Allatoona Pass

The creation of Lake Allatoona in 1950 necessitated a shift in the Western & Atlantic Railroad slightly to the west in places. The abandoned pilings on the Etowah River are one indication of this; the abandoned Allatoona Pass, further to the south, is another. 

Google Maps.

You can see the location of the current track, rendered as a faint horizontal line just below Old Allatoona Road SE. The darker dotted line to the north mostly follows the track as it was in the nineteenth century.

I’m not sure why the railroad ever took this route in the first place, because it necessitated the creation of a deep cutting. But these days it provides a nice setting for a walk. Andrews’ Raiders would have driven the stolen General through here. 

I love the use of little flags as “emojis.”

But the place is far more significant historically for the Battle of Allatoona, fought on October 5, 1864. This took place after Sherman occupied Kingston (in May), after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (June-July), and after the Battle of Atlanta (which fell September 2) – all engagements in the Atlanta Campaign. (Sherman, who had worked as a young army lieutenant in the region, knew about Allatoona Pass and that it would be “very strong, and hard to force, and resolved not even to attempt it.” So he simply went around it on his way to Atlanta. The Confederates retreated, and the Union troops took Allatoona unopposed on June 1.)

Nineteenth century photograph of Allatoona Pass, from an interpretive sign at Allatoona Pass Battlefield.

The real fighting took place as part of the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, an attempt by the Confederacy to disrupt Union supply lines. Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood abandoned Atlanta to Sherman and retreated to Lovejoy’s Station south of the city. Near the end of September, he moved his troops to Palmetto, Ga. where he met with CSA President Jefferson Davis to devise strategy. They decided that they would retrace the steps of the the Atlanta Campaign, but in reverse – Hood would move his troops north along the Western & Atlantic Railroad, wrecking property now held by the Union and hoping to entice Sherman to follow him, and to force an open battle on ground favorable to the Confederates. As the historical marker makes clear, on Oct. 3, Lt. Gen. Alexander Stewart seized Big Shanty (i.e. Kennesaw) and Acworth, and on Oct. 4 Samuel French moved towards the Union garrison at Allatoona. Unlike Sherman, French was not prepared to outflank it. 

From an interpretive sign at Allatoona Pass Battlefield. Underlining added. 

Union troops occupied positions on the tops of the hills on either side of the cutting. These are “Rowett’s Redoubt” and “Eastern Redoubt” on the map. To the east of Rowett’s Redoubt is the so-called “Star Fort” that Union troops retreated to. To the west of the Eastern Reboubt is “Headquarters – Fourth Minnesota,” a wood-frame “dog-trot” cabin where Lt. Col. John Eaton Tourtellotte stationed himself. The two sides of the railway cutting were connected by a footbridge. 

Contrary to Confederate hopes, Sherman did not give chase to Hood, but did order Gen. John M. Corse to move his troops from Rome, Ga. and to assume command of the defense of Allatoona. Corse and his men arrived by rail just hours before the Confederate bombardment began in the early morning of Oct. 5. After two hours of this, French declared a truce and sent a message to Corse: 

I have the forces under my command and in such positions that you are surrounded and, in order to avoid a needless effusion of blood, I call upon you to surrender your forces at once, and unconditionally. Five minutes will be allotted you to decide. Should you accede to this , you will be treated in the most honorable manner as prisoners of war.

According to Sherman’s memoirs, Corse replied:

Your communication demanding surrender of my command I acknowledge receipt of, and respectfully reply that we are prepared for the “needless effusion of blood” whenever it is agreeable to you.

Such a response is rhetorically edifying, no doubt, which might cause one to suspect whether it actually happened. Certainly, the interpretive sign claims that Corse gave no response, and after fifteen minutes French called off the truce and began a ground assault. 

From an interpretive sign at Allatoona Pass Battlefield.

This map gives a general sense of what happened next. French ordered Francis Cockrell and William Young, commanding troops from Missouri and Texas, to attack from the west, and Claudius Sears, commanding troops from Mississippi, to attack from the north. Troops under Richard Rowett defended the hill on the western side of the cutting, while Tourtellotte’s troops defended the hill on the eastern side.

