Monday, October 12, 2009

Strike the Tent

Gen. Robert E. Lee had a stroke on September 28, 1870, and was virtually unable to speak for the brief remainder of his life, but it has reported (though not uncritically) that his last words were: "Tell [A.P.] Hill he must come up...Strike the tent!"

If indeed those were his last words, it is notable that his compatriot Stonewall Jackson referred to A.P. Hill in his dying words as well. If Lee's last words, disputed though reported by an eyewitness, were pure myth, nevertheless, they served as the inspiration for a poetic tribute to a great man by Margaret Junkin Preston (1820-1897), sister-in-law to Jackson by his first wife and perhaps the greatest female Southern poet of the 19th century. She wrote The Shade of the Trees in memory of Jackson and his last words, as well as Gone Forward in memory of Lee, less than a month after Lee's death. Her journal records the latter event:

November 7th [1870]: Wrote a little poem about General Lee called Gone Forward. Began it after eleven o'clock, and finished it before dinner, 'standing on one foot,' as Horace says. I don't know whether it is good or not. Writing it made the cold perspiration break out over me, which is a token that I was 'i' the vein.



Yes, "Let the tent be struck": Victorious morning
Through every crevice flashes in a day
Magnificent beyond all earth's adorning:
The night is over; wherefore should he stay?
And wherefore should our voices choke to say,
"The General has gone forward"?


Life's foughten field not once beheld surrender;
But with superb endurance, present, past,
Our pure Commander, lofty, simple, tender,
Through good, through ill, held his high purpose fast,
Wearing his armor spotless, -- till at last,
Death gave the final, "Forward."


All hearts grew sudden palsied: Yet what said he
Thus summoned? -- "Let the tent be struck!" -- For when
Did call of duty fail to find him ready
Nobly to do his work in sight of men,
For God's and for his country's sake -- and then,
To watch, wait, or go forward?


We will not weep, -- we dare not! Such a story
As his large life writes on the century's years,
Should crowd our bosoms with a flush of glory,
That manhood's type, supremest that appears
To-day, he shows the ages. Nay, no tears
Because he has gone forward!


Gone forward? -- Wither? -- Where the marshall'd legions,
Christ's well-worn soldiers, from their conflicts cease; --
Where Faith's true Red-cross knights repose in regions
Thick-studded with the calm, white tents of peace, --
Thither, right joyful to accept release,
The General has gone forward!

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