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Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Conquered Banner

Furling The Flag (1871) by Austrian artist Richard Norris Brooke.

The Conquered Banner

 By Father Abram Joseph Ryan

Furl that Banner, for 'tis weary;
Round its staff 'tis drooping dreary;
Furl it, fold it--it is best; 

For there's not a man to wave it, 
And there's not a sword to save it,
And there's not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it; 
And its foes now scorn and brave it;
Furl it, hide it---let it rest!

Take that banner down! 'tis tattered;
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered, 
Over whom it floated high.
Oh, 'tis hard for us to fold it,
Hard to think there's none to hold it,
Hard that those who once unrolled it
Must now furl it with a sigh!

Furl that banner--furl it sadly;
Once ten thousands hailed it gladly,
And ten thousands wildly, madly, 
Swore it would forever wave --
Swore that foeman's sword should never
Hearts like theirs entwined dissever, 
Till that flag should float forever
O'er their freedom or their grave!

Furl it! for the hands that grasped it, 
And the hearts that fondly clasped it,
Cold and dead are lying low;
And that Banner--it is trailing,
While around it sounds the wailing
Of its people in their woe.

For though conquered, they adore it--
Love the cold, dead hands that bore it!
Weep for those who fell before it!
Pardon those who trailed and tore it!
But, oh, wildly they deplore it,
Now who furl and fold it so!

Furl that Banner! True, 'tis gory, 
Yet 'tis wreathed around with glory,
And 'twill live in song and story
Though its folds are in the dust!
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages, 
Shall go sounding down the ages--
Furl its folds though now we must. 

Furl that Banner, softly, slowly; 
Treat it gently--it is holy, 
For it droops above the dead;
Tough it not--unfolded it never,  
let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people's hopes are fled.

This poem was first published by Father Abraham Joseph Ryan, "Poet-Priest of the South" in the New York Freeman, a pro-Confederate Roman Catholic newspaper on Saturday, June 24, 1865, two months after the surrenders of Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Johnston's Confederate Army of Tennessee in April of the same year. The poem was later published in the first issue of the Confederate Veteran in 1893. 

The Conquered Banner became one of the best known poems of the post-war American Southland, and was memorized and recited by at least two generations of Southern schoolchildren during the height of its popularity between 1890 - 1920. 

When he wrote The Conquered Banner, Father Ryan, like many Confederate officers -- including General Robert E. Lee -- believed that no matter how noble the defense of Southern independence and revered the Confederate cause had been, the South's defeat in April of 1865 meant the final defeat of the Confederate government. Father Ryan's poem is largely a memorial to the fallen Confederate soldier and his defeated cause of self-determination.

Some modern-day historians argue that this also meant that his symbolic view that the Confederate flag be "furled forever" alluded to the belief that the battle flag of the Confederate soldier has no more use in modern society. 

The counter-argument to this logic could reasonably be made that Father Ryan did not specify in The Conquered Banner exactly which Confederate flag was referenced. Most images associated with this poem show the Confederate 2nd National colors "The Stainless Banner" rather than the square battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, or the rectangular battle flag of the Army of Tennessee used in the later half of the War Between the States.  

Popular cover for The Conquered Banner (1865)
depicting the tattered Confederate 2nd National Flag
"Stainless Banner" (May 1863 - March 1865).

The fact that Father Ryan himself continued to show reverence for the fallen Confederate soldier (his own brother had been killed wearing the Confederate gray) and the soldier's flag through his poetry long after the War also disproves the narrative of modern-day historians that Ryan wanted the Confederate battle flag to remain forever furled. 

The Conquered Banner also inspired a  British poet and Confederate sympathizer, Sir Henry Houghton (1809 - 1885), to pen A Reply to the Conquered Banner feeling that Father Ryan's poem was too defeatist. This is the full text of that poem and its message to the war ravaged Southland: 

Gallant nation, foiled by numbers! 
Say not that your hopes are fled;
Keep that glorious flag which slumbers,
One day to avenge your dead.
Keep it, widowed, sonless mothers!
Keep it, sisters, mourning brothers!
Furl it now, but keep it still--
Think not that its work is done.
Keep it till your children take it,
Once again to hall and make it,
All their sires have bled and fought for;
All their noble hearts have sought for--
Bled and fought for all alone!
All alone! ay, shame the story!
Millions here deplore the stain;
Shame, alas! for England's glory,
Freedom called, and called in vain!
Furl that banner, sadly, slowly,
Treat it gently, for 'tis holy;
Till that day--yes, furl it sadly;
Then once more unfurl it gladly--
Conquered banner! keep it still!

The Conquered Banner was especially popular in Dixie at the turn of the century when the US government formally returned the captured and surrendered battle flags to the Southern States in 1905, and at reunions of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) where Confederate battle flags flew, or were displayed respectfully alongside the flag of the United States of America with dueling but equal sense of patriotism for country and for the Southland of their birth. 

"GATHER the sacred dust of the warriors tried and true, 
Who bore the flag of our People's trust
And fell in a cause, though lost still just
And died for me and you."
~Father Abram Joseph Ryan
(February 5, 1838 – April 22, 1886)

Deo Vindice!


  1. Father Ryan's poem is clearly a conditional statement with its last line setting the absolute conditions for when the Flag is to be "furled forever".

    "For its people's hopes are fled." sets the rules of the game for all the words that come before that final line. Sir Henry, in his response poem, caught on to the rules imposed by Ryan's last line.

    At those times when the hopes of the Flag's people are fled, then furl the flag. If and when hope still exists or returns among the people... that Flag can and should rise again, as pointed out by Sir Henry. (Henry's ideas also embraced on countless US battlefields over the last 150 years... like when Dusenberg raised the Dixie Cross over Shuri Castle during WWII.)

    The good Father also left us a convenient loophole at the start... "For there's not a man to wave it,"

    Susan Hathaway, Arlene Barnum and Maeve ain't men... and those women have no problem waving that Flag in support of Confederate ideals.

  2. I will abide with the sentiments of a soldier -- Randolph Harrison McKim, June 14, 1904

    We still love our old battle flag with the Southern cross upon its fiery folds! We have wrapt it round our hearts! We have enshrined it in the sacred ark of our love; and we will honor it and cherish it evermore,—not now as a political symbol. but as the consecrated emblem of an heroic epoch; as the sacred memento of a day that is dead; as the embodiment of memories that will be tender and holy as long as life shall last.