Poem of the Week | April 30, 2013

This week we’re publishing a new poem by Brockenbrough Lamb. Brokie is a native of Richmond, Virginia, a rare book collector and owner of Libbie Books in Richmond’s west side.

Author’s Statement:

I’m from Richmond, Virginia where reminders of the Civil War are…plentiful, so I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that I should write about it. However, this is the only poem I can remember writing that so directly takes a scene from the war as its subject. All too often we think of major conflicts in major terms, with the Civil War, for instance, slavery or states’ rights. But history isn’t made simply by marble men tossing grandiose speeches back and forth or charging bravely up a hill. Enemies do not always hate and demonize each other. I mean, Breckinridge doesn’t show his dislike of Sherman here because he laid waste to the South during his march to the sea. No, he’s frustrated that he didn’t get enough bourbon. From my comfortable life nearly 150 years later, I can relate to that.

The Bourbon Peace


Bennett Place, North Carolina
April 18, 1865


When Joseph Johnston and William Sherman
(those two, remember, would become good friends)
met to negotiate the Confederacy’s
largest surrender, John C. Breckinridge
rode from Greensboro, from Davis
and the Cabinet, to join them.
Sherman wanted peace (“war is hell”) and so did Johnston,
as good a peace as they could get.
And John Cabell Breckinridge, Representative
and Senator from Kentucky,
still our youngest Vice President
(35 when elected with Buchanan),
opponent of Lincoln in 1860,
commander of the cadets at New Market,
Confederate Major General and final Secretary of War,
wanted peace because peace could now be had.
Peace, yes, but bourbon too,
Kentucky in a bottle, water of life, elixir.
These things Sherman put on the table,
knowing how badly both were needed—
peace and bourbon.
And didn’t everyone laugh when Sherman said,
once Breckinridge had finished drinking and speaking,
that the Kentuckian would have him surrender to Johnston
and not the other way around?
Powerful stuff, this bourbon
that can get such men to joking.
No matter that later Sherman poured himself a glass
and, perhaps absentmindedly,
did not offer Breckinridge another,
though he had taken the chaw from his mouth in anticipation.
No matter that afterwards Breckinridge
called Sherman a hog.
No matter that, with Lincoln dead, that first (friendly) peace
fell apart when it was kicked up the line.
No matter that Breckinridge felt the need
to flee to Cuba, Britain and Canada
(where bourbon must have been uncommon)
and did not return till amnesty was offered.
No matter, no matter, no matter, no matter.
Peace and bourbon were had.