“Not a word in praise of General Berry’s services, but half a column laudatory of Stonewall Jackson can be found in the Bath Courier,” a newspaper reader complained on May 23, 1863, in a letter to the Bangor, Maine, Whig & Courier. He was referring to Maj. Gen. Hiram Berry, commanding a division of the Federal III Corps, killed during the battle of Chancellorsville on May 3 of that year—the day after Jackson was mortally wounded at the same battle.
A former mayor of Rockland, Maine, Berry was a favored son of the state and a close friend of army commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. He was shot while shuttling between two bodies of his forces separated by the Orange Plank Road. Rather than send a courier with orders, he went himself and was hit by a bullet while on the exposed road.
“General Berry gave his life to maintain our free Republican institutions, and died a patriot,” the newspaper reader continued. “Jackson gave his life to trample under foot the Stars, Stripes, and Freedom, and establish the stars, bars, and slavery.”
I’m not sure what the writer hoped to accomplish by writing to a Bangor newspaper about the coverage of a paper from Bath. Bangor is in central Maine while Bath is in the state’s lower midcoast region. Rockland, Berry’s hometown and also along the coast, falls between them. That the Whig & Courier printed the complaint suggests to me that the papers were of opposite political leanings and the Bangor editors were pleased to take a jab under the auspice of a letter to the editor.
In the spirit of setting things right for the aggrieved reader, here are two “Hiram Berry memorial death poems” that appeared in the Whig & Courier. The first appeared on May 20, 1863, on page 2 and the second appeared on May 28, 1863, also on page 2. I write a lot on this blog about Stonewall Jackson, so here’s something about Hiram Berry.
By David Barker.
On, wipe out the tears that bedim—
What! Standing and weeping for him!
The soldier,—why this is not he
In the long, narrow box that you see.
He lives on, just the same as before,—
This is only the blowse that he wore.—
That he were mid the din and the strife,
In the terrible battle of life.
Though death in his horrible raid,
Has stolen the sheath from his blade,
Yet that blade shall be witnessed again
In the fight, o’er the ranks of his men.
Then dry up the tears that bedim.
Not standing and weeping for him,—
The warrior—for this is not he
In the long, narrow box that you see.
* * *
By. H. G. R.
Fold his country’s scared colors
O’er his cold and lifeless breast,
And, in glory’s pall enshrouded,
Lay our hero down to rest.
Let the sobs that struggle upward
From a nation’s bosom, tell
To that nation’s brave defenders,
Who have fought so long and well—
Tears of grief are those we’re shedding
Upon Berry’s tomb, to day;
Not desponding, fearful, doubting,
O’er the sorrows in our way.
We have hearts as true and loyal,
We have arms as strong in fight,
While the Pine Tree State is foremost
In the struggle for the right.
And those brave and gallant comrades
Who have loved that hero well,
Whose kisses on his dying lips
Their love and homage tell,
Whose muttered oath of vengeance
O’er their leader’s gory bed,
Spoke not of fears and doubts
Above the great and honored dead—
Brave men and true! We charge you,
By him, now cold and low—
By a country’s grief, a widow’s tears,
And a stricken orphan’s woe—
Be true, be brave and hopeful,
Stand like freeman in the fight,
Flinch not in the hour of danger,
We ye battle for the right.
And when, in future years, we tell
Our babes how Berry fell,
And gave his precious blood, for her
He loved so well—
God grant, that, while with tearful eye
We tell the mournful tale,
Victorious Freedom’s song of joy
Shall mingle with the wail.
* * *
If you scroll back up and look at Berry’s facial expression, it’s almost as if he knows someone is going to write poems like this to him and he’s thinking, “Don’t. Not another one.”
I pass these along because memorial death poems, as an art form, are fascinating to me in the same way a car crash is: when you see them, you can’t not look, even though all you’re seeing is a twisted wreck. I find these sorts of poems maudlin and trite, yet also sincere in their ham-fisted way. (Check out this series of memorial poems about Ulysses S. Grant I passed along back in 2017.)