Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Civil War Poem “A Nameless Grave”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

During the Civil War, neither the U.S. or Confederate military or government issued any type of identification to their soldiers. Although official identification in the form of the now familiar metal “dog tags” were not distributed until early in the 20th century, unofficial metal discs with soldier’s names engraved on them were manufactured and promoted by private businesses as a means of identification in case the soldier was killed or wounded in action. Most of these metal identification tags were used by Union troops. Paper tags with identification information were also used.

Nonetheless, there were huge numbers of war dead (well into six figures) that could not be identified. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow honored the unknown soldiers who paid the ultimate price with his poem “A Nameless Grave.” In the poem, Longfellow laments the fact that it is unknown how the soldier in the anonymous grave died, or who he was, and there is no way to honor him specifically for his sacrifice.

A Nameless Grave
By Walt Whitman

“A Soldier of the Union mustered out,”
Is the inscription on an unknown grave
At Newport News, beside the salt-sea wave,
Nameless and dateless; sentinel or scout
Shot down in skirmish, or disastrous rout
Of battle, when the loud artillery drave
Its iron wedges through the ranks of brave
And doomed battalions, storming the redoubt.
Thou unknown hero sleeping by the sea
In thy forgotten grave! with secret shame
I feel my pulses beat, my forehead burn,
When I remember thou hast given for me
All that thou hadst, thy life, thy very name,
And I can give thee nothing in return.

Burial of the Dead on the Antietam Battlefield

A Nameless Grave was published after the Civil War in Longfellow’s 1876 collection “The Masque of Pandora and Other Poems”. The most famous Longfellow Civil War poem is “Christmas Bells” written and published late in the war. That poem is the basis for the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

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