Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Memories of USS Cumberland (Part 2 of 3): The Poets

By William Clarkson
HRNM Educator

In part 1 of our series about the sinking of USS Cumberland during the Battle of Hampton Roads, we looked at how the public perceived the loss of Cumberland in the accounts of newspapers, witnesses, and participants. Today, we will explore how writers of the day retold the event in poetry. In addition to many other poets, literary titans Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Herman Melville produced works about USS Cumberland. The poetry written soon after the battle established the well-known narrative. However, while a few names become synonymous with brave words and actions, every work celebrates the courage and commitment of Cumberland’s crew and seeks to preserve their deeds for future generations. Links will be provided at the end to the full texts of each of the three poems discussed.
Portraits of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (left) and Herman Melville c. 1860 (Library of Congress)
It is no surprise that the two most famous poets to pen works about the struggle between Cumberland and Virginia are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Herman Melville. In fact, both authors titled their pieces “The Cumberland.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” was first published in the December 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. While Longfellow wrote many pieces about the sea, ships, and sailing, he never served aboard a naval vessel. His personal experience of fighting vessels came from his childhood and his proximity to the September 5, 1813, battle between USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer off the coast of Portland, Maine, where he and his family were living at the time. He later penned a poem recounting the event, titled “My Lost Youth.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” is written from the point of view of a Sailor aboard the ship during the battle. This anonymous Sailor recounts Virginia’s approach up the Elizabeth River with its “feather of snow-white smoke… to try the force of our ribs of oak.” After receiving shots from Virginia, Cumberland “sen[t] her straight defiance back in a full broadside!” The fire from Cumberland’s guns, while able to damage a few of Virginia’s cannons, lifeboats, and smokestack, is unable to penetrate the “iron scale of the monster’s hide.” At this moment, in Longfellow’s telling, a Sailor aboard Virginia demands Cumberland’s surrender:

"Strike your flag!" the rebel cries,
In his arrogant old plantation strain.
"Never!" our gallant Morris replies;
"It is better to sink than to yield!"
And the whole air pealed
With the cheers of our men.

This action becomes a defining moment of the engagement. First, it signals the Cumberland crew’s intent to continue fighting regardless of the circumstances, becoming a rallying cry for Union forces as well as the public. Second, it places Lieutenant George Morris as the central hero in the tale, something that is mirrored in some of the articles and recollections in part 1 of this series, as well as in poetry, song, and prose. Morris was acting commander of the vessel since Cumberland’s captain, William Radford, was not aboard when the battle commenced. Longfellow describes Virginia ramming Cumberland, and Cumberland’s subsequent sinking, continuing to fire until the decks were submerged. The scene is completed with the image of Cumberland’s flag still flying the following morning on the mast, visible above the water. He states, “Every waft of the air was a whisper of prayer, or a dirge for the dead.” Longfellow’s “Cumberland” was well received publicly, and in 1863 composer Francis Boott put his words to music.
Cover of F. Bootts' musical arrangement of Longfellow’s “The Cumberland,” 1863. (Library of Congress)
In contrast, Herman Melville’s “The Cumberland” was first published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in March 1866, four years after the battle. Its publication was part of a series of Civil War poems by Melville published in Harper’s as a leadup to the release of his collection of poems titled Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War. Melville, unlike Longfellow, served over a year in the US Navy, aboard USS United States from 1843 to 1844 (one of the first six frigates authorized by the US Congress in 1794). Where Longfellow and others recount the events and deeds of the battle, Melville uses his poem to eulogize and memorialize USS Cumberland and its crew. He begins by declaring, “Some names there are of telling sound, whose vowelled syllables free are pledge that they shall ever live renowned,” immediately identifying Cumberland as worthy of remembrance. To aid in imprinting the name Cumberland into his reader’s mind, each stanza ends with a sensational description of saying the ship’s name, feeling it, “flowing, rolling on the tongue.” As with other poetry about the battle, Melville invokes the image of Cumberland’s flag still visible and flying on the mast, a symbol for defiance, and states, “Your flag and flag-staff shall in story stand,” as the “dead unconquerable manned the Cumberland.” While Melville is now considered one of the United States’ most celebrated poets, his book Battle-Pieces, which contains “The Cumberland,” only sold 496 of the 1,200 copies printed in the 10 years after its publication. Regardless, the existence of the poem, and the fact that Melville was moved enough by the events of March 8th, 1862, to pen the work four years later, is a testament to the effect the actions of Cumberland’s crew had on the popular consciousness.
Portrait of George Boker, author and later US Diplomat, c. 1860. (Library of Congress)
Somewhat less well-known today, George Boker also wrote a poem titled, “On Board the Cumberland,” which like Longfellow’s verse recounts the events of the battle from a crewmember’s perspective. The poem was published in Boker’s book, Poems of the War, in 1864. Throughout the American Civil War, George Boker was a staunch Unionist and was a foundational member of the Union League Club, supporting the war effort with his writing. During the presidency of Ulysses Grant, he was appointed as a diplomat to the Ottoman Empire, and later served as a representative to the Russian Empire. Boker’s poem focuses on the heroism of acting commander Lt. Morris. He has Morris giving an inspirational speech to the crew as CSS Virginia approached. In this lyrical account of Morris appealing to the crew, Boker ascribes him with great eloquence, stating:

