Poems of the War – ‘Her Letter Came too Late’

Colonel W.S. Hawkins of the Confederate Army, and a prisoner of war at Camp Chase in 1864, wrote this poem. A near friend and fellow prisoner was engaged to be married to a young lady in the South, who proved faithless to him, and had written him a letter which arrived soon after his death. The letter was opened and answered by Col. Hawkins in the following lines:

HER LETTER CAME TOO LATE

Your letter, lady, came too late,
For Heaven had claimed its own.
Ah, sudden change! From prison bars
Unto the Great White Throne!
And yet, I think he would have stayed
To live for his disdain,
Could he have read the careless words
Which you have sent in vain.

So full of patience did he wait
Through many a weary hour,
That o’er his simple soldier faith
Not even death had power.
And you — did others whisper low
Their homage in your ear,
As though among their shadowy throng
His spirit had a peer.

I would that you were by me now,
To draw the sheet aside,
And see how pure the look he wore
The moment when he died.
The sorrow that you gave him
Had left its weary trace,
As ’twere the shadow of the cross
Upon his pallid face.

“Her love,” he said, “could change for me
The winter’s cold to spring.”
Ah, trust of fickle maiden’s love,
Thou art a bitter thing!
For when these valleys bright in May
Once more with blossoms wave,
The northern violets shall blow
Above his humble grave.

Your dole of scanty words had been
But one more pang to bear,
For him who kissed unto the last
Your tress of golden hair.
I did not put it where he said,
For when the angels come
I would not have them find the sign
Of falsehood in the tomb.

I’ve seen your letter and I know
The wiles that you have wrought
To win that noble heart of his,
And gained it — cruel thought!
What lavish wealth men sometimes give
For what is worthless all:
What manly bosoms beat for them
In folly’s falsest thrall.

You shall not pity him, for now
His sorrow has an end,
Yet would that you could stand with me
Beside my fallen friend.
And I forgive you for his sake
As he — if it be given —
May even be pleading grace for you
Before the court of heaven.

Tonight the cold wind whistles by
As I my vigil keep
Within the prison dead house, where
Few mourners come to weep.
A rude plank coffin holds his form,
Yet death exalts his face
And I would rather see him thus
Than clasped in your embrace.

Tonight your home may shine with lights
And ring with merry song,
And you be smiling as if your soul
Had done no deadly wrong.
Your hand so fair that none would think
It penned these words of pain;
Your skin so white — would God your heart
Were half as free from stain.

I’d rather be my comrade dead,
Than you in life supreme:
For yours the sinner’s waking dread,
And his the martyr’s dream.
Whom serve we in this life, we serve
In that which is to come:
He chose his way, you yours; let God
Pronounce the fitting doom.

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