On the western side the fighting was intense. Union troops made effective use of their Henry Repeating rifles and Napoleon gun, but the Confederates would not quit, and despite taking enormous casualties, they eventually reached Rowett’s Redoubt. Soon “fierce hand-to-hand fighting with clubbed muskets, fists, swords, and even rocks” forced the Union troops to retreat to the Star Fort dragging their Napoleon with them. The fighting continued, even injuring Gen. Corse, who lost a cheek bone and one ear. Despite receiving some supplies and men over the footbridge, by the early afternoon Union troops in the Star Fort were pinned down, out of water, and almost out of ammunition.

(Events unfolded a bit better for the Union on the eastern side of the cutting. From their trenches, Union troops managed to repulse two Confederate regiments and deliver enfilading fire against a third. Some Confederate troops took refuge in a gulley where they could neither attack nor be attacked; they surrendered and were taken prisoner after the battle.)

What brought the battle to a close was not a decisive military maneuver on either side, but the receipt of a piece of intelligence by French, which stated that Union troops were on the march from Big Shanty. Fearing that he would either be overwhelmed by this force or cut off from the rest of the Confederate army encamped at Dallas, Ga., and in need of more troops and supplies for a final assault on the Star Fort, French reluctantly ordered a withdrawal around 2:00 PM. Thus is the Battle of Allatoona considered a Union victory – they held the position, and prevented over one million rations stored there from being taken or destroyed by the Confederates. 

But this victory came at an immense cost. Of Corse’s 2000 men, some 700 (an astonishing 35%) were casualties of the battle. Numbers on the Confederate side were not much better: of 3300 men, 900 were casualties, for a rate of 27%. The Battle of Allatoona was “one of the most deadly and stubbornly contested of the war.” Private Harvey M. Trimble of the 93rd Illinois wrote that:

The scene in that ravine after the battle was ended, was beyond all powers of description. All the languages of the earth combined are inadequate to tell half its horrors. Mangled and torn in every conceivable manner, the dead and wounded were everywhere, in heaps and windrows. Enemies though they were, their conquerors, only a few minutes removed from the heat and passion of battle, sickened and turned away, or remaining, looked only with great compassion, and through tears, upon that field of blood and carnage and death, upon that wreck of high hopes and splendid courage, that hecatomb of human life.

French did get his surviving troops back to Dallas, but the rest of the Franklin-Nashville campaign went about as well as the Battle of Allatoona did for the Confederates. Hood ended up resigning his commission in early 1865, having been chased to Tupelo, Mississippi after a major defeat at the Battle of Nashville (Dec. 15-16, 1864). Sherman, for his part, did not really bother with Hood – he began his March to the Sea on November 15 and took Savannah on December 20. By this point in the war, there was little doubt which side would eventually win it. 

One final detail about this battle deserves mentioning. Communication was possible between Sherman and Allatoona on account of the Crow’s Nest, a signal tower atop a Georgia pine, which could send and receive messages from Kennesaw Mountain (with, presumably, further relays to stations southwards). 

From an interpretive sign at Allatoona Pass Battlefield.

Popular legend has it that either prior to or during the battle General Sherman signaled “Hold the fort, I am coming,” which stiffened Corse’s resolve and dissuaded him from surrendering. Again, this information did not make it onto the interpretive sign, perhaps because no contemporary record or such communication can be found (note the “citation needed” comments at Wikiquote). Apparently, though, this quotation inspired Chicago evangelist Philip Bliss to compose a hymn. I had never heard “Hold the Fort” before, perhaps because such explicitly militaristic hymns are no longer in fashion:

Ho, my comrades, see the signal, waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.

Refrain:
“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”

See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;
Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone!

See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over every foe.

Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!

Remains of the Star Fort.

Remains of the Eastern Redoubt.

Allatoona is much more tranquil today, of course. It is reforested, and the trenches are faint – and unfortunately iPhone photos do them even less justice. But it is good to be able to see what remains, and remember why they were constructed in the first place. 

