When 1 Is Greater Than 620,000

By David A. Carrino
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in January 2024.

Everyone who labored through grade school arithmetic is familiar with the mathematical signs for greater than (>) and less than (<). Students are required to do many simple arithmetic problems just to drill into them what each of those signs means. If students were presented with the equation “1 _ 620,000” and asked to fill in the blank with the correct mathematical sign, they would have to give “<” as the answer in order to be given credit for responding correctly. But in one circumstance, the equation “1 > 620,000” is correct, and that circumstance is hauntingly described in a poem and in a story based on the Civil War.

The total number of Civil War dead will never be known with certainty. The American Battlefield Trust puts this number at 620,000. For those who lived in America during the war, the immense number of deaths was so horrific and mind-numbing as to be incomprehensible. When such a huge number are dying, people can become so inured to death that the loss of one more person can seem of no great matter, to the point that an after-action report indicating a small number of deaths sounds pleasant. But as terrible as the enormous number of deaths was, a single death was more painful when that death was a loved one. This reality was poignantly expressed in two items that appeared in Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. One of these was a poem that appeared in the November 30, 1861 issue, and the other was a short fictional story that appeared in the May 24, 1862 issue. The poem and the story describe two different situations when 1 is greater than 620,000.

The opening of the story “Only One Killed” as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly

The fictional story, which appeared without being credited to anyone, is titled “Only One Killed.” The story begins with someone speaking about the news of a “brief, sharp engagement” in which there were “one killed and three wounded.” The first-person teller of the story replies, “That all! Hardly worth the cost of a telegram.” But after this remark, this person notices a man glance at him and sees in the man’s eyes “a silent rebuke for this lightness of speech.” Two days later, the storyteller “had forgotten the trifling matter of one killed and three wounded,” but he notices a house that has “crape on the door.” He asks someone about this and is told that that is the house of a Mr. B–––– and that the soldier who was the “one killed” is “Mr. B––––’s son,” a young man named Edward. Mr. B–––– is the person who glanced at the storyteller after he remarked that the report of “one killed and three wounded” was “hardly worth the cost of a telegram.”

The storyteller is told that the dead soldier is Mr. B––––’s only son. He also hears that “the mother hasn’t left her room since the terrible news was communicated,” to which someone else replies, “How little do we think of what is really involved when we run our eyes so carelessly…over these almost daily announcements of one or two killed!” Another person indicates that Edward’s death is going hard “with his father and mother” but also “for one besides them.” He is told that Edward was engaged to be married. When he later sees Edward’s fiancée, a young woman named Alice, he can clearly observe in her face “sadness and suffering” and “something more than bodily sickness.” He sees in her face “heart sickness.”

When the storyteller sees the funeral procession for Edward, he wonders if any of the “thousands who had lingered scarcely a moment over the brief telegram announcing but one killed and three wounded” had “pictured distinctly a solemn scene like this” or had “given the faintest realization of the sorrow and suffering that lay veiled behind.” He also tells himself, “Fifty killed and two or three hundred wounded! Ah! now the pulses beat. Here is something worth while! How strangely this familiarity with war ices over the heart! One, two, three hundred killed or mangled. It is awful to contemplate; and yet we must come down to the single cases to get at the heart of this fearful matter.”

After observing the impact of Edward’s death on his father, mother, and fiancée, the storyteller reminds himself of the words he spoke when he first heard the news of the skirmish in which Edward was killed. “Only one killed! How insignificant the fact seemed when the telegraph made this announcement; but what bitterness had followed! Only one killed!” This touching story is a reminder of the largely unseen sorrow and anguish that occurred for every one of the 620,000 Civil War deaths. The story also makes clear that one death does not become less significant simply because it did not happen along with a large number of other deaths. (The complete story can be viewed in an online archive of Harper’s Weekly on pages 330-331 of the May 24, 1862 issue. Reading the story on the pages of Harper’s Weekly exactly as it looked to those who read it in 1862 is an excellent way to come in direct contact with history.)

The opening of the poem “The Picket-Guard” as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly

A poem that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1861 also speaks to the equation of 1 > 620,000. The poem, which was simply attributed to someone with the initials E. B., tells the story of a Union soldier who is shot and killed while on picket duty. The poem, titled “The Picket-Guard,” relates how the soldier is intently thinking of his family and his home as he tramps along the ground during the night. He hears a sound, but he is so lost in warm reverie that he pays it no heed. He sees a flash of light that he takes to be from the moon, when it is actually a discharge from a rifle. Before he even realizes it, he is shot. As his blood and his life flow out from his body, he utters a mournful good-bye to his wife. The poet’s words create a sad contrast between the military situation of that night, which is deemed “all quiet,” and the lethal outcome for the picket guard. The loss of his life is cruelly characterized in the poem by the likely reaction among most who will read about the picket guard’s death: “‘Tis nothing—a private…only one of the men.”

