Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Civil War Poem: “Kentucky Belle,” by Constance Fenimore Woolson

[The Confederate battle flag, called the "Southern Cross" or the cross of St. Andrew]

My father's been typing up Civil War material he's found in old magazines. This is quite a feat as Pop types with a 4 finger hunt and peck style. I'll be posting these in a series so you can follow. --JGR
Kentucky Belle
by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840-1894)
Found in "Songs and Poems of Yester year" April, 1968

Summer of sixty three, Sir, and Conrad was gone away--
Gone to the country town, Sir, to sell our first load of hay--
We lived in the log house, yonder, poor as ever you've seen.
Rochen, there, was a baby, and I was only seventeen.

Conrad, he took the oxen, but he left Kentucky Belle.
How much we thought of Kentucky, I couldn't begin to tell.
Came from the Bluegrass country, my father gave her to me.
When I rode north with Conrad, Away from the Tennessee.

Conrad lived in Ohio--a German he is, you know--
The house stood in broad corn fields, stretching on, row after row.
The old folks made me welcome, they were kind as kind could be.
But I kept longing, longing for the hills of Tennessee.

O for the sight of water, the shadowed slope of a hill!
Clouds that hung on a summit, a wind that never is still!
But the level land went stretching away to meet the sky--
Never a rise from north to south, to rest the weary eye!

From east to west, no river to shine out under the moon.
Nothing to make a shadow in the yellow afternoon;
Only the breathless sunshine, I looked out, all forlorn.
Only the "rustle, rustle" as I walked among the corn.

When I fell sick with pining, we didn't wait any more,
But moved away from the corn lands, out to this river's shore
The Tuscarawas, it's called, Sir! Off there, Sir, you see.
And now I've learned to like it, next best to Tennessee.

I was at work, one morning, someone came riding like mad--
Over the bridge and up the road, Farmer Rouf's little lad;
Bareback he rode, he had no hat, he hardly stopped to say:
"Morgan's men are coming!, Frau, they're galloping on this way.

"I'm sent to warn the neighbors, he isn't a mile behind.
He sweeps up all the horses, all the horses he can find--
Morgan; Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men!
With bowie knife and pistols, are galloping up the glen!"

The lad rode down the valley, and I stood by the door.
The baby laughed and prattled, playing with spools on the floor.
Kentucky was out in the pasture, Conrad, my man was gone.
Nearer, nearer, Morgan's men were galloping, galloping on!

Suddenly I picked up baby, and ran to the pasture bar;
Kentucky! Kentucky! I called her, she knew me, ever so far!
I led her down to the gully, that turns off to the right;
And tied her to the bushes, he head was just out of sight.

As I ran back to the log house, at once there came a sound--
The ring of hoofs, galloping hoofs, trembling over the ground.
Coming into the turnpike, out of White Woman Glen--
Morgan, Morgan the raider, and Morgan's terrible men.

As near they drew, and nearer, my heart beat fast in alarm;
But still I stood in the doorway, with baby on my arm.
They came. They passed, with spur and whip they sped along--
Morgan, Morgan, the Raider, and his band six hundred strong!

Weary, they looked, and jaded, riding through night and day;
Pushing on east to the river, many long miles away.
To the border strip where Virginia runs up to the west,
And ford the Upper Ohio, before they could stop to rest.

On, like the wind they hurried, and Morgan rode in advance.
Bright were his eyes, like live coals, as he gave me a sideways glance;
And I was just breathing freely, after my choking pain,
When the last one of the troopers suddenly drew his rein.

Frightened I was, to death, Sir, I scarce dared look in his face,
As he asked for a cup of water, and glanced around the place. I gave him a cup and he smiled--'twas only a boy, you see
Faint and worn, with dim blue eyes, and he's sailed the Tennessee!

Only sixteen, he was, Sir, a fond mother's only son.
Off and away with Morgan, before his life had begun!
The damp drops stood on his temples, drawn was his boyish mouth,
And I thought of the mother, waiting -- Down in the tortured South!