The information above has been gleaned from Wikipedia and from the numerous interpretive signs throughout the battlefield. We commend Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites for its historically accurate flag graphic on these signs.

The U.S. flag has 35 stars, for the number of states claimed at the time, the most recent being West Virginia (1863; flag updated July 4 of that year). The CSA flag is its second national flag, which debuted in 1863. They’ve even got the proportions right!

Alas, the canton of the “Stainless Banner” features the ever-controversial battle flag, prompting its effacement on some of the signs. But objecting to its presence in such a neutral and didactic context is just dumb. 

Fortunately, vandalism has not yet been visited upon the Memorial Ground, which features monuments for all the states of the soldiers at the Battle of Allatoona – five Union and six Confederate. Interestingly, Georgia is not represented among them. 

I reproduce photos of some of the monuments below. If I had better software I would edit out my reflection as it appears. (As an aside: isn’t it interesting how Americans love the shapes of their states?) 

Another monument, the Grave of the Unknown Hero, may be found at a location marked by the blue star on the map.

Google maps.

An interpretive sign at the red star on the map gives further information:

Local families once recalled that a few days after the battle, a wooden box addressed “Allatoona, Georgia” arrived at the station with no information as to its origin. Six local women found a deceased Confederate soldier in the box and buried him alongside the railroad in a location lost to history. Local historians believe that the burial on this spot is not the soldier the ladies buried, but Private Andrew Jackson Houston of Mississippi, who died here in the battle and was buried where he fell.

Forgotten to time for several yers, in 1880 this site was marked with an iron fence and a marble headstone inscribed “AN UNKNOWN HERO, He died for the Cause He thought was right.” Railroad employees maintained the grave for many years and later moved the grave to its present site when the rail line was relocated.

It is interesting that nothing Confederate currently decorates the grave of the Unknown Hero – despite that he was originally designated as Confederate by the people who buried him. By the early twentieth century the idea was that he could have been on either side, as expressed in this poem by Georgia Governor Joseph M. Brown – a seeming attempt at “reconciliation.”

From an interpretive sign at Allatoona Pass Battlefield.

But I guess he was ultimately “Unionized.” I assume there’s a lesson of some sort here. 

Most of the other victims of the battle were buried where they died in unmarked graves, although some Union soldiers were eventually reinterred in the Marietta National Cemetery.

The railroad, as my students are fond of saying about various historical things, is “still in use today.”

Eighty Years Ago

Eighty years ago today Nazi Germany invaded Poland, thus beginning “World War II,” because this time the British and the French actually responded to an act of German aggression by declaring war. Let us not forget that the Soviets also invaded Poland 16 days later, occupying the eastern third of it – and that fighting had been going on in the East for some time already. 

Here is Auden’s famous poem on the event (from Poets.org):

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

The Poppy Lady

John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” may have inspired the Poppy Appeal, but it was an American, specifically a Georgian, who popularized it. According to Wikipedia:

In 1918, Moina Michael, who had taken leave from her professorship at the University of Georgia to be a volunteer worker for the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries organization, was inspired by the poem and published a poem of her own called “We Shall Keep the Faith“. In tribute to McCrae’s poem, she vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought and helped in the war. At a November 1918 YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed 25 more to those attending. She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance. At this conference, Frenchwoman Anna E. Guérin was inspired to introduce the artificial poppies commonly used today. In 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where the symbol was adopted by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion. It was also adopted by veterans’ groups in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. James Fox notes that all of the countries who adopted the remembrance poppy were the “victors” of World War I.

The poem:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The Centennial of the Armistice

Lapel poppy as sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.

Garden of Remembrance, St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, City of London, November 11, 2010.

This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, 2018.

It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia.

All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).

Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

So I was pleased to learn that a World War I memorial is being planned for Washington DC. From a BBC article about it published last year:

“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.

“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”

“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.

“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”

Gable end mural, Northland St. (arbitrarily renamed “Thiepval St.”), Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).

