A Confederate’s lament over the death of Thackeray

Posted on June 7, 2014 by


I was recently thumbing through the editions from the last year (1864) of the Southern Literary Messenger, trying to find any traces that might be lingering… evidence of a passion for literature… among Southerners. Not surprisingly, there were the normal pieces associated with the war… not so much literature, in the Scott/Dickens/Irving sense… but… more along the lines of Robert R. Howison‘s ongoing installments of the “History of the War”, Edwin Porter Thompson’s (yes, that Ed. Porter Thomson of Orphan Brigade note) poetry (which revealed his longing for home and loved ones), and patriotic pieces such as two found in February’s edition… “Southrons! Yield not to Despair!” (written by a young lady from Baltimore, “immediately after a late reverse in our cause.”)…

Southrons! Yield not to despair!
Weep not, mothers, wives forlorn:
Wintry nights are worst to bear
Just before the break of morn.

Tho down-trampled in the dust
By a despot’s cruel heel,
JUSTICE’S cause we hold in trust
Yield it not for fire or steel!

… and Hermine’s “Last Words of Major Wheat” (regarding the 1862 death of Chatham Roberdeau Wheat)…

“Bury me on the field boys”, and away to the glorious fight,
“You will come again this way, boys, in your triumpth-march to-night,
But when you pass this spot, boys, I would not have you sigh –
In holy cause of country, boys, who would not gladly die!”

Though, certainly, patriotic entries would be expected, I really longed for something that might be evidence of a form of escapism from the war. Surely, and especially into 1864, there were Southerners who would have much more enjoyed something that wasn’t news of the war or patriotic poetry. Perhaps even some form of escape to years past… back to the days when the Messenger focused its efforts on providing a Southern-printed publication to satisfy that sort of hunger.

Indeed, there was.

While not new works, there were examples of “longing” for the literature of the past… which may have actually been reprints of old works simply because new works were rather scant (though, the Messenger did, in fact, turn down works… as shown in the pages of its 1864 editions). There was, for example, a piece from Dryburgh Abbey… “The Funeral of Sir Walter Scott”… about the famous author who had been dead, by 1864, for 32 years.



More contemporary write-ups focused on the recent death (December 1863) of British author, William Makepeace Thackeray*… such as… I guess you can call it a “syndicated piece”, having appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in March, and then in the following month, in the Messenger… Charles Dickens’ “In Memoriam – (Thackeray)”.

Of greater interest to me, however, was a piece about Thackery’s death, as written by William Gordon McCabe**. As some readers may well know… during the war, McCabe wasn’t sitting at home, writing… but did so in the field (in the case of the following piece, likely while in winter quarters). McCabe’s piece takes up nearly four pages of March’s Messenger… as such, I’ll only provide the first three paragraphs of his tribute, “Nil Nisi Bonum”…

William Gordon McCabe

Artillery lieutenant, William Gordon McCabe

I am not ashamed to confess that when I read the other day that curt telegram, Thackeray is dead, I felt a tightness about my heart strange in these grim days, when we look with careless eyes on the red harvest of Death, and every bulletin brings us tidings that still another of the good and brave and strong has poured out his life’s blood in battling for the Right. I do not think you would wonder at it, though, if you knew ho long, and how much I loved and admired him. From the careless school-boy days, when I slept with “Pendennis” under my pillow, and read it over and over again, until I believed implicitly in the reality of “Pen,” and the Major, and George Warrington, and all the rest of them – from those dear old days, I say, I had looked upon him as so great and wise, that I had never thought ,at all of his dying. I thought of him as they taught me I must think of Shakespeare and Milton, and I must confess that the adventures of Master Arthur at Oxbridge were more delightful reading to my mind then, that the finest passages in the greatest masterpieces of the other two. If he had gone on writing books for fifty years to come, I am not sure that I should ever have paused to wonder at it. But pallida mers comes en scene at last. Aequo pulsat pede, you see, and the bravest and best and wisest must finally pay his obolus to the grim old ferryman.

We remember his own beautiful Nil Nisi Bonum when Irving and Macauley passed away, wit hits loving prattle about the “careless old horseman” of Sunnyside, and all its kind words of Christian charity for the other. In an humbler way, as one of those unknown beneficiaries, who has sat so often at the feast of wit and wisdom which he spread for all with a lavish hand of great-hearted generosity, and who has risen up cheered and comforted and strengthened for the great battle of life, with much love in my heart for this truest friend, whose face I never saw, I come to lay my unpretending wreath on the new-made grave, where the best and wisest are already bringing garlands of immortelles.

No doubt you have read that clever account of his writings published the other day in one of the Richmond weeklies, and written by one who had sat at his table, and listened to his brilliant talk, as it broke into a thousand radiations of sparkling wit and flashing repartee, and anon glided into earnest works of truth and wisdom. You have read there how it was accident he became a man of letters, and how, if fortune had not have shaken her swift wings, we should have had indifferent copies after Raffaelo and Titian, instead of those incomparable creations which have placed him by the side of Shakespeare and Fielding.

I think the most significant features of McCabe’s tribute are 1) … despite the brief reference to the war at the beginning, the ability of McCabe to detach all else, and focus on the significance of Thackeray and his works and the manner in which they touched him, as a reader, even before the war, and 2) to give us a rare opportunity to consider this Confederate officer, separate from that role (especially as he is probably better remembered for his war-related writings)… as a man of intellect. In his lament, McCabe, even amidst the challenging year that was beginning to unfold, provides a rare glimpse of educated Southerners who became Confederate officers… and not a stereotype so typically assigned to their status.


*Thackeray was quite popular in the antebellum South, and had even more so endeared himself to Southerners due to his visits in 1853 and 1856. Michael O’Brien gives an excellent overview of those visits in his work, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, pages 54-59.

**McCabe was a son of John Collins McCabe, who had also contributed to the Southern Literary Messenger in years prior to the war.