Monday, February 15, 2016

“Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain!”

Today, in 1898, the American armored cruiser, USS Maine, blew up and sank in the harbor at Santiago, Cuba, then still a Spanish possession though one facing an ongoing Cuban insurgency.  As both historians and action or watch officers know, first reports are almost always wrong but at the time these still-disputed reports cumulatively placed the responsibility for the sinking on the Spanish.  War between the United States and Spain (with some involvement by Cubans and eventually Filipinos) ensued, ending with the US acquiring additional island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean.

I’m sharing with you a few poems reflecting the complexities of that war, which cemented a domestic reconciliation in a United States still bearing the scars of the Civil War barely 40 years earlier.  However, that reconciliation was achieved on the backs of African-Americans facing Jim Crow laws curtailing their rights as citizens to live, work, and vote as freely and equally as anyone else.  The war was fought, like all of our wars until recent years, by volunteer citizen-soldiers, commanded by a mix of both Confederate and Union veteran generals and by a professional though fledgling navy fighting in two oceans.

One of the first poems is an old favorite focusing upon the Irish who were now coming into their own in many ways in America.  The verses also note how the Irish had fought for and on the soil of many nations beyond Ireland, including in and even for Spain, and how even sometimes Irishmen fought Irishmen in other people’s battles, though that’s not hit upon too hard here.  The reference to Marye’s Heights brings in the role of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Vinegar Hill was one of the battles of the 1798 Rising in Ireland against British Rule – and the British troops did include at least one hired German regiment, thus the “Hessian blood.”  The next verse’s references are first to the original Irish Brigade that fought for France e.g., (Ramillies and Fontenoy) and then to the role of the Irish in Britain’s imperial wars (Waterloo, Egypt and Dargai).  An emigrant to America from Dublin, Clarke was a newspaper man, poet, playwright, and a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) that would be instrumental in launching the 1916 Easter Rising. 


“READ out the names!” and Burke sat back,
   And Kelly drooped his head.
While Shea—they call him Scholar Jack—
  Went down the list of the dead.
Officers, seamen, gunners, marines,
  The crews of the gig and the yawl,
The bearded man and the lad in his teens,
  Carpenters, coal passers—all.
Then knocking the ashes from out his pipe,
  Said Burke in an offhand way:
“We’re all in that dead man’s list, by Cripe!
  Kelly and Burke and Shea.”
“Well, here’s to the Maine, and I’m sorry for Spain,”
  Said Kelly and Burke and Shea.

“Wherever there’s Kellys there’s trouble,” said Burke.
  “Wherever fighting’s the game,
Or a spice of danger in grown man’s work,”
  Said Kelly, “you’ll find my name.”
“And do we fall short,” said Burke, getting mad,
  “When it’s touch and go for life?”
Said Shea, “it’s thirty-odd years, bedad,
  Since I charged to drum and fife
Up Marye’s Heights, and my old canteen
  Stopped a rebel ball on its way.
There were blossoms of blood on our sprigs of green—
  Kelly and Burke and Shea—
And the dead didn’t brag.”  “Well, here’s to the flag!”
  Said Kelly and Burke and Shea.

“I wish’t was in Ireland, for there’s the place,”
  Said Burke, “that we’d die by right,
In the cradle of our soldier race,
  After one good stand-up fight.
My grandfather fell on Vinegar Hill,
  And fighting was not his trade;
But his rusty pike’s in the cabin still,
  With Hessian blood on the blade.”
“Aye, aye,” said Kelly, “the pikes were great
  When the word was ‘clear the way!’
We were thick on the roll in ninety-eight—
  Kelly and Burke and Shea.”
“Well here’s to the pike and the sword and the like!”
  Said Kelly and Burke and Shea.

And Shea, the scholar, with rising joy,
  Said, “We were at Ramillies;
We left our bones at Fontenoy
  And up in the Pyrenees;
Before Dunkirk, on the Landen’s plain,
  Cremona, Lille, and Ghent,
We’re all over Austria, France, and Spain,
  Wherever they pitched a tent.
We’ve died for England from Waterloo
  To Egypt and Dargai;
And still there’s enough for a corps or crew,
  Kelly and Burke and Shea.”
“Well, here is to good honest fighting blood!”
  Said Kelly and Burke and Shea.

“Oh, the fighting races don’t die out,
  If they seldom die in bed,
For love is first in their hearts, no doubt,”
  Said Burke; then Kelly said:
“When Michael, the Irish Archangel, stands,
  The angel with the sword,
And the battle-dead from a hundred lands
  Are ranged in one big horde,
Our line, that for Gabriel’s trumpet waits,
  Will stretch three deep that day,
From Jehoshaphat to the Golden Gates—
   Kelly and Burke and Shea.”
“Well, here’s thank God for the race and the sod!”
  Said Kelly and Burke and Shea.