Mural, Glenwood St., Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:

The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):

The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.

Memorial to Lt. Col. John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.

William McGonagall

I was pleased to discover, in Sunrise Books in Guelph, Ontario, the complete works of William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), of Dundee, Scotland, the author of some of the worst poems ever published in the English language. As a consequence of his “inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery” McGonagall attracted quite a number of fans in his day, who reveled in the unintentional humor of poems that rhymed, but were completely “deaf to metaphor and unable to scan correctly” (Wikipedia).

One Chris Hunt maintains McGonagall Online which is worth exploring. Here is an excerpt from McGonagall’s famous poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster“:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

’Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
“I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Iliad

We’re currently exploring the Trojan War in both my intro-level and upper-level courses. This event is largely known through Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem of more than 15000 lines, composed in the eighth century BC, some five hundred years after the events it purports to describe: the siege and eventual destruction of the Anatolian city of Troy by a combined force “Achaeans” (Bronze-Age Greeks), who had come to retrieve Helen, the abducted wife of Menelaus of Sparta. The Iliad does not tell the whole story of the war, although it alludes to prior (and subsequent) events. The action takes place over a two-week period in the ninth year of the siege, and is primarily concerned with a dispute between Agamemnon, the incompetent king of the Greek coalition, and Achilles, his best warrior. In brief: Achilles goes on strike, the Trojans almost defeat the Greeks, Achilles’ friend Patroclus joins the fighting but is killed by the Trojan hero Hector, and Achilles returns and kills Hector. As a work of literature, the Iliad raises a number of questions, including: Must kings always be obeyed, or is it sometimes proper to defy them? Is it better to live a short and glorious life, or a long and unremarkable one? (The choice given to Achilles, whose death is foretold several times.) Is war glorious, or is it in fact disastrous? Etc. There are no clear-cut answers to these questions. Even its nostalgia is ambiguous. If you see it as Homer’s portrayal of the good old days, when gods walked among men and men could fight for glory, what sort of glory is it when grown men have public temper tantrums because their feelings are hurt? It might make a person feel glad to be living in an age of the polis and the hoplite phalanx.

Of course, the Iliad is not the only literary treatment of the Trojan War. It was but one part the now-lost Epic Cycle, which included the Cypria, the Aethiopis, and the Little Iliad. It formed a fit subject for Athenian drama, like Aeschylus’s Agamemnon or Euripides’s Trojan Women. Virgil added some details in the Aeneid, and both Chaucer and Shakespeare dealt with the story of the star-crossed Trojan lovers Troilus and Cressida. Every author added details or changed others, such that to write the whole thing down would fill volumes. I like to tell my students that the Trojan War was to the Greeks as the expanded universe is to Star Wars fans, wherein every minor character from the movies gets an elaborate backstory, with many more characters, planets, and subplots added for good measure.

To return to the Iliad, I was happy to have had the opportunity to read it freshman year in college. The version we read was by Richmond Lattimore, of whom we were all very proud because he was a Dartmouth alum. I still have my copy, along with a number of other translations I have acquired over the years. For no real reason, I reprint the opening lines below from all of them, plus two others (Butler and Murray) that I found online. Which do you like best?

Alexander Pope, 1715
Achilles’ Wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heav’nly Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unbury’d on the naked shore
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore:
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sov’reign doom, and such the will of Jove!

Samuel Butler, 1898 (available at MIT)
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

A.T. Murray, 1924 (for the Loeb Classical Library, available at Tufts)
The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus’ son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.

W.H.D. Rouse, 1938
An angry man – there is my story: the bitter rancour of Achillês, prince of the house of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host. Many a strong soul it sent down to Hadês, and left the heroes themselves a prey to gods and carrion birds, while the will of God moved on to fulfillment.

E.V. Rieu, 1950 (for Penguin Classics, italics in original)
The Wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath which, in fulfillment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans so much suffering and sent the gallant souls of many noblemen to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and passing birds. Let us begin, goddess of song, with the angry parting that took place between Agamemnon King of Men and the great Achilles son of Peleus. 

