Ethel Lynn Beers (1827-1879) was a poet most famous for “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” which was originally published under the title “The Picket Guard” in “Harper’s Weekly” in November of 1861, bearing the initials E.B. Nobody seemed to know who E.B. was nor care, for that matter. People from both the North and the South claimed authorship of that particular piece, or made up stories about who wrote it, making no effort at all to match up the name to those initials.
As Mrs. Beers writes in the explanatory notes to a volume of her poems:
“It was quickly republished in almost every journal in the land. As it bore only the initials E. B., the poem soon became a nameless waif, and was attributed to various pens.
“The London Times copied it as having been written by a Confederate soldier and found in his pocket after death…. An American paper quoted it, saying that it was written by a private soldier in the United States service, and sent home to his wife. This statement was met by another, asserting that it was written by Fitz-James O’Brien. As the soul of that true poet and gallant soldier had gone out through a ragged battle-rift won at Ball’s Bluff, this was uncontradicted until an editorial paragraph appeared in Harper’s Weekly, July 4th, 1863, saying it had been written for that paper by a lady contributor.
It appeared in a volume of War-Poetry of the South, edited by Wm. Gilmore Sims, as a Southern production, and was set to music by a Richmond music-publisher in 1864, with “Words by Lamar Fontaine” on its title-page. A soldier cousin, who went with Sherman to the sea, found in a deserted printing-office at Fayetteville a paper containing a two-column article on the poem, with all the circumstances under which “Lamar Fontaine composed it while on picket-duty.”
“It appeared in the earlier editions of Bryant’s Library of Poetry and Song over Mrs. Howland’s name, which was afterward corrected by Mr. Bryant [William Cullen Bryant]. Within the last year a Mr. Thaddeus Oliver claims its authorship for his deceased father, being no doubt misled by a wrong date, as he fixes an earlier time than its first appearance in Harper’s Weekly.
“I have been at some pains to gather up these dates and names as one of the curiosities of newspaper-waif life. To those who know me, my simple assertion that I wrote the poem is sufficient, but to set right any who may care to know, I refer to the columns of the old ledger at Harper’s, on whose pages I saw but the other day the business form of acceptance of, and payment for, “The Picket-Guard,” among other contributions. …”
The Richmond publisher Mrs. Beers speaks of was John Hill Hewitt, known as “The Bard of the South,” although he was born on July 11, 1801 in the State of New York. Being a New Yorker by birth is something he had in common with Ethel Lynn Beers, who was born in Goshen, New York as Ethelinda Elliot on January 13, 1827.
Somewhat the same fate befell her second most popular poem. Some folks got the idea that Mrs. Beers was a Southerner, possibly because it promotes a Southern position that slaves loved their owners and had no desire to be free. Even with authorship of the poem firmly established, years later in the early 1900s, Mrs. Beers was identified as a Southern poet by a gentleman named George S. Hellman in “The Saturday Review” in an article called “Stirring Poetry of the Civil War.” A few people wrote to clarify that Mrs. Beers was a Northerner. One fellow pointed out that her use of the phrase “Union” throughout the composition clearly showed she was from the North. Another person, P. W. Wildey of New York, said “As the authoress was my cousin, I know that she was not only a Northerner, but of Republican principles. …” Interestingly, the cousin says that she died on October 10, 1879, while most other sources list her date of death on the 11th.
Perhaps Ethel Lynn Beers should have written her own autobiography to clear up all this confusion and it wouldn’t have hurt if she had a picture of herself in it either. Here is her “Southern” poem, with an illustration from “A Selection of War Lyrics (1864).
On the Shores of Tennessee by Ethel Lynn Beers
“Move my arm chair, faithful Pompey,
In the sunshine bright and strong,
For this world is fading, Pompey —
Massa won’t be with you long;
And I fain would hear the South wind
Bring once more the sound to me,
Of the wavelets softly breaking
On the shores of Tennessee.
“Mournful though the ripples murmur,
As they still the story tell,
How no vessels float the banner
That I’ve loved so long and well.
I shall listen to their music,
Dreaming that again I see
Stars and Stripes on sloop and shallop
Sailing up the Tennessee.
“And Pompey, while on Massa waiting
For Death’s last Dispatch to come,
If that exiled starry banner
Should come proudly sailing home,
You shall greet it, slave no longer —
Voice and hand shall both be free,
That shout and point to Union colors
On the waves of Tennessee.”
“Massa’s berry kind to Pompey;
But ole darkey’s happy here,
Where he’s tended corn and cotton
For dese many a long gone year.
Over yonder Missis sleeping —
No one tends her grave like me;
Mebbe she would miss the flowers
She used to love in Tennessee.
“‘Pears like she was watching, Massa —
If Pompey should beside him stay,
Mebbe she’d remember better
How for him she used to pray;
Telling him that away up yonder
White as snow his soul would be,
If he served the Lord of Heaven,
While he lived in Tennessee.”
Silently the tears were rolling
Down the poor old dusky face,
As he stepped behind his master,
In his long accustomed place.
Then a silence fell around them
As they gazed on rock and tree
Pictured in the placid waters,
Of the rolling Tennessee.
Master, dreaming of the battle
Where he fought by Marion’s side,
When he bid the haughty Tarleton
Stoop his lordly crest of pride.
Man, remembering how yon sleeper
Once he held upon his knee,
Ere she loved the gallant soldier,
Ralph Vevair, of Tennessee.
Still the South wind fondly lingers
‘Mid the veterans silver hair;
Still the bondman close beside him
Stands behind the old arm-chair,
With his dark-hued hand uplifted,
Shading eyes, he bends to see
Where the woodland boldly jutting
Turns aside the Tennessee.
Thus he watches cloud-born shadows
Glide from tree to mountain crest,
Softly creeping, aye and ever
To the river’s yielding breast.
Ha! Above the foliage yonder
Something flutters wild and free!
“Massa, Massa! Hallelujah!
The flag’s come back to Tennessee!”
“Pompey, hold me on your shoulder,
Help me to stand on feet once more,
That I may salute the colors
As they pass my cabin door.
Here’s the paper signed that frees you,
Give a freeman’s shout with me —
“God and Union!” be our watchword
Evermore in Tennessee.”
Then the trembling voice grew fainter;
And the limbs refused to stand,
One prayer to Jesus — and the soldier
Glided to that better land.
When the flag went down the river
Man and master both were free,
While the ring-dove’s note was mingled,
With the rippling Tennessee.
Visit Reely’s Poetry Pages, for an audio reading of “All Quiet Along the Potomac.”