The other day, one of my students left me a present in my campus mailbox. He gave me a first-edition copy of The Picket Line, an 1890 G.A.R.-published collection of Civil War-related short stories. The title page calls it a “collection of war anecdotes, both grave and gay.” Interestingly, it has a lengthy section consisting of un-confirmable Abraham Lincoln jokes, but that’s not the point of this post.
In perusing my new gift, I bumped into a poem entitled, “A Rainy Day in Camp.” It’s rather long, but I found it thought-provoking. It is written from the perspective of a Union soldier who is sitting in camp on a rainy day. As he relaxes amid the day’s dreariness, he contemplates his mortality. In reading the poem, you will notice how the soldier admits that he is not a brave man. Often, he declares, he skulks in the rear. But in contemplating his devotion to the cause, the unnamed soldier finds cheer in the fact that God will not forget him—or any of the other less-than-courageous men—when the day of reckoning comes. God, he surmises, will not get “impatient with a raw recruit like me,” and when the day of victory comes, God will share it with “all His Volunteers.” It’s a complex poem to be sure, heavily religious, but it captures some of the raw, multifaceted emotion that went through the minds of Union soldiers on the eve of battle. Here is the poem in full:
It’s a cheerless, lonesome evening,
When the soaking, sodden ground
Will not echo to the footfall
Of the sentinel’s dull round.
God’s blue star-spangled banner
To-night is not unfurled ;
Surely He has not deserted
This weary, warring world.
I peer into the darkness,
And the crowding fancies come:
The night wind, blowing northward,
Carries all my heart toward home.
For I ’listed in this army
Not exactly to my mind;
But my country called for helpers,
And I couldn't stay behind.
So, I’ve had a sight of drilling,
And have roughed it many ways,
And death has nearly had me ;—
Yet I think the service pays.
It’s a blessed sort of feeling-—
Whether you live or die—
You helped your country in her need,
And fought right loyally.
But I can’t help thinking sometimes,
When a wet day’s leisure comes,
And I hear the old home voices
Talking louder than the drums,—
And the far, familiar faces
Peep in at my tent door,
And the little children’s footsteps
Go pit-pat on the floor,—
I can’t help thinking, somehow,
Of all the parson reads
About that other soldier-life
Which every true man leads.
And wife, soft-hearted creature,
Seems a-saying in my ear,
‘I’d rather have you in those ranks
Than to see you brigadier.’
I call myself a brave one,
But in my heart I lie!
For my country, and her honor,
I am fiercely free to die;
But when the Lord, who bought me,
Asks for my service here
To ‘fight the good fight’ faithfully,
I’m skulking in the rear.
And yet I know this Captain
All love and care to be:
He would never get impatient
With a raw recruit like me.
And I know He’d not forget me;
When the day of peace appears,
I should share with Him the victory
Of all His volunteers.
And it’s kind of cheerful, thinking,
Beside the dull tent fire,
About that big promotion,
When He says, “Come up higher.”
And though it’s dismal—rainy—
Even now, with thoughts of Him,
Camp life looks extra cheery,
And death a deal less grim.
For I seem to see Him waiting,
Where a gathered heaven greets
A great victorious army,
Marching up the golden streets.
And I hear Him read the roll-call,
And my heart is all a-flame,
When the dear, recording angel
Writes down my happy name !
—But my fire is dead white ashes,
And the tent is chilling cold,
And I’m playing win the battle,
When I’ve never been enrolled !
Naturally, I was curious about the author, who was not a soldier at all, but a well-educated New York woman. The Picket Line authors did not offer me much help. That is, they provided the name of the author’s husband, listing her as “Mrs. Robert Shaw Howland.” Thankfully, it didn’t take me much time to identify the author of “A Rainy Day in Camp” as Mary Elizabeth Woolsey Howland of Astoria, New York, the third-eldest daughter of Charles W. Woolsey, Sr. and Jane E. Newton Woolsey, a prominent sugar-refiner and his abolitionist wife. If you’re at all interested in Civil War women, the Woolsey family is probably well-known to you. The socially-active Woolseys consisted of mother, father, seven daughters, and one son. All seven daughters participated in the Civil War in some way, either as nurses, relief agents, or volunteers for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
It’s not entirely clear when Mary Woolsey Howland completed “A Rainy Day in Camp,” but she seems to have finished it sometime in the spring of 1862. She was friends with Charles Dana, an editor of the New York Tribune, and after the Woolsey family privately printed the nineteen-stanza poem as a leaflet, Howland sent it to the Tribune and to another newspaper, the Independent. Both papers published her poem in late-March, and it made the rounds in other newspapers throughout the month of April.
Most fascinatingly, in my opinion, Mary Woolsey Howland published “A Rainy Day in Camp” anonymously, and newspapers generally assumed that the poem had been written by a soldier, which gave a sense of authenticity to it. (It was not until after the war that the Woolsey family revealed her as the poem’s true author.)
As the Civil War transpired, only close friends of the family knew the truth. They communicated to Howland their opinion that the poem was popular in U.S. Army hospitals, and they repeatedly asked the Woolsey family for more leaflets. For instance, on April 5, 1862, Chaplain Henry H. Hopkins of the 120th New York, who was serving in an army hospital in Alexandria, wrote to Eliza Woolsey (one of Mary’s younger sisters), remarking on the helpfulness of the poem. “Be sure to read the Rainy Day in Camp,” he told her. “Did I tell you I read it after each of my services last Sabbath? and I think that it did more good than all that went before it. The men listened in perfect quiet. I feel sure that if I could have looked up myself, I should have seen tears in the eyes of more than one who had been ‘skulking in the rear’.”
It is interesting, indeed, that a thirty-year-old woman could fashion such a poignant view of soldiers and death. Mary Woolsey Howland had no sons, only four daughters. She had a younger brother, Charles, who later served in the war, but as of spring 1862, he had not yet enlisted. Whatever experience she had with a soldier’s death remains unknown. She died suddenly on May 31, 1864, leaving no explanation for her inspiration.
Whatever motivated her to write, Howland captured the scene, a moment of soldierly introspection, and published without hope of reward.
|Here, Mary Woolsey Howland cradles one of her daughters.|