Shortly after the Civil War ended, Major Sidney A. Jonas, late of General Stephen D. Lee’s staff, made his way to Richmond, hoping from there he could find transportation to his home in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Although he and his companions were broke, the sympathetic owner of the Powhatan hotel gave the former Confederates lodging for the night.
While a guest at the Powhatan Jonas wrote a poem that came to be loved throughout the South, a mournful dirge to the lost Confederacy known by the simple title “Lines on the back of a Confederate Note.” Years later Jonas wrote an account of how the poem came to be written, which was published in Volume 14 of Watson’s Magazine:
Among the guests of the hotel was a vaudeville troupe hailing from Philadelphia, and they were very kind to the ‘Johnnie Rebs,’ as they called us. It happened that among the federal captures was a carload of unfinished Confederate notes, chiefly of large denomination, with backs blank, and these became scattered among the Yanks. Miss Annie Rush, one of the leading actresses, came into possession of quite a ‘bunch’ of this embryo money, and she brought the bills to our lounging room, distributing them with the request that each would ‘write her a sentiment as a souvenir.’ I had some little standing among the boys as a ready scribbler, and I think I wrote all the ‘sentiments’ for the gang on scratch paper, each one transcribing his offering upon the note blank alloted him.
Upon my bill I wrote the lines that unwittingly struck a patriotic chord and ‘will not down.’ If I had chosen from the lot I would possibly have taken one of the other poems for mine, as time had not yet given sacred tinge to things Confederate. Among those present when the lines were written were Capt. A.B. Schell, now of Louisville, the gallant commander of Cheatham’s Sharpshooters; Capt. D.L. Sublett, late of Chattanooga, ordinance officer; Major Claire, I think of Johnson’s staff; Mr. Sublett of Virginia and others whose names I do not now recall.
Of course I did not appreciate my work, writers seldom do, and would have forgotten it but for the fact that the recipient gave it, or a copy of it, to the New York Metropolitan Record, then a Southern sympathizing weekly that had a tremendous circulation South, where it appeared a few months after the war over my signature, and headed ‘Something Too Good To Be Lost.’ Since then it has appeared one or more times in almost every paper or magazine in the South; in many Northern papers, even in the Congressional Library Almanac, and in foreign prints and books of war poems, and in nine cases out of ten as anonymous, or attributed to, or claimed by others.
Here is the poem that struck such a cord with the people of a dispirited and defeated South:
Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note
Representing nothing on God’s earth now, and naught in the waters below it, as the pledge of a nation that’s dead and gone, keep it, dear friend, and show it.
Show it to those who will lend an ear to the tale that this trifle can tell, of Liberty born of the patriot’s dream, of a storm-cradled nation that fell.
Too poor to possess the precious ores, and too much of a stranger to borrow, we issued to-day our promise to pay, and hoped to redeem on the morrow.
The days rolled by and weeks became years, but our coffers were empty still; coin was so rare that the treasury’d quake if a dollar should drop in the till.
But the faith that was in us was strong, indeed, and our poverty well we discerned, and this little check represented the pay that our suffering veterans earned.
We knew it had hardly a value in gold, yet as gold each soldier received it; it gazed in our eyes with a promise to pay, and each Southern patriot believed it.
But our boys thought little of price or of pay, or of bills that were overdue; we knew if it brought us our bread to-day, ‘Twas the best our poor country could do.
Keep it, it tells all our history o’er, from the birth of our dream to its last; modest, and born of the Angel Hope, like our hope of success, it passed.
After returning home to Aberdeen, Jonas decided he had a talent for writing, and founded his own newspaper, the Aberdeen Examiner, which he edited himself for over fifty years. When he passed away in Aberdeen on September 13, 1915, his obituary in Confederate Veteran Magazine said of him, “Wielding a powerful pen, possessed of encyclopedic information, he was the match for any of the molders of opinion throughout this great land and undoubtedly could have discharged with eminent distinction and satisfaction the duties of any editorial tripod in any of its great cities. Dedicating the magnificent powers of his royal manhood to the service of his adopted state, he wrought his brain and heart and soul into the fibers of her civic life.”
Today Sidney Jonas is at rest in the Old Aberdeen Cemetery in Aberdeen, Mississippi, but his ode to a lost Confederacy lives on.