Richmond Lattimore, 1951
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
Hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
Of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreaus’s son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Ennis Rees, 1963
Sing, O Goddess, the ruinous wrath of Achilles,
Son of Peleus, the terrible curse that brought
Unnumbered woes upon the Achaeans and hurled
To Hades so many heroic souls, Leaving
Their bodies the prey of dogs and carrion birds
The will of Zeus was done from the moment they quarreled,
Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and godlike Achilles.

Robert Fitzgerald, 1974
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
That caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another –

the Lord Marshal
Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

Robert Fagles, 1990 (for Penguin Classics)
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Stanley Lombardo, 1997
RAGE:

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon –
The Greek warlord – and godlike Achilles.

UPDATE: I discover that Robert Graves also translated the Iliad in 1959! (Reinhardt’s edition of The Anger of Achilles was also illustrated by Ronald Searle of Molesworth fame.) Here is his proem:

Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son
And which, before the tale was done
Had glutted Hell with champions – bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, king of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.

Also, Check out Ian Johnston‘s list of (and links to) English translations of the Iliad, including his own, which begins:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfilment of the will of Zeus.

Start at the point where Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
that king of men, quarrelled with noble Achilles.

I think a major issue here is what the first word should be. In Greek it’s μῆνιν, the accusative of wrath/anger/rage, which is indeed the theme of the poem, although it doesn’t sound quite right in English to begin a sentence with its object. The second word, ἄειδε, is the imperative of sing, and the third, θέα, is the subject of the sentence: the goddess (presumably Calliope, the muse of epic poetry), whom Homer invokes to help him tell his tale. Personally I don’t think that much damage is done by beginning a translation with “Sing,” but maybe that’s only because I was introduced to Lattimore at an impressionable age.

(A classic compare-and-contrast exercise is that between the opening line of the Iliad, in which Homer asks for supernatural aid in singing of gods and heroes in the distant past, and the opening line of the Histories of Herodotus, which is simply “I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history” – a history of the recent past, written in prose – a human tale by a named human author, and a fitting monument to the classical age of Greece and the rationality it valued.)

Star-Spangled Banner

A sensation this past weekend was the refusal of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, to stand for the national anthem, on the principle that he was

not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Some people were outraged, others supportive, in reaction to this. The 49ers themselves said that “we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem,” while the NFL claimed that “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” I confess that I personally don’t care for this sort of activism – you’re a football player, paid millions of dollars to throw a football, and if you must bestow your pearls of wisdom upon us, save it for after the game, when you’re out of uniform – although I’ve often thought that we can save ourselves trouble by not courting it in the first place. Why do we sing the national anthem before sporting events? It’s not as though any national teams are playing or anything.

Having said that, I was curious to read an article claiming that “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” on The Intercept:

Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.

Few people know this because we only ever sing the first verse. But read the end of the third verse and you’ll see why “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not just a musical atrocity, it’s an intellectual and moral one, too:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.

However, we’d wildly overestimated the strength of the U.S. military. By the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, the British had counterattacked and overrun Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House.

And one of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves. As a detailed 2014 article in Harper’s explains, the orders given to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir George Cockburn read:

Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage. … The great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population. With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne.

Whole families found their way to the ships of the British, who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their “owners.” Adult men were trained to create a regiment called the Colonial Marines, who participated in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington.

Then on the night of September 13, 1814, the British bombarded Fort McHenry. Key, seeing the fort’s flag the next morning, was inspired to write the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

So when Key penned “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.

More at the link. Although it’s somewhat silly to bring up the third verse, when nobody knows it, he’s right about the War of 1812: it was, in one respect, a war to preserve slavery (as was the Revolutionary War: contrary to Mel Gibson, it was the British who offered freedom to slaves in return for their services, not the colonists).

Of course, the Americans did have a point otherwise, and it is great that the ideals of the revolution, which were really quite radical for the eighteenth century, were eventually applied successfully to the question of slavery.