That reconciliation of North and South was also a theme for poets, as seen in these two by Frank L Stanton.  The first is typical of the jingo-ism of the times – both for the South and for the nation as a whole in its contest with Spain.  While not the most foremost of the “Lost Cause” writers of the period, Stanton had a good platform as a journalist in Atlanta for much of his life.  His poetry also was typical of the work of a number of contemporaries who wrote with a regional emphasis and voice both thematically and in style. The USS Dixie  was in fact not even built for the navy but was a steam brig bought for navy service in 1898 as an auxiliary cruiser and later destroyer tender.


They’ve named a cruiser “Dixie”—that’s what the papers say—
An’ I hears they’re goin’ to man her with the boys that wore the gray;
Good news!  It sorter thrills me and makes me want to be
Whar the band is playin’ “Dixie” an’ the “Dixie” puts to sea.

They’ve named a cruiser “Dixie” an’, fellers, I’ll be boun’
You’re goin’ to see some fightin’ when the “Dixie” swings eroun’!
Ef any o’ them Spanish ships’ll strike her east or west,
Jest let the ban’ play “Dixie” an’ the boys’ll doe the rest!

I want to see that “Dixie”—I want to take my stan’
On the deck of her, an’ holler:  “Three cheers for Dixie lan’!”
She means we’re all united—the war hurts healed away,
An’ “Way Down South in Dixie” is national to-day!

I bet she’s a good ‘un!  I’ll stake my last red cent
Thar ain’t no better timber in the whole blamed settlement!
An’ all their shiny battleships beside that ship are tame,
Fer, when it comes to “Dixie,” thar’s somethin’ in a name!

Here’s three cheers an’ a tiger—as hearty as kin be,
An’ let the ban’ play “Dixie” when the “Dixie” puts to sea!
She’ll make her way an’ win the day from shinin’ east to west—
Jest let the ban’ play “Dixie” an’ the boys’ll do the rest!


YES, sir, I fought with Stonewall,
     And faced the fight with Lee;
But if this here Union goes to war,
     Make one more gun for me!
I didn’t shrink from Sherman
     As he galloped to the sea;
But if this here Union goes to war,
     Make one more gun for me!

I was with ‘em at Manassas—
     The bully boys in gray;
I heard the thunders roarin’
     Round Stonewall Jackson’s way;
And many a time this sword of mine
     Has blazed the route for Lee,
But if this old Union goes to war,
     Make one more gun for me!

I’m not so full o’ fightin’
     Nor half so full o’ fun
As I was back in the sixties
     When I shouldered my old gun.
It may be that my hair is white
     (Such things, you know, must be),
But if this old Union’s in for fight,
     Make one more gun for me!

I hain’t forgot my raisin’,
     Nor how, in sixty-two
Or thereabouts, with battle shouts,
     I charged the boys in blue;
And I say, I fought with Stonewall
     And blazed the way for Lee,
But if this old Union’s in for war,
     Make one more gun for me!

Frank L Stanton, (1898)

But the Spanish-American War inspired not just voices speaking for the Irish or for the South recovering from defeat.  Among these “regional” voices was Paul Laurence Dunbar, the son of slaves as well as poet, novelist, and journalist whose work appeared in The New York Times.   Although the charge of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders up San Juan Hill at Santiago is oft remembered in histories, paintings, and verse – the participation alongside the Rough Riders of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry is as often overlooked and forgotten as it is remembered (even by Roosevelt it seemed at times).   Dunbar here appears to be telling those soldiers that their role on that day will – eventually – be remembered alongside the men of the Maine. 


Round the whole earth, from the red field your valour has won,
Blown with the breath of the far-speaking gun,
                                Goes the word.
Bravely you spoke through the battle cloud heavy and dun.
Tossed though the speech toward the mist hidden sun,
                                The world heard.

Hell would have shrunk from you seeking it fresh from the fray,
Grim with the dust of the battle, and gray
                                From the fight.
Heaven would have crowned you, with crowns not of gold but of bay,
Owning you fit for the light of her day,
                                Men of night.

Far through the cycle of years and of lives that shall come,
There shall speak voices long muffled and dumb,
                                Out of fear.
And through the noises of trade and the turbulent hum,
Truth shall rise over the militant drum,
                                Loud and clear.

Then on the cheek of the honester nation that grows,
All for the love of you, not for your woes,
                                There shall lie
Tears that shall be to your souls as the dew to the rose;
Afterward thanks, that the present yet knows
                                Not to ply!