Poem on a Civil War death: "Only a Private Killed," 1861
A Spotlight on a Primary Source by Hanford L. Gordon
Approximately 3.5 million men served in the Union and Confederate military during the Civil War. Recent scholarship indicates that at least 750,000 men died. Lewis Mitchell of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers was one of those men. On October 21, 1861, during the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Virginia, his regiment was stationed near Edward’s Ferry, away from the main fighting. The unit lost only one man—Mitchell.
A few weeks later, Mitchell’s friend Hanford L. Gordon wrote the poem featured here. Gordon recounts how he learned of Mitchell’s death and gives a visceral description of his friend’s last moments. He concludes the poem with a patriotic observation about a soldier’s fate: “And as each grave is filled / We will but ask our Chief to say / ‘Only a private killed.’” In these verses, a soldier comes to terms with the death of a comrade and the possibility of his own death in the early days of the Civil War.
A full transcript is available.
But we fight our country’s battles
And our hopes are not forlorn
Our death shall be a blessing
To “Millions yet unborn.”
To our children and their children
And as each grave is filled
We will but ask our Chief to say
“Only a private killed.”