Oh pluck he was to the backbone, and clear grit through and through.
Boasted and bragged like a trooper, but big words wouldn't do.
The boy was dying, Sir, dying, as plain as plain could be.
Worn out by his ride with Morgan up from Tennessee!

But when I told the laddie that I, too, was from the South,
Water came into his dim eyes, and quivers 'round his mouth.
"Do you know the Bluegrass country?" he wistfully began to say--
Then he swayed like a willow sapling, and fainted dead away.

I got him into the log house, and finally brought him to.
I fed him, and coaxed him, as I knew his mother would do
And when the lad got better, and the noise in his head was gone,
Morgan's men were miles away, galloping, galloping on!

"Oh, I must go," he muttered, "I must be up and away!
Morgan, Morgan is waiting for me, I must be up and away!"
But I heard the sound of trampling, and kept him back from the door
The ringing sound of horses' hoofs that I had heard before.

And on, on came the soldiers, the Michigan Cavalry.
And fast they rode, and black they looked, galloping rapidly
They had followed hard on Morgan's track, they had followed day and night.
But of Morgan, and Morgan's Raiders, they had never caught a sight.

And rich Ohio sat startled, through all those summer days,
For strange wild men were galloping over her broad highways
Now here, now there, now seen, now gone, now north, now east, now west.
Through river valleys and corn lands, sweeping away her best.

A bold ride, and a long ride! But they were taken at last;
They almost reached the river, by riding hard and fast.
But the boys in blue were upon them, ere ever gained the ford.
And Morgan, Morgan the Raider, laid down his terrible sword!

Well, I kept the boy 'till evening--kept him against his will.
But he was too weak to follow, and he sat there pale and still.
When it was cool and dusky, you'll wonder to hear me tell ---
But I stole down to the gully, and brought up Kentucky Belle.

I kissed the star on her forehead--my pretty, gentle lass--
But I knew that she would be happy, back in the old Bluegrass.
A suit of clothes of Conrad's, with all the money I had;
And Kentucky, pretty Kentucky, I gave to the worn out lad.

I guided him to the southward, as well as I knew how.
The boy rode off with many thanks, and many a backward bow.
And then the glow it faded, my heart began to swell,
As down the glen she went, my lost Kentucky Belle!

When Conrad came in the evening, the moon was shining high,
Baby and I were both crying, I couldn't tell him why.
But a battered suit of clothing, gray, was hanging on the wall,
And a thin old horse with drooping head stood in Kentucky' stall.

Well, he was kind, and never said a hard word to me,
He knew I couldn't help it--it was all for Tennessee!
But after the was over, just think what came to pass--
A letter, Sir, and the two were safe, back in the old Bluegrass!

The lad got across the border, riding Kentucky Belle;
And Kentuck, she was thriving, and fat and hearty and well
He cared for her and kept her, nor touched her with whip or spur.
Ah--We have had many horses, but never a horse like her!

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18 Responses »

  1. Love the poem, Kentucky Belle. Made me tear up just a bit. Will be looking for other posts from your dad's search of Civil War area poems and songs and stories.

  2. What a wonderful story poem! It is so full of the time, place and emotions. Was Constance Fenimore Woolson any relation to the Fenimore Cooper of New York and literary fame? I visited one of his replicatedl rooms in the Coopestown Museum this summer. Whoever Constance was or wasn't, she told a charming, painful tale.

  3. As a child, I had an illstrated book of the poem the Kentucky Belle. It was one of my favorites, the drama of women trying to save her beloved horse. I have to make an oral presentation about KY and the Cival War for a class and plan to use this poem. I couldnt find my childbook book but google lead me here. Tell you Father thanks documenting it!

  4. As a schoolgirl, in the early years of the last century, my mother recited this poem by heart as an assignment. It is a bit on the mawkish side, but I still enjoy reading it from time to time. I am sure that I could never memorize it!

    I am not a history buff particularly, but I do enjoy reading an occasional history. I recently finished Evan Thomas's "John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy."

