In his “Confederate Memorial Address” delivered at a cemetery in Macon, Georgia, in 1870, Lanier first used the image of the river’s acceptance of its responsibility to stay its course despite many impediments to represent the heroic survival of Southern manhood and womanhood during and after the Civil War. Himself a Confederate soldier and the survivor of a four-month stay in a series of Union prison camps after his capture on a blockade runner in 1864, Lanier had firsthand knowledge about the significant challenges that faced his native region, and he became an important spokesperson for what came to be known as the New South.
“Song of the Chattahoochee” echoes some of the practical advice that Lanier offered his fellow Southerners on how they might rebuild their lives after the devastation of the war years. Just as the river seeks to “toil” and to bring relief to “dry fields,” so Lanier advocated, most vividly in his poem “Corn” (1875), that the South needed to abandon its dependence on cotton in favor of crops less abusive to the soil and less dependent on the vagaries of trade. Just as river water turns the mill wheel, so Lanier advocated homegrown industry, an argument most fully explored in his 1880 essay “The New South.”
In addition to its place in his larger philosophy of regional reconstruction, the poem seems consistent with other Lanier works dealing with the theme of union with some spiritual force larger...
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