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Civil War Harper's Weekly, April 26, 1862

This site presents online editions of all the Harper's Weekly newspapers published during the Civil War. These newspapers are available for your perusal and study. The information on these pages is simply not available anywhere else!

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Halleck

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APRIL 26, 1862.]

HARPER'S WEEKLY.

267

cottage beside the chapel—and there Nelly remained. When she recovered, all recollection of Morris's return and their wedding had passed away, and she still watches each sail as she did for the first long months—preparing warmth and comfort for those whom storms may cast upon the shore, and appears to be anxiously awaiting the arrival of some one.

"It's no good contradicting her," said old Tom to me; "and, after all, maybe she's right; for though he was a heretic, sure they were man and wife, and the trouble she's going through may be getting his dear soul out of purgatory."

Morris's relations disputed the right of Nelly to inherit his property. The case was taken through the law-courts and decided in their favor, on the plea that, there having only been a marriage according to Nelly's faith, whereas, he being a Protestant, the Roman Catholic ceremony was not binding in a legal point.

So the Glandore fishermen have not got their long-wished-for Life-boat yet; they can not raise even the £150 or £200 that would purchase it. The Society can not afford to give it without that sum; and although half a dozen wrecks in the winter is no unusual event, no one bas come forward among the wealthier neighbors to promote a subscription. Year after year brave fellows are lost attempting to save and help the wrecked—boats are stove in, and whole families reduced to beggary. Yet I never heard one of the poor widows or orphans murmur, save for the loss of the beloved one. "Sure, yer honor," said one poor woman, with the tears trembling in her eyes, "what could Barney do whin the poor creatures were drownin'? I would have gone too, av' I'd been strong enough. There's many a sore heart, no doubt, for the poor things that's wrecked; but there's sorer here, whin we see thim that's the support o' a family drowned tryin' to help thins—an' faith it's little he's thought of elsewhere."

Such was the inscription on the coffin in which was borne to Greenwood all that was mortal of one of the most gifted writers of the day, who died in defense of his adopted country. FITZ JAMES O'BRIEN was the only son of an Irish barrister of good family, who died while the boy was young. He rarely spoke of his own early history; but from casual intimations I infer that his boyhood was a singularly happy one. His mother, after many years of widowhood, married again. I have had occasion to see letters from her to other persons, full of the most tender feeling for her son in a distant land; and whenever he had written any thing with which he was specially pleased, he was always eager for early proofs to send to her. "She will be glad to see it," he would say. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin; but I imagine that his University career was not a brilliant one, measured by academic standards. He carried away small Latin, and less Greek and mathematics; but he must have read largely in general literature and out of the way sciences. He was destined for the law; but choosing literature for a profession, he went to London, while quite young, where he speedily found access to the public, and became a contributor to Dickens's Household Words, then in the flush of its early success.

The sudden development of periodical literature in America seemed to open a wider career, and O'Brien came to this country in 1852. Every editor of that period will remember the swarms of English and Irish writers who filled his sanctum. If a man with a notable Cockney or Hibernian accent brought in a specially worthless manuscript, he was sure, by his own account, to be a leading writer for the Edinburgh or Blackwood, Fraser or the Dublin University, Punch, the Times, or Household Words—or, quite likely, for all of them; and his articles were eagerly awaited by these publications; but he preferred to publish first in America. "You will be kind enough to decide at once," was the common request; "for if you do not accept, I shall send it by next steamer to Dickens, who will be glad to have it."

Of quite a different order was O'Brien. His brilliant talents were speedily recognized, and he became a valued contributor to the leading periodicals of the time. Of his earlier writings, not a few lovers of poetry still remember "Pallida," and a score of other charming waifs which were sent adrift on the pages of the Whig Review; and his subtle appreciative critique of Tennyson's "Maud" in the New York Times.