Panel at the Funk

I was pleased to attend an interdisciplinary panel last night in the Funk Heritage Center entitled “The Etowah River: History, Ecology, Literature.” Organized by Donna Little, professor of English at Reinhardt, it also served as a kick-off event for Reinhardt’s new low-residency Master of Fine Arts program, currently organized around the theme of “Story and Place in the New South.”

The Etowah River begins near Dahlonega, Georgia, flows southwards and then eastwards, passes through Canton (the seat of Cherokee County and seven miles south of Reinhardt), and then joins the Oostanaula at Rome. The resulting river is named the Coosa; this becomes the Alabama River near Montgomery, and empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile.

donna

Donna Little speaks at the Funk Heritage Center, 4/20/16.

Dr. Little opened the night’s proceedings by showing a map of the area. Nowadays we are used to thinking in terms of I-75 and I-575, the north-south freeways leading to Atlanta, but the Etowah and the Oostanaula run east-west, and that’s the direction that Indians would have been familiar with: thus the Mississippian Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, and New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, which was not in the middle of nowhere in north Georgia, but on the Oostanaula, which was a major thoroughfare.

Speaking of the Cherokee (who, it must be said, were only resident in north Georgia from the 1780s or thereabouts), Dr. Little publicly unveiled a discovery of hers: that during the expulsion of the Cherokee Indians during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a group of Cherokee actually encamped on what was to become Reinhardt’s campus. Lloyd Marlin’s History of Cherokee County (1932) quotes the now-lost journal of Nathaniel Reinhardt (the father brother of Augustus Reinhardt, who was the co-founder of RU on his family’s land). It reads:

In 1835, Father [i.e. Nathaniel’s father Lewis Reinhardt] bought a tract of land on the old Pinelog Road [i.e. today’s GA-140] some two miles from his mill-place, improved it and in the latter part of 1835 he moved on it.

1838… In the spring many U.S. soldiers were passing through the country for the purpose of collecting and removing the Cherokee Indians to the West. They frequently lodged at night at Father’s Saw old Foekiller, a neighbor Indian, just after he had been arrested by the soldiers, who were carrying him to Fort Buffington. They treated him rather cruelly, which excited my sympathies very much in his favor. The old Indian desired to see father, who solicited better treatment in his behalf. He left all his keys with Father. After the Indians had been collected by the soldiers and started on their final march off, they came near our house the first night and camped, I caught the measles from a soldier who lodged with us that night, and had them severely. One of the neighbors came and stayed the night at Father’s from fear of injury by the Indians.

[Emphasis added. Fort Buffington was thirteen miles from Waleska and the distance is certainly walkable in a day.]

The need for a Trail of Tears monument on Reinhardt’s campus (not just an exhibit at the Funk) is very great.

wheeler

Ken Wheeler speaks at the Funk, 4/20/16.

Reinhardt History Professor Kenneth Wheeler followed with a talk on the human relationships along the Etowah River, particularly the gold rush of the 1820s and the antebellum iron industry, both of which were ecologically disastrous. He also mentioned how Reinhardt co-founder John Sharp had promoted a steamboat service between Canton and Rome, and how William Nickerson attempted to dredge the Etowah for gold – although the attempt proved uneconomical, and Nickerson later opened a sawmill. Presumably all these characters will appear in Dr. Wheeler’s upcoming book.

RayMinik

Keith Ray and Diane Minick at the Funk, 4/20/16.

Keith Ray, adjunct professor of biology at Reinhardt (a Reinhardt graduate and Ph.D. candidate at Auburn), mentioned how the Etowah valley is one of about five or six places in the world which, for the past 100 million years or so, has neither been under water, nor under glaciers. This remarkable stability has produced a vast abundance of plant and animal species. (I had no idea this area was so ecologically diverse.) Environmentalists Joe Cook of the Coosa River Basin Initiative and Diane Minick of the Upper Etowah River Alliance spoke of the importance of maintaining this diversity.

stacey

Laurence Stacey at the Funk, 4/20/16.

Laurence Stacey, adjunct professor of English at Reinhardt, ended the evening by reading some haiku.