A Poetic Find: Researching for Wreaths Across America Fundraiser

Jon Tracey and I are busily at work compiling and comparing our research files about Winchester National Cemetery and the battle of New Market for ECW’s fundraiser in support of Wreaths Across America. (You can read about some of Jon’s research here.) One of my favorite regiments in the Union battle line at New Market is the 34th Massachusetts, and I “claimed” the regiment for one of my sections of the programs in the early phases of preparation and division of topics.

The 34th has an entertaining and detailed regimental history and became a noted regiment in Shenandoah Valley combat. Colonel George D. Wells and Lieutenant Colonel William S. Lincoln both fought at New Market, and Wells was one of those beloved leaders who was remembered long after his death at Cedar Creek in October 1864. In fact, when veterans of the 34th Massachusetts returned to the Shenandoah Valley to place a monument in Winchester National Cemetery, they put a bust of Colonel Wells on top of the granite pillar.

During the battle of New Market, the regiment formed part of the Union line along the Bushong farm fields. They were roughly across from the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets, on the opposite side of the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The 34th’s charge into the open field became uncoordinated with other Union regiments, and Colonel Wells had to seize the colorbearer and physically hold him back to halt the regiment’s charge toward worse disaster!

34th Massachusetts Monument in Winchester National Cemetery (Bierle, 2023)

There are a lot of excellent accounts about this regiment and stories of courage from the junior officers and men in the ranks which I’ve been researching and will share during the battlefield tour and virtual program.

This morning, though, I want to share some poetry written and published by William H. Clark in 1890. Several pieces in his poetry collection have war topics and can be traced to his regiments experiences in the Shenandoah Valley. He specifically included a poem about the battle of New Market. When I first found this poem, it surprised me. Until then, most of the limited poetry about New Market was by southerners and mostly focused on the heroics of the Virginia Military Institute Cadets. Here, a veteran of the 34th Massachusetts shared his versed memories about the New Market campaign:

Before New Market

The weary week nigh passed — its closing day —
A day of humid air and murky clouds,
A day of countermarch and weary steps,
A hurried snatching of refreshment light;
And in its waning hours all sounds are stilled.
Hushed, as the dying cadence of a dream.
Beyond, the foe, in heavy columns massed.
Rests till the morn.

Now to the startled ear
(As when a lurid flash from threatening clouds
Preludes the storm that heavy, darkening hangs)
Comes the sharp rattle of the musketry.
And springing to our feet, with eager look.
We wait the word —

But quiet soon returns.
The day has dawned at last, a Sabbath morn.
But not as ‘mid our fair New England scenes.
Where shines the sun, where chimes the sweet-toned bell,
Where peace enveils the home, and nothing mars
Save the rude echoes from these Southern fields;
Or, even now, perchance, “the vacant chair.”
On those dark, fateful hours, when Nature’s frown
Of clouds, and frequent tears of chilling rain
Bespoke her strong abhorrence of the scene,
The veil may fall.

Battle of Newmarket, W. Va., Sunday, May 15, 1864.

Detail from the Massachusetts State Monument in Winchester National Cemetery. (Bierle, 2023)

Clark’s poetry ends with the hint that all will not be well or like a peaceful New England scene. The battle of New Market put the 34th Massachusetts to the test, and by the end of the fight 218 soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing. Where the survivors laid their fallen to final rest and how they remembered New Market are some of the stories to explore along with the traditional battle narrative.

Please consider joining us at New Market battlefield for an in-person tour or through the virtual history program to learn some of stories of individual soldiers and their regiments. To learn more, make a donation, or register for the tour/program, please visit: https://emergingcivilwar.com/ecw_event/2023-wreaths/ 

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

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