The poem was written by Ethel Lynn Beers, who indicated that she was inspired to write the poem when she was having breakfast at a boarding house and a woman sitting across from her at the table “looked up from her morning paper” and said that the newspaper reported, “‘All quiet along the Potomac, as usual.'” But this placid report blithely continued with the words, “A picket shot.” Beers related that she was “haunted” afterward that the death of a soldier could be described in such a nonchalant way, and she pictured a picket guard losing his life in the midst of a reportedly “all quiet” situation. Beers “wrote the whole poem before noon” that day and made “but one change in copying it.”

The first verse sets the scene:

“All quiet along the Potomac,” they say,
Except, now and then, a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro,
By a rifleman hid in the thicket,
‘Tis nothing—a private or two, now and then,
Will not count in the news of the battle;
Not an officer lost—only one of the men
Moaning out, all alone, the death rattle.”

Another verse describes the picket’s thoughts as he patrols his assigned area:

There’s only the sound of the lone sentry’s tread
As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,
And thinks of the two in the low trundle-bed,
Far away in the cot on the mountain.
His musket falls slack—his face dark and grim,
Grows gentle with memories tender,
As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep—
For their mother—may Heaven defend her!

The last two verses describe the picket’s death and his unheard good-bye to his wife:

He passes the fountain, the blasted pine-tree,
The footstep is lagging and weary;
Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light,
Toward the shade of the forest so dreary.
Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?
Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?
It looked like a rifle— “Ha! Mary, good-by!”
And the life-blood is ebbing and plashing.

All quiet along the Potomac to-night,
No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead—
The picket’s off duty forever!

Like the story about Mr. B––––, Beers’ poem draws attention to the misguided sentiment that in the midst of so much death, the loss of a single life seems trivial. Moreover, the picket’s death is minimized even further by stating that it is “not an officer lost—only one of the men,” as if the life of an officer is more precious than the life of a private. But to “Mary” and to “the two in the low trundle-bed,” the picket’s death is not merely one more lost life among the 620,000 deaths in the Civil War. His death is the Civil War death that is the most devastating one for them, which makes it thoughtless and insensitive if the picket’s death is viewed with a sense of relief simply because the picket was the only one who was killed that night. (The complete poem is available in an online archive of Harper’s Weekly on page 766 of the November 30, 1861 issue. This archive makes it possible to read the poem just as it appeared in its original publication. The complete poem, with slightly different wording, is also available online on page 13 of “All Quiet Along the Potomac” and Other Poems, a book that contains the complete works of Ethel Lynn Beers.)

The attribution of the poem to “E. B.” as it appeared in Harper’s Weekly

An interesting sidelight about the poem is that after its publication it was attributed to several different people. This is probably because the attribution in Harper’s Weekly was simply made with Ethel Beers’ initials. It is not clear how each of these incorrect attributions came about, but in her collected works, Beers included a brief discussion of this, which is available online on page 349 of the book. Beers wrote that the poem “was attributed to various pens,” and these included, among others, a Union private, a Confederate soldier in whose pocket the poem was found after he was killed, an Irish American poet named Fitz-James O’Brien, and a Confederate officer named Lamar Fontaine who served in the U.S. Navy prior to the war but went with the South. As proof of her authorship, she referred to the “ledger at Harper’s,” which showed payment to her for the poem.

Ethel Lynn Beers’ tombstone

Beers was born in 1827 in Goshen, New York and died in Orange, New Jersey in 1879 very soon after publication of her complete works. It is fortunate that she included the brief discussion of her authorship, because it allowed her to set the record straight before death prevented her from doing so, and this makes it possible for history to assign proper credit to the person who rightfully deserves it. Arguably the most definitive proof of Beers’ authorship comes from Alfred Guernsey, an editor of Harper’s Magazine, in a letter dated March 22, 1868 which Guernsey sent to someone who was trying to establish authorship of the poem. Guernsey emphatically asserted that Beers was the author and added that Beers is “a lady whom I think incapable of palming off as her own any production of another.”

