Today, we call it Memorial Day. However, in the days immediately following the Civil War, the annual May remembrance of the soldiers who died saving the Union and ending slavery, was known as Decoration Day. Not surprisingly, one of the most-recognized annual ceremonies to honor these valiant dead occurs at Arlington National Cemetery on the Potomac River across from the nation’s capital. On May 30, 1877, the day’s festivities included a poem from Michiganian Will Carleton – destined to become one of the nation’s leading poets.
Born on October 21, 1845, in rural Lenawee County, Will Carleton was the fifth child and third son of John Hancock and Celeste (Smith) Carleton. Well-educated, Carleton graduated from Hillsdale College in 1869. A writer of poetry since his youth, Carleton received national recognition in 1872 with his “Over the Hill to the Poor House.” The poem he authored for Arlington was a 55-verse dialogue between the living and the dead, entitled, “Converse With the Slain.”
Carleton won flattering reviews for his poem. One newspaper account called the Michigan poet “the celebrated poet and farm balladist, whose charming productions have carried sunshine into nearly every household in America.” At Arlington, Carleton was interrupted by applause several times during the reading, and when he finished, there was the “wildest enthusiasm.” One Michiganian who witnessed the day’s events, observed: “I have no recollection of the day when I felt so proud of my country and especially of my native State, Michigan, as I do at this hour.”
Carleton’s Decoration Day triumph covered him with more than laurels. According to Carleton’s biographer, “Arlington was clearly an epiphany-there would be no turning his back on his career as a poet and a lecturer.” The Michigan poet spent the rest of his life doing what he could do best-writing, delivering and selling some of the most popular literary works in the English language. In 1919, the Michigan legislature recognized Carleton’s influence on the American public by declaring his birthday (October 21) Will Carleton Day.
For more on Will Carleton, including his entire 55-verse “Converse With the Slain,” pick up a copy of the May/June 2007 issue Michigan History magazine at your local bookstore or subscribe by visiting www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or calling (800) 366-3703.
The Archives of Michigan Digital Collection has close to 1,400 Civil War photographs. The majority of the images are carte de visite’s of soldiers taking during the years of the Civil War. Also included are reproductions of sheet music, broadsides and group photographs.
Project Gutenberg has indexed Will Carleton’s Farm Ballads, a book of poetry that includes some really great illustrations.
Michigan in the Civil War 1861-1866 says that 90,000 Michiganians served in the Civil War. 14,600 lost their lives and over 19,000 Civil War veterans are buried in Michigan.
(1) Will Carleton in his old home near Hudson in Lenawee County, Michigan courtesy Michigan Historical Center, Department of History, Arts and Libraries.
(2) Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-15990, drawing reads:
“Gallant charge by two companies of the 6th Michigan on Tuesday morning on the rebel rearguard, near Falling Waters, where part of the rebel army crossed the Potomac. This charge was really a very brilliant and dashing affair. The cavalry numbering not more than fifty or sixty men, charged up a steep hill in the face of a terrific fire, went over the breast works and captured nearly the intire [sic] force of the enemy with two or three regimental battle flags. Our boys were at least two thirds of the men engaged killed and wounded, quite a number of the dead were lying inside the works. This charge deserves an illustration, as it is without execption the most brilliant charge that has been made.”