On April 26, 1894, the Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, published the poem “Decoration Day,” by Ellen E. Hebron of Warren County, Mississippi. Written in honor of the day on which Mississippi remembered her Confederate dead, Hebron had good cause to memorialize the day: she had lost a brother and brother in law to the war. She poured out her feelings of loss and remembrance in these loving verses:
They are firing the cannon now,will it bring me back my dead? Will it raise my soldier-brothers form, and restore his spirit fled?
In far Virginia’s soil, he sleeps the ‘last long sleep,’ While I, his sister so bereft, his memory e’er shall keep.
Fair was his youthful brow, tender his loving eye, loyal his heart to his native South, when he bade his home good-bye!
High were his hopes of life, noble his soul sincere, O! mocking dream of the ‘long ago,’ so sudden his early bier!
They are strewing the flowers now, O! my darling brave and true! Can they crown with joy your pallid brow as we fondly used to do.
When your voice like a bugle-call, to patriot duty came; and your laugh like a rippling summer stream intensified the flame.
Of love three sisters bore, for an only brother’s form, Alas! Alas! that he should die so early ‘mid the storm.
I shall meet you yet again! Bright in my soul your worth, shall blossom and blossom on though years, ‘Till I bid adieu to earth.
Sweet be thy soldier-rest; happy thy christian bed; loyal and true thy manly breast, my brother is not dead!
The author of those lines, Ellen Ellington, was born at Amsterdam, Mississippi, near the modern town of Edwards in Hinds County, in 1839. Her father, Jeremiah Ellington, died when she was only four years old, and she and her siblings were raised by her mother, Sarah MacPherson Ellington. Ellen had a great affection for her mother – in a letter she wrote of her: “She was left a widow with 4 small children when I was 4 years old – and never did [a] patriotic mother try harder to rear her children aright.” Eventually Sarah remarried, and in the 1850 Census Ellen was listed as living in the household of her step-father, John Simmons, in Hinds County, Mississippi.
Described as “being a lady with a very strong and active mind, Ellen attended Memphis
Female College in the mid-1850s. After returning home she met a handsome young doctor from Warren County, John L. Hebron, and the couple were married on January 23, 1861. Ellen had married well; her father-in-law was Colonel John Hebron, who owned LaGrange Plantation in Warren County, which was one of the largest fruit orchards in the South.
The newly weds did not have long to celebrate, however, Mississippi had broken away from the Union on January 9, 1861, and very soon the state had joined the Confederate States of America. Young men from throughout Mississippi flocked to join the military for the fighting that was sure to come, and Ellen’s husband John was no different. He enlisted as an assistant surgeon with the 2nd Arkansas Infantry and left his young bride to serve his country.
Ellen’s brother Jeremiah also responded to the call of duty, and joined the “Burt Rifles,” that became Company K of the 18th Mississippi Infantry. But his service to the Southland was short and tragic: he enlisted on May 24, 1861, at Corinth, Mississippi. He traveled with his unit to Virginia, where he was almost immediately taken sick. Sent to a hospital at Culpeper Court House, he died on July 16 having never heard a shot fired in anger.
The death of her brother was only the beginning of Ellen’s travails; in 1862 her father-in-law, Colonel John Hebron, died of natural causes, and her brother-in-law, Captain George B. Hebron, was mortally wounded while leading his company at the battle of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The next year she witnessed firsthand the destruction of her father-in-law’s beautiful orchards by Union soldiers during the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863.
This long string of sorrows must have been very hard on Ellen, and perhaps she took solace in the poetry that she wrote. She must have wanted others to see her work, for the Vicksburg Daily Herald published her poem “The Heart’s Mecca,” on December 8, 1864:
The Heart’s Mecca
Away from the haunts of busy men, away from the idle crowd, away from the scenes where pleasure dwells is the spot where my heart hath bowed.
Away from all that tells of earth, and near by the gates of heaven, is the place to me, of priceless worth, is the shrine to my spirit given.
The sunshine’s chirp has a mellow tone, that tells of joys replete, and the twilight and the starlight come with a meaning soft and sweet.
Tis there that the farm we once so loved, the first-born slumbering lies, ’till the angels trump at the end of time shall summon it to the skies.
He was as bright, as fair a child, as e’er to mortals given, but the angels loved our gentle boy, and bore him back to heaven.
Then walk with a calm and quiet tread, bid worldly thoughts depart, as ye linger near his narrow bed, the Mecca of my heart.
