Summers, S. Thomas. Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War. Anaphora Literary Press, Cochran, GA. 2011. 88 pages, ISBN 9781937536145, $15.
I am really not much of a poetry reader as my 12th grade english teacher could probably tell you. That's why when S. Thomas Summers contacted me about reading his book of Civil War related poetry I had to give it some thought. I'm glad I did because this turned out to be quite the little gem!
In a series of brief, mostly one page or less, poems we follow the growth and maturation of young Private Hercules McGraw. McGraw and two friends enlist in the Confederate army. McGraw joins because he feels he has to own a slave in order to win the heart and hand of Martha Lane. McGraw here clearly puts the cause of the war as slavery; "the new president up in Washington is planning on making all them free".
The three young soldiers end up at Shiloh where two key events take place for young Hercules: he shoots his first Yankee and he also finds his friend Nate dead on the battlefield. Seeing his friend dead leads Hercules to question his motives for fighting. As the war progresses Hercules finds himself becoming more soldier like. He feels he no longer has an opinion and just does as he is told. It was best not to think.
The poem Regrets contains my favorite lines from the book:
....Walked into the war
thinking I was doing some good
but the war never noticed I was there.
I could of sneaked off, slunk into some hole
and nobody would have guessed I was gone.
Then I could have talked to Jesus again---
It is in this poem that Hercules and his friend Willy sneak off eventually joining a regiment that ended up in Gettysburg.
While at Gettysburg Hercules compares Abraham Lincoln to Satan and also continues to grow up. He further realizes he doesn't need Martha Lane and that fighting a was so he can own a slave to impress her was not worth it. She was not worth it. During Pickett's Charge Hercules witnesses his friend Willy get shot in the head and die. Hercules is happy for him. During the retreat from Pennsylvania McGraw states that God is a Yankee and he considered the war over.
McGraw eventually deserts the army and heads back home empty handed as far as material things go. What he comes home with however is a new attitude and outlook. On his journey home he witnessed a regiment of black troops fighting and he realized that these were men. Not property, but men.
The sum of these pieces is truly worth more than the individual parts. A reader does not have to have knowledge of the Civil War to enjoy this story. What a reader needs is the willingness to sit for a few minutes and enjoy a great coming of age story. Well written, this is a book that can be read in pieces or can easily be finished in one sitting. Highly recommended!
*Thank you to Mr. Summers for providing a complimentary PDF copy of his book.