    The reason for getting a copy of "Kentucky Belle" was because I am putting together a shadow box with a picture of my mother and some of her things as kind of a memorial to her. (I did one for my father a couple of years ago.)

  5. My father told me his grandmother used to recite this poem to him when he was child, probably around 1940 or so. That's why I looked it up. I'm glad did.

  6. I read this poem when I was a girl, and it always stuck with me. I just finished reading Poetry of the Civil War, edited by John Boyes, and was very disappointed when I didn't find this poem in his collection. Shame on you, John Boyes! and thanks to your father, riehlife, for resurrecting it,

  7. I am 81 years old. As a child, my mother entertained my sister and me reciting poems and singing songs Mother had memorized. (No TV or radio.) "Kentucky Belle" was one of our favorites. It was meaningful to Mother and, undoubtedly to her mother, who was born in 1850 in Ohio and grew up, married, and raised her family there. I'm printing off "Kentucky Belle" for a couple of my sons who are Civil War buffs.

  8. My grandmother use to recite this poem to her children, and then my dad to carried on the tradition. I now recite it to my grandchildren. My grandmother said it was a poem dear to many children of the South.

  9. Our Grandmother recited this poem to us in the middle 1950's and my mother, Doris Vickers Evans, used to recite it as well. Judith memorized this poem about 1958 and recited it in Literature class in 1961. It brings back great and loving memories of our grandmother who passed this life in 1972. To this day, it still brings a tear when it is read or recited. Too bad others don't have these same kind of memories of their grandmother.

  10. Agatha and Judith,

    To have these memories of your grandmother linked with the love of a beautiful poem is fortunate, indeed. I'm glad this post brought these back.

    Janet Riehl

  11. My mother too had memorized this poem and taught me to recite it on our evening walks around the Ohio State University campus in Columbus. Today I Googled the poem through the "Morgan's Raiders and Morgans terrible men" line because I have just discovered that my great grandfather, when he was 13, was captured by Morgan on his raid through Meigs County, Ohio. My Civil War remembrance is to locate relatives that were in service--I hadn't thought that a little boy captive would lead me back to this poem.

  12. some 60 odd years ago my grandmother would recite this poem to my sister and I from memory. She had memorized it sometime before the turn of the last century. How close to the Civil Was she was. I cannot read it without tears coming to my eyes.

  13. My Grandfather (Daddy Mc) recited this poem to us grandkids. We loved it . I cried every time. It was in the fifties. I can still remember much of it. Thanks.

  14. I have been looking for this poem for years. My grandmother recited it to me when I was a girl, probably some 75 years ago. And even today, as I read it, tears welled up in my eyes. Thanks so much for bringing back such wonderful memories.

  15. It's a good long while since I've seen this poem.I grew up with my grandparents and my grandmother used to recite it to me. She was a very harsh and abusive person so I have few good memories 'KENTUCKY BELLE' is one of them. Thankyou for keeping her alive and well .

  16. I read this poem when I was around 10-11 years of age. It was the first poem I had ever read that liked. I read it again and again. It combines many things into a story that tears at your heart. I wonder if she ever wrote anything else?

  17. My mother, born 1898, recited this poem many times as I was growing up. It was one of several that she had memorized but this and "On the Shores of the Zeider Zee" were my favorites. I have not been able to locate the Zeider Zee poem but because my granddaughter is reading the book "Rebels Raiders" in fourth grade I Googled "Kentucky Belle" tonight and found your posting. Thanks for making this information available. Our parents and grandparents had a gift of memorizing that is now being forgotten. Too bad!

  18. When I was a little girl, my father would read his favorite poems to me.. curled up beside him on his big bed late in the evening. As I was a born horse-lover, this was always my favorite. Reading it makes me feel like that little girl again curled up against my father watching and following the words as he spoke. My mother is from Ohio which brought it close to home for me. My father is gone now. I am grown and finally have horses of my own, and I too have married a German. 😉 Fond memories. Thanks for posting.

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