Who wrote the poem, “On Guard”?

The following piece was sent to me for transcription and research. It was represented to be an original poem “written by the light of a fire after the Battle of Newbern” which took place on 14 March 1862. The poem was signed by the initials “H. C. W.” but there was no date nor indication that H. C. W. was even a soldier. It may have been copied from a newspaper or some other publication and passed off as original. It has the appearance of being a copy—there are no line-outs or word substitutions which would suggest original composition. The question is, was it a copy made by the author of his original composition, or did he (or she) copy it from some publication of another’s work.

Grave marker of Justin Smith Cressy

I have found at least one publication of the poem that appeared in the Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Berkshire county, Mass.) on 11 December 1862. That publication credited its authorship to Justin Smith Cressy (1831-1862). * Justin was a sergeant from Berkshire county who served in the 21st Massachusetts Infantry. He was the son of Alonzo and Sophia Mariette (Smith) Cressy and was married in Pittsfield to Harriet Elizabeth Stevens in April 1856. Prior to his enlistment, Justin was a telegraph operator so he must have been educated beyond average. The 21st Massachusetts was one of the regiments participating in the Battle of Roanoke Island and the Battle of New Bern before being recalled to Virginia in July 1862. Justin was mortally wounded in the Battle of Chantilly and died on 24 September 1862. His authorship of this poem cannot be ruled out though I might note that unless the company was shorthanded, typically a sergeant would not have stood guard in the manner suggested by this poem. Justin began and ended his service as a sergeant in Co. I and so if he was on guard detail, he would have been the sergeant of the guard and not typically confined to a post. On the other hand, sergeants or corporals who oversaw the posts generally had time to write letters (or compose poems) during the time they were on guard duty whereas the privates had to walk the beat.

I have also found the entire poem published in the True Flag (Boston, Mass) on 3 January 1863—attributed to Annie Hathaway; in the Norwich Morning Bulletin (Norwich, VT) on 28 September 1910—attributed to Thomas Francis Dowd, Camp Ferris, Barrancas, Florida, 30 April 1863; in the Palmetto Herald (Port Royal, S. C.) of 24 March 1864—submitted by anonymous contributor claiming to have seen it published in a small New Hampshire village newspaper; in the Rockland County Messenger (Haverstraw, NY) on 11 June 1863—no attribution given; and in the Lewistown Gazette (Lewistown, Pa.) on 14 December 1864—attributed to an unnamed soldier who fell in the first day’s battle of the Wilderness, supposedly penned in camp on the Potomac near Belle Plain, Va. on 24 March 1864. There are more instances of newspaper publications I am sure.

I also found a portion of the poem appearing in the History of the Seventh Illinois Regiment published in 1868 by Daniel Leib Ambrose (see page 202). The last two stanzas of the poem were included in a diary entry made on 30 October 1863 as if it were an original composition by the author.

And finally I found the words of the poem appearing in a letter penned by John D. Cottrell, Co. D, 48th New York datelined from Palatka, Florida, on 28 March 1864. In a most shameless plagiaristic manner, “Jersey Jack” Cottrell broke the poem apart into sentences, disrupting the rhythm and rhyme so as to disguise the source. This letter was included in the 2000 publication, “Brothers ’til Death” by William Jones, Richard M. Trimble, and Thomas Jones.

* The Grand Traverse Herald of 4 July 1862 also published this poem, crediting Sergt. J. S. Cressy. They claimed to pick the poem up from the Janesville Independent.

From Harper’s weekly, 5 April 1862


On Guard

Written by the light of a camp fire after the Battle of Newbern

On guard tonight; tis a lonely place
And for two long hours I must wearily pace
To and fro, neath the tall old pines
Fringed with moss and clinging vines

Scarce smiles a star through the clouds aloft
And the ocean breezes damp and soft
Fan my fevered cheek and brow
While I think of home and its loved ones now

On guard tonight tis a lonely beat
And with heavy heart and weary feet
Amid the gloom and darkness tread
For I’m watching o’er the unburied dead

Oh! yester morn how lightly throbbed
Full many a heart that death has robbed
Of its pulses warm, and the caskets lie
As cold as the winter’s starless sky

How sad the thought that another day
Will bring again the battle fray
And ere the close of tomorrow’s light
I too may sleep like those tonight

Past midnight hour and I long to hear
The step to the soldier’s heart most dear
A sound that banishes all his grief
The welcome tread of the next relief

Ah hear they come and now I can keep
The next four hours in the land of sleep
And dream of home and its loved ones there
Who never may know a soldier’s care.

— H. C. W.

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