The well-born, well-bred, and accomplished young Irishman was welcomed to the best literary and social circles. Permanent and recognized positions in the press were always at his command, and were at different times held on the Times, Putnam's Magazine, Harper's Weekly, and subsequently, and for a still longer period, upon that brilliant but erratic paper, the Saturday Press. But for a while it seems pleasanter to write only what and when one pleases, than to be bound by fixed obligations to furnish so much matter, of a certain kind, at a specified time. O'Brien knew that he could always transmute his fancies into current coin; and freedom was so delightful, and he doubtless flattered himself that his leisure would be spent in accumulating stores of observation and experience for the "Great Work," which, like all young writers, he proposed to accomplish at some future day. So he retained these definite positions but for a short time; and the greater portion of his literary labors are in the shape of isolated contributions to various periodicals.

My own acquaintance with O'Brien dates from the time of his first contributions to Harper's Magazine. The earliest of these which I can now identify appeared in November, 1853. From that time until the month before his death, with a few short

intermissions, almost every number contained something from his pen. A poem of his, entitled "The Fallen Star," published just seven years after that first contribution, contains, I think, the best description of him as he appeared to me in those bright, early years. I remember well when he read the poem to me. He was a magnificent reader—the only person, in fact, to whose reading of his own poems I was always glad to listen. I copy a few verses which seemed then and now to me to describe O'Brien as I had known him five years before:

"A figure sinewy, lithe, and strong-

A laugh infectious in its glee—

A voice as beautiful as song,

When heard along the sea.

"On me, the man of sombre thought,

The radiance of his friendship won,

As round an autumn tree is wrought

The enchantment of the sun.

*   *   *   *   *

"Thus rearing diamond arches up,

Whereon his future life to build,

He quaffed all day the golden cup

That youthful fancy filled.

"Like fruit upon a southern slope,

He ripened on all natural food, The winds that thrill the skyey cope,

The sunlight's golden blood. "And in his talk I oft discerned

A timid music vaguely heard;

The fragments of a song scarce learned,

The essays of a bird."

The whole poem is of wonderful power; and I call to mind how burdened with emotion grew the voice of O'Brien as he read the verses which describe the downward career of this friend so highly gifted—from the leading spirit in wild, bacchanalian orgies down to the poor, shivering mendicant asking alms in the public street. The first part of the poem describes the poet as he was in the glory and freshness of his youth; the latter parts are an imagination of the possible depths to which he might descend. "There," said the Immortal Dreamer, as he saw some poor wretch whipped at the cart-tail—"There goes John Bunyan were it not for preventing grace."

O'Brien's contributions were of various kinds—tales, sketches of life and character, bits of charming descriptions of natural objects, and in later years chiefly poetry. As a mere story-teller I do not rank him very high. Though he wrote not unsuccessfully for the stage, his genius was not dramatic. He had not in a high degree the faculty of creating or portraying character. The persons in his tales are rather embodiments of some delicate thought or quaint fancy than real individuals. His best productions, which take the form of stories, are the development, in strictly analytic form, of some weird speculation in science or philosophy. Of this class there are three which deserve especial mention. They are "The Pot of Tulips," "The Diamond Lens," and "What was It?" The first and the last of these appeared in Harper's Magazine; and it was owing to a misapprehension that the other, after having been accepted, was withdrawn and published elsewhere.

The "Pot of Tulips" is based upon Reichenbach's theory of the "Odic Force," in virtue of which the faint simulacra of the dead may hover around the objects in which while living they had some overmastering interest. The plot is wrought out with great shill, the marvelous denouement being narrated in the most matter-of-fact manner. To the story was appended a postscript, to the effect that any person "who wished further to investigate the subject might have an opportunity of doing so by addressing Harry Escott, care of the Publishers of the Magazine." Scores of letters, and not a few personal applications, were received, asking for the means of communicating with Mr. Escott. I remember one young man, who called so often, and was so firmly convinced that in this narrative lay the germs of some great revelation, that I was compelled to tell him that the whole was a pure effort of the imagination. Unfortunately he would not believe me.

