Ball’s Bluff: “Has Sparta More?”

“Cannonading on the Potomac” by Alfred W. Thompson

Recently, I came across some poems written about the Battle of Ball’s Bluff which was fought on October 21, 1861. This one was penned by a Union general from Massachusetts, Frederick Lander, and I’ve included a few historical notes after the original poem.

BALLS BLUFF

Aye, deem us proud, for we are more
Than proud of all our mighty dead;
Proud of the bleak and rock-bound shore,
A crowned oppressor cannot tread.

Proud of each rock, and wood, and glen;
Of every river, lake and plain;
Proud of the calm and earnest men
Who claim the right and the will to reign.

Proud of the men who gave us birth,
Who battled with the stormy wave
To sweep the red man from the earth,
And build their homes upon their grave.

Proud of the holy summer morn
They traced in blood upon its sod;
The rights of freemen yet unborn;
Proud of their language and their God.

Proud that beneath our proudest dome
And round the cottage-cradled hearth
There is a welcome and a home
For every stricken race on earth.

Proud that yon slowly sinking sun
Saw drowning lips grow white in prayer,
O’er such brief acts of duty done,
As honor gathers from despair.

Pride, it is our watchword; “clear the boats”
“Holmes, Putnam, Bartlett, Peirson-Here”
And while this crazy wherry floats
“Let’s save our wounded”, cries Revere.

Old State — some souls are rudely sped —
This record for thy Twentieth Corps —
Imprisoned, wounded, dying, dead,
It only asks, “Has Sparta more?”

The “Old State” and Twentieth Corps references the 20th Massachusetts Regiment which was nicknamed “The Harvard Regiment” since so many of the original recruits had left or recently graduated from that university. The regiment was decimated at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff during the fight and while struggling to recross the river.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. fought with the 20th Massachusetts and wrote and spoke extensively after the war.

John Chandler Putnam fell as one of the first wounded at Ball’s Bluff. After recovering from his arm amputation at a field hospital, Putnam tried to return to the regiment but eventually had to return to Boston where he active recruited new soldiers.

William Francis Bartlett was a captain at the time of Ball’s Bluff, but later rose to the rank of major general. Wounded numerous times, he returned to the field after each injury. Bartlett served with the 20th Massachusetts until his first wounding in April 1862 and then moved to other commands, though he stayed in contact with old friends in the original regiment.

Charles Lawrence Pierson served as a first lieutenant and the regiment’s adjutant. He was captured during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff.

Paul Joseph Revere graduated from Harvard in 1852, graduating bottom of his class. He was the grandson of Paul Revere and became a beloved officer of the regiment, serving until his death at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

As for the poem’s ending question, Sparta had more. Nearly 160,000 soldiers rallied from Massachusetts for the Union cause during the course of the war. In 1861, Ball’s Bluff was just the beginning of the accounts, legends, casualties, and moments of patriotic pride for the Harvard Regiment and the Bay State.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to Ball’s Bluff: “Has Sparta More?”

  1. Lyle Smith says:

    Frederick Lander, another great what if of the Civil War. Maybe the greatest?

  2. Todd Berkoff says:

    One correction. The reference to Putnam is to Lt. William Lowell Putnam, who was killed at Balls Bluff. Someone has created a nice findagrave page for him, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/24779342/william-lowell-putnam

  3. Meg Groeling says:

    Let us not forget Willy Lincoln’s tribute to Col. Baker:

    Dear Sir:

    I enclose you my first attempt at poetry.

    Yours truly,
    William W. Lincoln

    There was no patriot like Baker,
    So noble and so true;
    He fell as a soldier on the field,
    His face to the sky of blue.

    His voice is silent in the hall,
    Which oft his presence grac’d.
    No more he’ll hear the loud acclaim
    Which rang from place to place.

    No squeamish notions filled his breast,
    The Union was his theme;
    ‘No surrender and no compromise,’
    His day-thought and night’s dream.

    His Country has her part to play,
    To’rd those he has left behind;
    His widow and his children all,
    She must always keep in mind.

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