Beers’ poem was so popular and was held in such esteem that it was included in some post-war collections of personal reminiscences, stories, poems, and songs. In a couple of these collections, poignant illustrations were added, such as one showing a mother tucking her children into bed and another showing a lone soldier lying dead in the field at night with the caption “The picket is off duty forever.” In addition, the widespread popularity of Beers’ poem, led to it being set to music. Ironically this was done by a staunch Confederate named John Hill Hewitt, who was so renowned for his songs about the South that he was nicknamed “the Bard of the Confederacy” and “the Bard of the Stars and Bars.”

John Hill Hewitt

Hewitt, a Northerner by birth (New York City in 1801), moved to Augusta, Georgia in 1823 and lived in the South for most of the rest of his life until his death in 1890 in Baltimore, Maryland. An accomplished musician, music instructor, and composer, Hewitt tried to enlist in the Confederate army early in the war even though he was 60 years old. As qualifications for service, he cited the time that he spent as a cadet at West Point, but he actually had not graduated due to bad grades and also due to an incident when he challenged an officer to a duel. Hewitt turned down the drillmaster position offered to him in the Confederate army and remained in his civilian profession. In 1863, he composed music for a song that he titled “All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night” with Beers’ poem used as the lyrics. The song became so popular that the sheet music went through five printings. However, Hewitt’s song probably contributed to the incorrect attributions of authorship for Beers’ poem, because the sheet music was published with the lyrics credited to Lamar Fontaine. (Some recordings of Hewitt’s song can be found online (e.g., www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhWG-4k9EZ4; www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LRwsdNOj5I; www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xu1XCHle900).)

The cover of sheet music composed by John Hill Hewitt for Ethel Lynn Beers’ poem
A notation in the lower left erroneously attributes the lyrics to Lamar Fontaine

The story “Only One Killed” and the poem “The Picket-Guard” are two examples of written works which cast light on the kind of individuals who have been largely overlooked by history but who were caught up in a terrible event involving an immense mass of such people. This same sentiment was articulated in a direct way by Drew Gilpin Faust in her monumental book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. In that book Faust wrote, “War cannot be understood or communicated as a grand panorama. It is real only in the context of individual lives–and deaths.” When so much attention is focused on the appallingly large forest of Civil War deaths, there is a tragic tendency to lose sight of the individual trees whose lives were cut short. Charles Lewis, an officer in the 119th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, expressed well how feelings of relief regarding a low number of battle losses are misplaced. Lewis wrote about his unit after a battle that “the Brigade lost but one killed,” then continued “we say ‘but one,’ never thinking that that one was somebody’s all perhaps. Had a million been slain, it would have been ‘only one’ in a million homes.”

A line in the movie Unforgiven conveys in a simple and piercing way the far-reaching impacts and unrealized experiences that result from a person’s death. One of the characters in the movie says that death takes from someone “all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” But there is even more than that. Death does the same thing to all the people whom the dead person leaves behind, because death takes from them all that they would have shared with the dead person. For each person killed in the Civil War, there was a lifelong void created for every one of the countless loved ones. Viewed in this way, even if the death of a soldier occurs unaccompanied by the death of any of his comrades, this does not make that death less significant, and it is misguided to view any soldier’s death casually no matter how few die along with him. For someone whose loved one is the one who dies, there is no such thing as “only” one.

Sources (Click on the book titles below to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

A number of sources were used for this article. The most useful sources are as follows.

Harper’s Weekly, volume V, number 257, November 30, 1861, page 766

Harper’s Weekly, volume VI, number 282, May 24, 1862, pages 330-331

“All Quiet Along the Potomac” and Other Poems by Ethel Lynn Beers (1879)

Harper’s Cycolpaedia of British and American Poetry edited by Epes Sargent, page 818 (1882)

The Living Writers of the South by James Wood Davidson, page 201 (1869)

Biography of Ethel Lynn Eliot Beers, Access Genealogy

Ethel Lynn Beers, Song of America

Ethelinda “Ethel Lynn” Eliot Beers, Find a Grave

John Hill Hewitt: Dixie’s Original One-Man Band by E. Lawrence Abel

John Hill Hewitt by Christie Finn

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust (2008)

Facing the “King of Terrors”: Death and Society in an American Community, 1750-1990 by Robert V. Wells (2000)

Soldier Details: Lewis, Charles F., Soldiers and Sailors Database for the Civil War, National Park Service

The Civil War in the East: 119th New York Infantry Regiment

Camp Fires of the Confederacy edited by Benjamin La Bree, page 524 (1898)

Under Both Flags: A Panorama of the Great Civil War edited by C.R. Graham, pages 456-457 (1896)

Civil War Casualties, American Battlefield Trust