Some circumstances gave special notoriety to "The Diamond Lens." The story is founded on the old idea that time and space are mere accidents; that, for instance, a drop of water is a world in itself, and may be peopled with beings who, in the few moments before it evaporates, shall go through the experiepces of a human lifetime. O'Brien, in the story, constructs from the diamond a lens of sufficient magnifying power to bring this world within human perception. All the details of the construction of the lens are given with perfect scientific accuracy. The late William North had written a story called "Microcosmus," based upon the same general idea. He had spoken of it to many, though I know of no person excepting myself who has read it; for it was offered to the Magazine. Shortly afterward he committed suicide, and the story, so far as I know, was not found among his papers. Some one charged O'Brien with stealing the "Diamond Lens" from North, slightly altering it, and passing it off for his own. The charge was wholly unfounded. I am confident that he never saw North's story, and I think he never heard of it until after the "Diamond Lens" was published. At all events the two were wholly unlike in every point except the suggesting idea, which has been in writing for two thousand years.

Still more notable is the strange piece, "What was It? A Mystery." The conception of this is, I believe, wholly and absolutely O'Brien's. It is that of a being with body and limbs, endowed with immense vitality and strength, as tangible to the touch as the firmest flesh and bones, yet utterly imperceptible to the sight. This Thing drops into the chamber of Harry Escott, attacks him in his bed with teeth and claws, and after a fierce contest is overpowered and bound by him and his friend. I know nothing in all literature more powerful than the description of the hand-to-hand struggle between the two strong men and this invisible antagonist. The Thing being overpowered is stupefied with chloroform and a plaster cast taken from it, which reveals to the eye all its hideous deformity—

" Dore or Callot or Johannot never conceived any thing so horrible!" It was like one of Du Chaillu's gorillas, with all its revolting brutishness exaggerated to the utmost. Meanwhile what was to be done with the monster? Should they kill it, or try to preserve its life? They knew not even the food upon which it lived. There it lay, day after day, invisible to the eye, but, as the tossing of the bed-clothes showed, writhing in the agonies of starvation. At length it died, and they carried it to the garden—as heavy as the corpse of a murdered man, yet as impalpable to the eye as the purest ether—and buried it. The whole conception is gigantic! And yet, why is it not scientifically possible? If there exist things which we can see and not feel, why may not those exist which we can feel and not see?

After all, O'Brien's highest excellence was as a poet, as will be manifest when a collection is made of his various writings. From his contributions to Harper's Magazine and Weekly alone a volume might be selected which the world would not willingly let die. His poems are various in kind. There are some ballads on Classic and Scandinavian themes; but the greater number are thoroughly American in subject and tone; for though of foreign birth and education, he so moulded his genius to the land in which the best years of his life were passed, that he was more thoroughly American than most writers of native birth and training. There are also a number of keen sketches of society; among which I call specially to mind "The Finishing School;" "The Tenement House;" "The Prize Fight"—an indignant protest against the brutalities of the Ring and its backers and abettors; and best of all, "The Sewing Bird," which is worthy of a place beside Hood's "Song of the Shirt." This was one of those which he was particularly anxious to send to his mother. Of the numerous poems in which the gentleness and grace of O'Brien's genius found their best utterance, in verse of exquisite melody, and replete with charming touches of description, I have not space to give even the titles. Of one poem, the noblest of all—the Ode on Kane —I must say a few words:

When the tidings of the death of the Arctic hero reached us O'Brien was asked to write a poem on Kane for the next number of this paper. He set to work at once, but for a time, it appeared, vainly. The thought was there, but it would not shape itself into form. All at once the whole flashed before him in a series of pictures. He saw where—

"Aloft upon an old basaltic crag,

Which, scalped by keen winds that defend the Pole, Gazes with dead face on the seas that roll

Around the secret of the mystic zone,

A mighty nation's star-bespangled flag

Flutters alone.

And underneath, upon the lifeless front

Of that drear cliff a simple name is traced;

Fit type of him who, famishing and gaunt,

But, with a rocky purpose in his soul,

Breasted the gathering snows,

Clung to the drifting floes,

By Want beleaguered and by Winter chased, Seeking the brother lost amid that frozen waste."

