Today, we call it Memorial Day. However, in the days immediately following the Civil War, the annual May remembrance of the soldiers who died saving the Union and ending slavery, was known as Decoration Day. Not surprisingly, one of the most-recognized annual ceremonies to honor these valiant dead occurs at Arlington National Cemetery on the Potomac River across from the nation’s capital. On May 30, 1877, the day’s festivities included a poem from Michiganian Will Carleton – destined to become one of the nation’s leading poets.
The poem he authored for Arlington was a 55-verse dialogue between the living and the dead, entitled, “Converse With the Slain.”
Carleton won flattering reviews for his poem. One newspaper account called the Michigan poet “the celebrated poet and farm balladist, whose charming productions have carried sunshine into nearly every household in America.” At Arlington, Carleton was interrupted by applause several times during the reading, and when he finished, there was the “wildest enthusiasm.” One Michiganian who witnessed the day’s events, observed: “I have no recollection of the day when I felt so proud of my country and especially of my native State, Michigan, as I do at this hour.”
Carleton’s Decoration Day triumph covered him with more than laurels. According to Carleton’s biographer, “Arlington was clearly an epiphany-there would be no turning his back on his career as a poet and a lecturer.” The Michigan poet spent the rest of his life doing what he could do best-writing, delivering and selling some of the most popular literary works in the English language. In 1919, the Michigan legislature recognized Carleton’s influence on the American public by declaring his birthday (October 21) Will Carleton Day.
For more on Will Carleton, including his entire 55-verse “Converse With the Slain,” pick up a copy of the May/June 2007 issue Michigan History magazine.
“Converse With The Slain: Will Carleton’s Visit to Arlington National Cemetery”, Absolute Michigan
Also see separate entry on Will Carleton.
One of the authors featured in Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors. Also available online