October 1863 The Civil War

Voluntaries

A poem in praise of soldiers who gave up their lives for the Union
The South’s conquest of Fort Sumter in April 1861 spurred a frenzy of military enlistment on both sides. Most volunteers, having no experience of war or of rigorous military training, imagined they were signing up for a short-lived, rousing adventure. But as the conflict dragged on and casualties mounted, recruitment became more difficult, even as the need for reinforcements grew.

In the fall of 1863, in the poem “Voluntaries,” Ralph Waldo Emerson paid tribute to those prepared to sacrifice all for the sake of the Union. The final four lines of the stanza below are among Emerson’s most famous, and have been inscribed on veterans’ memorials around the country.

—Sage Stossel

In an age of fops and toys,
Wanting wisdom, void of right,
Who shall nerve heroic boys
To hazard all in Freedom’s fight,—
Break sharply off their jolly games,
Forsake their comrades gay,
And quit proud homes and youthful dames,
For famine, toil, and fray?
Yet on the nimble air benign
Speed nimbler messages,
That waft the breath of grace divine
To hearts in sloth and ease.
So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, Thou must,
The youth replies, I can.


Read the full text of this poem here.

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