Then came visions of the burst of welcome which greeted Kane from the whole land—from the deep woods of Maine to "Texas wild and grim;" and of the brave young heart seeking to recover in a sunny clime the vital heat of which it had been robbed by the Arctic winds; and of the solemn end, when,

"Ere the thunders of applause were done,

His bright eyes closed forever on the sun! Too late, too late the splendid prize he won In the Olympic race of Science and of Art."

Then came the two magnificent strophes in which are condensed into two-score lines that long tale of peril and self-sacrifice, with the noble choral close:

"No grander episode doth chivalry hold,

In all its annals hack to Charlemagne,

Than that long vigil of unceasing pain,

Faithfully kept through hunger and through cold,

By the good Christian knight Elisha Kane."

The poem sprung up as a series of pictures, which were to be disposed in proper order. We west over the proofs as he had arranged them, and agreed that the order was faulty, and should be changed in the types; and so it was done. Early next morning he came to me. "We were wrong," he said; "the poem was right as I had it." I had meanwhile come to the same conclusion, and it was altered back precisely as it stood at first. I have more than once heard the same order suggested in which the poem was placed at the first change. But I am sure that any one who enters fully into its spirit will agree with me that, as it originally stood and now stands, it is perfect in thought, structure, and arrangement.

For two or three years O'Brien wrote comparatively little—almost nothing, indeed, except an occasional poem, and short paragraphs for Vanity Fair. The charm of a desultory life had gone, and he was looking forward to continuous effort. He proposed to write a novel of American Life and Society. The plot and characters were arranged, but I do not know whether any progress had been made in the actual composition. Meanwhile he contemplated publishing, in collected form, those of his writings which he thought worthy of preservation. The title which he selected was "Flotsam and Jetsam"—Things lost by Shipwreck, or thrown overboard to save the Vessel.

But the impending war of the rebellion changed the current of his purpose. He was by nature a soldier, and he saw before him a new career. He joined the Seventh Regiment, and marched with his company to the capital. To the Times he wrote back a spirited account of the march from Annapolis, which is placed in permanent form in Frank Moore's admirable "Rebellion Record;" and wrote besides several of the best poems which the war has called forth. When the Seventh returned he endeavored to raise a company for a volunteer regiment; but a thousand obstacles, under which he chafed and fretted, intervened. He then tried, unsuccessfully at first, to obtain a position on some general's staff. At last in January he received a letter from Lander, with the long-desired appointment

on his staff; and on the next day he started for Washington.

The last time I saw him was on the evening before his departure. "I have another poem for you," he said. It was the "Soldier's Letter," published in Harper's Magazine for March. Reading it now, it seems as though it were written with a dim presentiment of his own fate. It opens in a hopeful strain, and closes abruptly, for the long roll is beating to arms, and he must not be missed from the fight. Then comes a postscript, written by the hand of a comrade:

" That was a sharp skirmish that came as I wrote to you out on the hill;

We had sharp fighting for a while, and I lost my arm—There, don't cry, my darling!—it will not kill,

And other poor fellows there met greater harm."

I have not space to detail the events in O'Brien's brief but glorious career as a soldier: How, in the brilliant skirmish at Bloomery Gap, Lander, O'Brien, and two soldiers dashed upon an ambuscade, and captured three officers and eight men:—how O'Brien retained the sword and accoutrements of the rebel captain as trophies—the same trophies which were so soon to be borne upon his own coffin:—how, two days later, February 16, O'Brien headed a body of cavalry which encountered a superior force of the enemy; how he met the rebel leader, when two simultaneous shots were heard; the one fired by O'Brien carried instant death; that which he received pierced his shoulder; but he still rallied his men, and brought off all save himself unharmed. All these belong to history.

