The Unknown Dead
The death toll of the Civil War is staggering – modern estimates put the number of war-time dead in excess of 700,000 people.
Those who survived the conflict sought to cope with the horrendous loss and suffering of four bloody years. Many participants took up the pen in an effort to express their emotions and find meaning in the war’s carnage.
It was the unknown dead of Gettysburg who inspired Colonel Salome Marsh of the 5th Maryland Infantry to jot down a brief remembrance of those who paid the ultimate price on the fields of battle.
His poem, “The Unknown Dead,” and several other poems and essays are collected at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
“The Unknown Dead”
By Colonel Salome Marsh
On the fields of Gettysburg one day
Whilst walking o’er to view the spot
Where many heroes’ bones now lay
Whose deeds should never be forgot.
Being weary, I sat down to rest
Near by the graves of those unknown.
My heart was filled with deep distress
I prayed God’s mercy might be shown.
Soon I fell in sweet repose
And dreamed an angel stood near by
Weeping o’er the graves of those
Who for their country there did die.
Her face in brilliant lustre shone
Although she seemed in deep despair.
I thought I’d venture while alone
And speak to that sweet damsel there.
Tell me fair one why dost thou weep
So sadly o’er this mound alone?
Dost thou not see the dead who sleep
Are marked here as unknown?
Why dost thou stand from morn til night
Thy tender form so pure and sweet?
Art thou an Angel of the Light
Come on earth thy friend to meet?
Tell them there they hope to meet
Those dear ones left behind.
Then, oh, how joyfully they will greet,
With happiness refined.
Then how sweetly they will sing
Their songs of sweet repose.
And praises to our heavenly king
Whose mercy ever flows.
Then quickly as she had thus spoke
The vision passed away.
And from my slumber I awoke
And found alive and lay.
That happy hour to me is sweet
When thus I slept alone.
And with that angel hope to meet
The dead who are unknown.