Document Spotlight: Anna Young Smith’s “An Elegy to the Memory of the American Volunteers” 

In celebration of  Independence Day, we are highlighting Anna Young Smith, a young woman who lived during the American Revolution. Her poem “An Elegy to the Memory of the American Volunteers Who Fell in the Engagement between the Massachusetts-Bay Militia, and the British Troops, April 19, 1775,” is written from a Patriot’s perspective and reflects the division in the colonies before the Revolutionary War. 

Born in 1756, Anna Young Smith was raised in Philadelphia by her aunt Elizabeth Fergusson after her mother died giving birth. Anna drew inspiration from her aunt, who was also a writer, but her work went beyond the typical themes women writers normally focused on, such as love, courtship, and grief. Instead, Anna’s strong opinions on women’s rights and politics were her topics. Perhaps this is why some of her works were published only after her death. This poem is written from the perspective of a Patriot, or supporter of American independence, and reflects the division within the colonies before the Revolutionary War. Smith died when she was only twenty-four years old, possibly during childbirth, although the exact cause has been disputed.

As you read the poem, featured in The Schager Anthology of the American Revolution, reflect on Smith’s perspective on patriotism, war, and politics. 

“An Elegy to the Memory of the American Volunteers Who Fell in the Engagement between the Massachusetts-Bay Militia, and the British Troops, April 19, 1775,”

Let joy be dumb, let mirth’s gay carol cease—

See plaintive sorrow comes bedew’d with tears,

With mournful steps retires the cherub Peace,

And horrid War with all his train appears.

He comes, and crimson slaughter marks his way,

Stern famine follows in his vengeful tread,

Before him pleasure, hope, and love decay,

And meek-eyed mercy hangs her drooping head.

Fled like a dream are those delightful hours,

When here with innocence and peace we roved,

Secure and happy in our native bowers,

Bless’d with the presence of the youths we loved.

The blow is struck, which through each future age

Shall call from Pity’s eye the frequent tear;

Which gives the brother to the brother’s rage,

And dyes with British blood the British spear.

Where’er the barbarous story shall be told,

The British cheek shall glow with conscious shame,

This deed, in bloody characters enroll’d,

Shall stain the lustre of their former name.

But you, ye brave defenders of our cause,

The first in this dire contest call’d to bleed,

Your names hereafter, crown’d with just applause,

Each manly breast with joy-mixt woe shall read.

Your memories dear to every freeborn mind,

Shall need no monument your fame to raise,

Forever in our grateful hearts enshrined;

And bless’d by your united country’s praise.

But, O, permit the muse with grief sincere,

The widows’ heartfelt anguish to bemoan;

To join the sisters’ and the orphans’ tear,

Whom this sad day from all they loved has torn

Blest be this humble strain, if it imparts

The dawn of peace to but one pensive breast,

If it can hush one sigh that rends your hearts,

Or lull your sorrows to a short-lived rest.

But vain the hope, too well this bosom knows

How faint is Glory’s voice to Nature’s calls;

How weak the balm the laurel wreath bestows,

To heal our breasts when love or friendship falls.

Yet think, they in their country’s cause expired,

While guardian angels watch’d their parting sighs,

Their dying breasts with constancy inspired,

And bade them welcome to their native skies.

Our future fate is wrapt in darkest gloom,

And threatening clouds, from which their souls are freed:

E’er the big tempest burst they press the tomb,

Not doom’d to see their much-loved country bleed.

O let such thoughts as these assuage your grief,

And stop the tear of sorrow as it flows,

Till Time’s all-powerful hand shall yield relief,

And shed a kind oblivion o’er your woes.

But, O, thou Being infinitely just,

Whose boundless eye with mercy looks on all,

On thee alone thy humbled people trust,

On thee alone for their deliverance call.

Long did thy hand unnumber’d blessings shower,

And crown our land with Liberty and Peace,

Extend, O Lord, again, thy saving power,

And bid the horrors of invasion cease.

But if thy awful wisdom has decreed

That we severer evils yet shall know,

By thy Almighty justice doom’d to bleed,

And deeper drink the bitter draughts of woe,

O, grant us, Heaven, that constancy of mind

Which over adverse fortune rises still;

Unshaken faith, calm fortitude resign’d,

And full submission to thy holy will.

To thee, Eternal Parent, we resign

Our bleeding cause, and on thy wisdom rest,

With grateful hearts we bless thy power divine,

And own, resign’d, “Whatever is, is best.”