Practically in the shadow of the Confederate polyandrion at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond stands the crowded, fascinating monument of Charles Harris McPhail. McPhail died in July 1862, early in the Civil War. In fact, McPhail was killed in the final of the so-called Seven Days’ Battles, at Malvern Hill, as Union General McClellan attempted to make his way up the Virginia Peninsula to Richmond and Robert E. Lee successfully thwarted him, ending hopes of an early end to the war in the East.
The epitaph, on a beautiful marble slab with impressive blue and rust colored veining, goes far beyond providing the usual anagraphic data:
In memory of
CHARLES HARRIS McPHAIL
A native of Norfolk, VA.,
and a member of Co. G, 6th Reg. Va. Vol.
He fell in the battle’s front
July 1st 1862,
in the 25th year of his age while
gallantly charging the enemy at
A devout and humble Christian,
a brave and faithful soldier,
he here makes his last bivouac with
thousands of other martyred sons
of the South who sleep around him.
There then follows a poem in iambs, tetrameters followed by trimeters in couplets (I mark the scansion):
Rest ón, embálmed and sáinted déad!
Dear ás the blóod ye gáve,
Fear nót that ímpious fóot shall tréad
The hérbiage óf your gráve;
Your glóry sháll not bé forgót
While fáme her récord kéeps,
Or Hónor póints the hállowed spót
Where Válour próudly sléeps.
This is, of course, the penultimate stanza of Theodore O’Hara’s famous poem ‘Bivouac of the Dead,’ written to commemorate fellow Kentuckians fallen in the Mexican-American War in 1847. It’s not a great poem, but it appealed to the sentiments of the central portions of the nineteenth century.
More interesting to me is the image of two crossed swords, which here signify death in battle, and the famous Latin verse from Horace’s Ode 3.2, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. “It is a sweet thing, and fair, to die for one’s country.”
We ought to take a moment to scan the verse, which is in Alcaic meter and sounds rather different from how it’s spelled (marking long syllables, remembering that that ‘c’ will be hard, like a ‘k’):
Dūlcēt decōrūmst prō patriā morī.
This patriotic sentiment goes back at least to the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, writing elegiacs in the seventh century, BCE:
τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·
It’s beautiful when a good man falls in the battle’s front
while fighting for his country.
Such a reduced regard for oneself and contrasting prioritization of “country” is rare these days. It is different from patriotism, which we still have. For the Brits it was fatally wounded in World War I, and for us in Vietnam. Suicide bombers in the Middle East delivered the coup de grâce. In fact the sentiment that there are things worth literally dying for is now so foreign to our way of thinking that it’s hard for us to think anyone sane could ever have thought that way. And so when we find the idea of Dulce et decorum est expressed on someone’s monument we’re practically compelled to think that it must be ironic, or cynical, “the old lie.”
It’s just at this point that we must step back and recall that nineteenth-century people were profoundly different from us; their sense of the reality of religion was different, their sense of spirituality and what death meant was different, and over it all was a Romantic emotional wash that colored their perceptions. It’s why period films so often get it excruciatingly wrong by depicting them as familiar, having our attitudes, or, if they escape that, they end up looking unrealistic and quaint to our eyes.
One of the more important moments in Ken Burns’ Civil War was Paul Roebling’s reading of a large extract of Sullivan Ballou’s final letter home to his wife, Sarah, before the battle of Bull Run. In it is expressed precisely a nineteenth-century appreciation of a willingness to die for the country and its ideals that not only sounds quaint but downright naive.
But in fact, if you read or listen to Sullivan Ballou’s letter you can see that he was acutely aware of the good things in life that he stood to lose, such as a future with his wife and children. He has simply made a different calculation than we would when presented the same alternatives. Note, too, that in his letter he effectively looks his wife in the eye as he explains this calculation and expects her to understand.
Let’s have some more Tyrtaeus, giving us the best and purest statement of dulce et decorum est. (The translation is from J. M. Edmonds’ Elegy and Iambus, with an English translation (1931) found here and covered by a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.)
I would neither call a man to mind nor put him in my tale for prowess in the race or the wrestling, not even had he the stature and strength of a Cyclops and surpassed in swiftness the Thracian Northwind, nor were he a comelier man than Tithonus and a richer than Midas or Cinyras, nor though he were a greater king than Pelops son of Tantalus, and had Adrastus’ suasiveness of tongue, nor yet though all fame were his save of warlike strength; for a man is not good in war if he have not endured the sight of bloody slaughter and stood nigh and reached forth to strike the foe.
This is prowess, this is the noblest prize and the fairest for a lad to win in the world; a common good this both for the city and all her people, when a man standeth firm in the forefront without ceasing, and making heart and soul to abide, forgetteth foul flight altogether and hearteneth by his words him that he standeth by. Such a man is good in war; he quickly turneth the savage hosts of the enemy, and stemmeth the wave of battle with a will; moreover he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country’s and children’s sake when fierce Ares brought him low.
But and if he escape the doom of outstretched Death and by victory make good the splendid boast of battle, he hath honour of all, alike young as old, and cometh to his death after much happiness; as he groweth old he standeth out among his people, and there’s none that will do him hurt either in honour or in right; all yield him place on the benches, alike the young and his peers and his elders. This is the prowess each man should this day aspire to, never relaxing from war.
These ideas were common currency among well educated nineteenth-century Americans (they had less Chemistry and Psychology to compete with the study of Classics then). And it is just against this Romantic, religious, spiritual, and classically-steeped background that we must read McPhail’s monument. His commemorators try, with a complete absence of irony or cynicism, to make sense of his death—a horrible head-shot, research indicates—and express their good sentiments about him. They fall upon Tyrtaean ideals: he died at “the battle’s front,” “gallantly charging the enemy.” His commemorators made sure he had a conspicuous grave wondered at by his contemporaries and posterity.
McPhail’s marker is hardly an expression of pure classical ideas: it has an obvious Christian surcharge, invoking the idea that the deceased had suffered a “good death,” as those people called it. Its Christianity is also tinged with a sense of chivalry, which is a product of Romanticism.
In conclusion, figure 4 shows the monument company’s mark on the base of the stone: J. D. Couper, Norfolk, Va.
On McPhail’s monument, see Williams, E., Stories in Stone: Memorialization, the Creation of History and the Role of Preservation (Vernon Press 2020) 149-150.