We associate certain music with the Civil War: “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Dixie,” “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “Marching Through Georgia (actually published in 1866),” and the “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Among my favorites is the jaunty ode to “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” supposedly sung by a Confederate soldier who can’t wait to return to his girl in Tennessee “if the Yankees, they don’t kill me.”
He sings about one girl, but the men — North and South — who left home and hearth to fight left behind millions of women: mothers, sisters, daughters, sweethearts, and jilted lovers (like the French Foreign Legion, the Confederate and Union armies attracted their share of men who had left young women “in a family way”).
Among the Maine soldiers who wrote about bidding farewell to “The Girl I Left Behind Me” was Oliver Otis Howard, the professional soldier from Leeds who was teaching at West Point in April 1861. Maine was raising several infantry regiments; Gov. Israel Washburn overturned every boulder and rock from Kittery to Madawaska to find qualified officers to command those regiments and their individual companies.
After offering his professional expertise, Howard was brevetted to colonel and given the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment. He was at West Point when news arrived about his appointment.
For him, “The Girl I Left Behind Me” was Elizabeth Anne Waite Howard, a Maine girl whom he had married in 1855.
Here, as written in “Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, major general , United States army: volume 1,” is Howard’s leavetaking from his family:
The cottage at West Point where with my family I resided May 28, 1861, was a square two-story building, a little back from the street. This street, going south, passed the academy building and old Cadets’ Hospital, and ran along the brow of a steep slope, parallel with the Hudson River. My cottage, just below the hospital, had an eastern face toward the river from which there was a pleasant outlook. The luxurious foliage of the highlands was then at its best. The cliffs, hills, and mountains on both banks of the Hudson had already put on nature’s prettiest summer dress. If one entered our front hallway and glanced into the parlor and up the stairway, he would say: “It is a pleasant and comfortable home.”
I came home that day after my morning lessons a little later than usual. Before entering my front gate, I raised my eyes and saw the picture of my little family framed in by the window. Home, family, comfort, beauty, joy, love were crowded into an instant of thought and feeling, as I sprang through the door and quickly ascended the stairway.
I handed my wife the superintendent’s paper granting me a short leave. “Nothing startling,” I said, as I noticed her surprise; “if I am chosen colonel of the Kennebec Regiment, I wish to be on the ground to organize it.” It was short notice, less than an hour for preparation, as the down train passed Garrison’s, east of the Hudson, at 1.30 P. M.
My valise was soon packed, luncheon finished, and then came the moment of leave-taking, made a little harder by my wife’s instinctive apprehension that I would not return to West Point. Her instinct, womanlike, was superior to my reasoning. In truth, I was not to come back. For an instant there was a momentary irresolution and a choking sensation filled my throat, but the farewell was cheerfully spoken and I was off.
My wife was patriotic, strong for the integrity of the Union, full of the heroic spirit, so when the crisis came, though so sudden and hard to bear, she said not one adverse word. I saw her watch me as I descended the slope toward the ferry landing, looked back, and waved my hat as I disappeared behind the ledge and trees. The swift train beyond the Hudson, emerging from the tunnel, caught me up, stopped three minutes, and then rushed on with increasing speed and noise.
Thus our young men left happy homes at their country’s call; but the patient, heroic wives who stayed behind and waited, merit the fuller sympathy.
Brian Swartz can be contacted at email@example.com.