Poetry and the Civil War

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11174

The beauty of poetry and the horror of war don't seem to fit together but it was one of the few ways Civil War-era people could express themselves. Learn active reading skills with poetry and history!



learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Do you know any poems by heart? Have you written any of your own poems? Some people like to read and write poetry these days, it is true, but have you composed a rhyming verse poem about the most important historical events of our times? Probably not. In Civil War America though, poems about the war were found everywhere! Let's explore this vast body of poetry to learn more about the darkest chapter in American history.

If you were alive in the 1860s, you would have really been into poetry!

Seriously, you probably would own books of poetry, have memorized countless lines, and written poems — yes, actual rhyming poems — in your journal. Poetry in mid-19th-century America was sort of like pop music is today. Poems filled the pages of newspapers and popular magazines, and people judged how smart you were based on your ability to memorize, recite, and compose verse.

It should come as no surprise that an event as powerful as the American Civil War, a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and touched the life of every American, would be commemorated with massive amounts of poetry. That poetry is like a time-capsule that contains clues about our history.

Take a look at this stanza of verse by the American poet, Francis Miles Finch. As you read, think: What simple historical information does the poem contain?

    These in the robings of glory,
      Those in the gloom of defeat,
    All with the battle-blood gory,
      In the dusk of eternity meet:
        Under the sod and the dew,
          Waiting the judgement-day
        Under the laurel, the Blue,
          Under the willow, the Gray.


Read the poem, look up any challenging words using Dictionary.com or another resource, then reflect and write. For each of your responses, quote the portion of the poem that you think justifies your interpretation:

  • Who is the poem about?
  • Where are they?
  • What are they waiting for?

Read this stanza again with a parent or teacher and discuss the questions. Did you come up with the same understanding?

Let's look at a way to analyze poems, or any kind of writing. Print The Blue and the Gray Analysis sheet found in Downloadable Resources in the right-hand sidebar.

This is an example of active reading. Notice that I underlined words I didn't understand so I could look them up in the dictionary. I highlighted parts that seemed to have important historical meanings and made notes about them in the margin. Active reading is a deeper way of engaging a text and, in this case, a way to extract key historical information.

Look over the understandings of the poem you generated above, and any insights you get from The Blue and the Gray Analysis sheet, then answer these questions:

  • What is the message of this poem?
  • What historical information does it provide?
  • What does the poem tell you about attitudes towards the war at the time?

Active reading is an incredibly powerful strategy. It takes vague impressions and makes them visible on the page where we can question them, seek more detailed information, extend our understandings, and draw deeper conclusions about a text.

So, continue on to the Got It? section to do just that!

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