton Boll”) to melodramatic encomia of Confederate heroism.  Several of Simms’s contributed poems are attributed to the author by name, while many more are either left anonymous or pseudonymous.  With this latter group, authorship is attributed to either the pseudonym Simms originally used, or to the newspaper in which the poem initially appeared.  Simms gave no explanation for his choices, and scholars have yet to explore this question sufficiently.  Recent scholarship has, however, begun to investigate the thinking behind Simms’s editorial process.  Sean R. Busick argues that “[a]fter the War, Simms still believed that writing about his section of the country was a valuable contribution to the creation of a national literature,” as he had during his support of the “Young America” movement.[7]  War Poetry thus represented an attempt by Simms to make southern sentiments and experiences of the Civil War a part of the overall national conversation and memory.  Interestingly, what Simms chose to exclude from War Poetry suggests that those aspects of the South’s wartime experience he wished to insert into the national consciousness were those that promoted the fiery sectional patriotism that Sutherland argues was exemplified by the South’s guerrilla partisans; this, then, is “Lost Cause” poetry.  Johanna Shields argues that Simms under-represented “reluctant but loyal Confederates” like Alexander Meek and William Russell Smith, highly-regarded and popular Southern poets of the time who “regretted secession and the onslaught of the Civil War” and thus “did not, at [the War’s] end, compose poetry commemorating a just or righteous cause.”[8]

           War Poetry of the South was, unsurprisingly, warmly reviewed throughout the South.  However, a significant dissent appeared in the New Orleans Crescent Monthly in January 1867.  Here, Simms is “criticized for showing ‘too much Palmetto partiality,’ for using ‘ambiguous and inelegant’ expressions in his preface, for publishing many poems which ‘might very well have remained unpublished,’ for inaccurately assigning the authorship of some poems, and for including some poems which are neither American nor about the Confederate War.”[9]  The accusations of Simms’s mistakes and errors in judgment here complement the recent scholarship of Shields and Busick., Simms’s editorial work in putting together this volume, thus, offers a fruitful site of critical inquiry, especially for a volume that has, as Busick notes, remained in “relative obscurity” almost since its publication.[10]

           The 1866 edition of War Poetry of the South features plain green boards; front features gilt stamp of Simms's signature.  Green spine features ornate gilt stamp, all surrounded by a frame:  [stylized palm tree-frame] WAR | POETRY | of the | SOUTH | [close stylized palm tree-frame] | SIMMS | [abstract arrowhead-type emblem] | [ornate emblem with flame above stack of books, resting on scroll, with two quills crossing through scroll's bottom]  The book’s title page features WAR POETRY | OF | THE SOUTH. | EDITED BY | WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS, LL.D. | [image of broken column with laurel wreath hanging on it, harp and sword on ground in front of column] | NEW YORK: | RICHARDSON & COMPANY, | 540 BROADWAY. | 1866.


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Daniel E. Sutherland, A Savage Conflict:  The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 271. 

[2] Ibid., 84-185.

[3] Letters, 4:538n.

[4] Ibid., 4:536.

[5] Ibid., 4:542.

[6] Simms’s time and purpose in New York are evidenced by letters like that of June 24, 1866 to William Gilmore Simms, Jr.; see Letters, 4:570.  Exactly when War Poetry of the South was published is unclear; the editors of Simms’s letters note that “We have been unable to discover the exact date of issuance…The earliest review of the volume which we have located is that in the Round Table, IV (Nov. 10, 1866), 244” (Letters 4:622n).  James B. Meriwether, in a note published in the Simms Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, states that “the Harvard copy was inscribed 6 November 1866, and it was deposited at the Library of Congress 7 November.” (32)  Thus, while the exact date or month of publication is unknown, late October or early November 1866 seems feasible.

[7] Sean R. Busick, “War Poetry of the South:  Notes Towards a Reconsideration,” The Simms Review 17, nos. 1/2 (2009): 51. 

[8] Johanna Shields, “Delusion’s Carnival of Death: A Different War Poetry from the South,” William Gilmore Simms’s Unfinished Civil War: Consequences for a Southern Man of Letters, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013).  Pagination yet to be determined.

[9] Letters, 4:622n.

[10] Busick, “War Poetry,” 49.