After the war Ellen continued writing poetry, and many of her verses were published in the Vicksburg and Jackson newspapers. In 1875 she compiled many of her verses into a book of poetry entitled Songs from the South. Many themes are evident in this book: Ellen’s love of home and family, her strong Christian faith, and her bright outlook on life. She dedicated the book “To the good and the true, wherever they may be found, irrespective of age, sex, or nationality; and to that spirit of song, which has, from my early childhood, whispered its sweet messages of peace and joy to my heart, these pages are dedicated, by the writer.”
One of the poems in Songs from the South was “In Memory of Captain G. B. H.,” written by Ellen in honor of her brother-in-law George B. Hebron:
A tear and a song to the young and brave, who fell on glory’s plain, a heart and a harp with cypress wreathed, to sound the sad refrain.
For one who noble, gifted, true, amid a patriot band, the sword of freedom lightly drew to save his native land.
Hear Freemen! Hear the vow he made, ere yet his country’s call, had summoned half her gallant sons from out her peaceful halls.
I’ll go! though an aged father look with sorrow on his son, though brothers sigh, and sisters weep, our freedom must be won.
And while there’s life within this heart, or war within this land, mine is a glad, a willing part in freedom’s sacred band!
He went. ‘Twas his to cheer the sick, afar from friends and home, and his to lead his comrades when the battle-hour had come.
‘Twas his to meet the invading foe that ‘On to Richmond!’ came; and ‘Malvern Hill’ can testify his prowess and his fame.
But Sharpsburg! Ah! the eye grows dim! And sad the spirits’ lay, broken the sound and low it breathes at mention of that day.
He dies! And no kind parent stands beside his dying bed; no sister clasps his clammy hands, no brother’s tears are shed.
But he to whom he early looked for succor and for care, God of the good and fatherless, his steadfast friend, was there!
My brothers! Oh, they sweetly sleep on old Virginia’s breast, where war and war’s alarms no more shall break their quiet rest.
While to the Patriot Band on high another pair is given – For love and liberty they died – Sweet be their rest in Heaven!
While Ellen Hebron was very much a Southern girl, and a stalwart supporter of the Confederacy, she did show sympathy for the Federal soldiers who fought and died in the Vicksburg Campaign. In the December 28, 1877, edition of the Vicksburg Weekly Herald there was a poem by Hebron entitled “Our Federal Dead,” and she prefaced the verses with a brief statement: “While walking through the cemetery at Jackson, Miss, my attention was arrested by many rude, low headboards in a group; and upon inquiry I was told they were ‘soldiers graves.’ Running eagerly up the mound I began to read when my informant added ‘they are Yankee soldiers.’ Being pressed for time, and also considerably disappointed, I turned away; yet could but reflect, while slowly retracing my steps, how bitterly sad it must be to ‘sleep the last sleep’ in a land where one is scarcely welcome to a grave.”
Our Federal Dead
Ye came in the strength of martial might to a far-off goodly land, with costly armor burnished bright, ye were a valiant band! Your reveille so quick and glad awoke each glistening glade, while your sunset-drum more sweetly sad was Southland’s serenade.
Your warriors walked amid our homes In all the pomp and pride that ever with the victor comes, his loved ones by his side; while our poor starving heroes wept for country and for home, or wrapped in honor’s colors slept where sad defeats ne’er come.
Great battles raged, brave warriors waged their strength in deadly blows, while earth’s deep wounds somewhat assuaged grew pure ‘neath Winter’s snows – Spring came; and o’er each soldier’s grave, the Southron’s, Northman’s too, her fairest flowers began to wave beneath her skies so blue.
While ‘mid them all the songster’s plaint came nestling low and sad as though he feared ‘neath such restraint to echo notes so glad – Peace sounded o’er a prostrate land, and armies passed afar – But ye left the noblest of your band Beneath our evening star!
And shall we pass them coldly by while nestling at our feet? Shall we refuse a heart-felt sigh for lives so grand, so fleet? O God! Thou know’st all things; what parts man from his fellow-men; But earth, and Heav’n and human hearts all plead for love again.
Ellen Hebron had a long and fruitful life: she raised three children to adulthood, one of whom became a state senator, she was a tireless worker for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and she was an honorary member of the Mississippi Press Association. In 1890 she published a second book of poems, Faith or Earthly Paradise.
Ellen Hebron died in the early 1900s, but her spirit lives on through the verses she so lovingly crafted.