O'Brien's wound was not at first thought dangerous. He wrote to his friends that he should be at home in twenty days. But the time passed and he did not come. Then came another letter to his old literary associate of the Saturday Press, full of genial humor, but telling a sad story of suffering past, and worse in anticipation:

"I hope to God," he says, "you will never have to go through what I have experienced, and what I am liable to. For the first week of my wound nothing but enormous doses of morphine kept me from going crazy with pain. I had to be kept all day in a lazy, half-slumberous condition, in which I felt like a hot-house plant, dozing and living, and that's all......I left off morphine completely four weeks ago. It was a hard struggle to part with the great consoler......Imagine the 163 pound man you knew cut down to about 120, and so weak that the falling of a book startles him as if it were the bursting of a shell.......The day after to-morrow I am to have a probe put into the wound, and shoved down as far as my elbow, after which they will cut the flesh of the fore-arm open to the bone for six inches in length. So you see I have quite a pleasing prospect before me......The day is lovely. The sun shines
on the distant hills. The singing of the birds comes through my window with a grateful sound, as I lie sad, silent, and suffering. Oh, liberty of motion, health, and strength, I never knew what treasures you were till now!"

The truth was, the surgeon who had taken charge of the case wholly misunderstood it. He had treated as a simple puncture of the flesh a wound in which the joint at the shoulder had been shattered into a hundred pieces, and the life of the sufferer was slowly suppurating away. The only hope was in the critical surgical operation to which he refers. On the 4th of April his friend Davis received a letter scrawled in pencil by O'Brien announcing the result:

"I gave up the ghost, and told him to go ahead. There were about twelve surgeons to witness the operation. All my shoulder bone and a portion of my upper arm have been taken away. I nearly died. My breath ceased, heart ceased to beat, pulse stopped. However, I got through. I am not yet out of danger from the operation, but a worse disease has set in. I have got tetanus, or lock-jaw. There is a chance of my getting out of it, that's all. In case I don't, good-by, old fellow, with all my love! I don' t want to make any legal document, but I desire that you and Frank Wood should be my literary executors, because after I'm dead I may turn out a bigger man than when living. I'd write more if I could, but I'm very weak. Write to me. I may be alive. Also get Wood to write."

Three of his friends started on the instant. The trains failed to connect at Baltimore. They telegraphed, and received the reply, "O'Brien is very low. He is glad you are coming." They hurried on as soon as possible; but arrived too late. On Sunday morning, the 6th of April, O'Brien seemed a little better, and sat up for a time on the side of his bed. A little nutriment was administered through a syringe. The Doctor asked if he would take a glass of sherry. He said Yes. While slowly sipping it, he turned pale and fell back. Cologne was dashed in his face. But it was too late. His features were set in death. "So died," writes his friend Wood, "at the threshold of a grand career, a great Poet and a brave Soldier—a man of such a kindly and charming nature that he was beloved even by his enemies."

THE "NAUGATUCK."

THIS unique little vessel was built at Hoboken by Mr. Stevens, and embodies some of the principles on which his larger battery is built. Just previous to her departure for Fortress Monroe we dispatched an artist to make the sketch which is given on page 262. He makes the following report in regard to her dimensions, build, etc.: Length over all, 101 feet; breadth, including bulwarks, 22 feet; depth of hold, 9 feet. She is constructed in four compartments of about equal size, those at the bow and stern being intended for water, and the midship sections being occupied by the crew's quarters and engine-room. Beneath the deck is another compartment, running the whole length of the vessel, also intended to be filled with water when the vessel is fighting trim. When this compartment is empty the vessel draws about 4 1/2 feet of wafer, and when filled—which is done through valves connecting with the larger compartments—she draws within a few inches of 9 feet. Around the vessel bulwarks are constructed of white cedar, 4 1/2 feet in depth, 20 inches thick, and extending 18 inches above the deck. The object of this is to afford buoyancy and protection. Her armament consists of one 100-pounder rifled gun and two 12-pound howitzers. The former is so placed as to point forward, and space in the bow is made to open, through which the fire is delivered, and the opening is at once closed. The gun is loaded on Stevens's principle of lowering the muzzle beneath the deck and loading from below.

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