Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note

“‘When I was over to Fayetteville today,’ said Will, ‘I found somethin’ right cute that I thought would interest you ladies and I brought it home.’ (...) He turned the bill over. On its back was pasted a strip of coarse brown wrapping paper, inscribed in pale homemade ink. Will cleared his throat and read slowly and with difficulty.

‘The name is ‘Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note,’’ he said.” --Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXX

So here’s something that used to really intrigue me. In the scene above, the poem Will Benteen brings home from Fayetteville is written on a piece of paper pasted on the back of the Confederate bill. I always assumed (correctly) that the poem was not just an anonymous creation that happened to fall into Will’s hands, but an existing piece someone pasted there in tribute to its title. And here rose the problem. To me the title seemed to suggest that the lines had been written directly on the back of a bill. But then, aren’t bills supposed to be printed on both sides?

Fortunately, history found a way to reconcile the truth of the title with my over analyzing tendencies the universally accepted truth about bills. Yes, bills are printed on both sides. However, a number of Confederate bills at the end of the war were not, because the Confederacy fell before the printing could be completed. And this was exactly the case with the $500 bill on which this poem was written.

But let’s hear the story from the author himself, a Major S.A. Jonas of Aberdeen, Mississippi. Originally a civil engineer working for the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad, Jonas went on to fight in the Confederate army (and he really was with Johnston when he surrendered--sorry, couldn’t resist that one) and then, after the war, became editor of The Examiner in his native town. From this position, he wrote a letter to a journal in Louisville, Kentucky, claiming authorship for the poem Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note and detailing its history:
“Immediately after Johnston’s surrender at High Point, N.C., a number of us obtained transportation at Richmond, Va., where we awaited means to reach our homes. A little party of us, including Capt. A. B. Schell of your city, were quartered, thanks to the kindness of its proprietor, at the Powhatan Hotel. A Philadelphia comedy company was stopping there, and one of the lady performers, Miss Annie Ruch, requested that we would all furnish her with our autographs. It so happened that among the spoils of the Confederacy that were floating through the town were many $500 bills incomplete-- the reverse sides, or backs, had not been printed--and Miss Ruch furnished us each with one of these upon which to write. We all complied with her wishes, each writing a compliment or a sentiment, and my blank was filled in with the lines in question.”

The poem was first published by The Metropolitan Record of New York, an official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church, that appeared between 1859 and 1873. To give you an idea of the specific of this newspaper is to say that, besides Catholic, all the following descriptions apply: Irish, Democrat, Pro-Southern, Anti-abolitionism, Anti-Lincoln. It was... more than just a little vehement. This newspaper would publish Jonas’ poem under the heading, "Something too good to be lost.”

The piece was such a success that it quickly became part of the popular culture, as the Lost Cause legend started to grow. As such, it was attributed to a number of people, including Father Ryan and half a dozen Southern ladies. It was actually because The Louisville Courier Journal had claimed the honor for a Kentucky lady the week before that Jonas stepped in to clear the misunderstanding and claim his laurels. 
                                                          Image from the Library of Congress
Besides featuring some classic motifs of the Lost Cause mythology, Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note also inspired/was used in a large number of artifacts, from the plain bill Will shows Scarlett to more elaborate plaques and lithographs, like the one you can see above. (It's a good thing they changed the title to The Lost Cause, though, for otherwise I would have been sure to obsess over its inaccuracy all over again.)

You can find a review of that lithograph's cultural heritage here, though the poem is assigned to a different author and Jonas to legend. The Gone with the Wind scene is also mentioned (with one little inaccuracy).

After the jump you’ll find the poem in its entirety. The stanzas in italics are the ones Will reads aloud in Gone with the Wind.

Lines on The Back of A Confederate Note

Representing nothing on God's earth now,
And naught in the waters below it,
As the pledge of a nation that's dead and gone,
Keep it, dear friends, and show it.

Show it to those who will lend an ear
To the tale that this trifle can tell,
Of a liberty born of a patriot's dream,
Of a storm-cradled nation that fell.

Too poor to possess the precious ores,
And too much of a stranger to borrow,
We issued today our promise to pay
And hoped to redeem on the morrow.

The days rolled by and the weeks became years,
But our coffers were empty still.
Coin was so rare that the treasury'd quake
If a dollar dropped into the till.

But the faith that was in us was strong indeed,
And our poverty well we discerned,
And this little note represented the pay
That our suffering veterans earned.

They knew it had hardly a value in gold,
Yet as gold each soldier received it.
It gazed in our eyes with a promise to pay,
And every true soldier believed it.

But our boys thought little of price or of pay,
Or of bills that were long past due;
We knew if it brought us our bread today,
'Twas the best our poor country could do.

Keep it; it tells all our history over,
From the birth of the dream to its last:
Modest and born of the Angel of Hope,
Like our hope of success it has passed.
                    - Major Sidney Alroy Jonas

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