"Remember, boys, this flag of ours
Has seldom left its place;
And where it falls, the deck it strikes
Is covered with disgrace.

"I ask but this: or sink or swim,
Or live or nobly die,
My last sight upon earth may be
To see that ensign fly!"

This moment of foreshadowing primes the reader for the now famous image of Cumberland’s flag still raised off its sunken wreck, having not surrendered even to the last. In his poem, Boker does something that many other works do not; he recounts the actions of other individuals made famous by the battle, most notably future Rear Admiral Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. and Acting Master (later Lieutenant Commander) William Pritchard Randall. To Selfridge, Boker attributes the command to abandon ship, but only once the sinking was imminent, and so that the crew may survive to continue the fight, saying, “’Up to the spar-deck! Save yourselves!’ Cried Selfridge. ‘Up, my men! God grant that some of us may live to fight yon ship again!’" While the crew prepared to leave Cumberland, Boker writes, “We reached the deck. Here Randall stood: ‘Another turn, men – So!’ Calmly he aimed his pivot-gun; ‘Now, Tennery, let her go!’” With this final shot from USS Cumberland, Boker describes the ship finally sinking, coming once more to the image of Cumberland’s flag remaining to wave over the wreck as a “sign that we who live may claim the peerage of the brave; a monument, that needs no scroll, for those beneath the wave!” The inclusion of these men in the poem presents a slightly different narrative than so many other works. While Morris is still the intrepid commander, intent on fighting, regardless of the odds, introducing others into the work reminds the reader that it was actions of the entire crew that fueled the public’s imagination and inspired so many authors to write about this event.
An illustration that accompanies Boker’s “On Board the Cumberland,” depicting a soldier pointing out Cumberland’s mast and flag, still visible, to a rescued Sailor. (A Selection of War Lyrics, by Felix Darley and James Gregory, 1864)
The narrative of “brave Morris” and Cumberland’s struggle, stuck in the public consciousness well after the war, with efforts to recognize and reward Cumberland’s crewmembers led by authors and citizens, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and members of Congress, continued well into the 1870s and‘80s. While we have seen three poets and their interpretations of the battle’s aftermath, many more were produced by authors of various backgrounds and perspectives. Many extol Morris as a singular hero, but there are a few, like Boker, that include the deeds of a wider variety of individuals. What remains true in every case is the admiration and praise from the authors for the crew of USS Cumberland and their desire to preserve this crew’s actions in writing for future generations. Poetry wasn’t the only creative endeavor to give voice to Cumberland’s story. In part 3 of this series, we will look at songs about Cumberland and the Battle of Hampton Roads, and how they passed through time into the present day.

Poem Links:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Cumberland,” 1862

Herman Melville’s “The Cumberland,” 1866

George Henry Boker’s “On Board the Cumberland,” c. 1864

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