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.

Presented by

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In