#L11-19-63

One of the Most Famous Poets in the Civil War whose Pen Name was “Asa Hartz” Writes One of his Admirers from Johnson’s Island Prison in Lake Erie

“Asa Hartz” was Major George McKnight.  When he was in the prison for Confederate Officers located on Johnson’s Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio he wrote much poetry and it was published in many newspapers.  He also performed in the prisons drama troop which was called “The Rebel Thespians”. 

George McKnight served as Major and AAG on the staff of Maj. Gen. Loring until he was captured on July 19, 1863 near Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and sent to Johnson’s Island where he remained over a year. Few prisoners, North or South, were able to see any humor in their predicament, but “Asa Hartz” made it his mission to entertain and bring smiles to the faces of fellow prisoners. Not only prisoners, but the Rebel Thespians would invite citizens living in nearby Sandusky to attend their performances. His play “The Battle of Gettysburg” enjoyed a lengthy run on Johnson’s Island.

McKnight was married prior to the war, but in May 1863 just before his capture, his wife had been killed by Union Iowa soldiers at Jackson, Mississippi. Much of his poetic verse talked about her and other fair maidens. He was much admired by Southern women as his verses appeared in many Southern newspapers. No doubt he spent much time writing his admirers, an example of which is this letter.

The letter is three pages in ink written in a beautiful hand. It is headed “Military Prison, Johnson’s Isle, Nov. 19, 1863.” It is addressed to “My Dear Madam.” McKnight first explains about a surprise that he had. “On Sunday night last while conversing with some of my companions in misery, in a tone of voice fully as clear as I ever possessed, I suddenly lost all power of articulation. Much alarmed, I instantly made known my condition to my friends, who of course, could not render me any assistance. I remained this way – except that I could speak in a low whisper – until about an hour ago – four days and one night – when my voice was suddenly returned to me.”

He then comments on a mutual acquaintance, her son Capt. Ed Hansen of the 3rd Louisiana Infantry and states “I do not write it to flatter a fond mother’s heart when I say that “Old Blizzard” (Maj. Gen. William Loring) had not in his whole command one who more richly deserved promotion than the Captain. He is not only ever ready for any duty pertaining to his position, but very prompt in its execution.”

Here are some more interesting lines from that letter:

• “You must know, Madam, that the wild and almost uncivilized life of a soldier is a very severe test of a young man’s morals, and that it is very difficult, especially for a staff officer, to keep himself free from at least some of the social vices which cannot be shaken from the mess table or camp fire; and yet I feel proud to say that he has kept himself aloof from them all. He is one of the few I have met with since I entered the service in whose moral training has been too deeply inculcated to be eradicated by vicious association or example.”

• “It is very sad to think of the vast amount of our best blood which has flowed to feed the demon of this horrid war. God grant that it may soon end.”

• “P S. I have another favor to ask of you. Have you a lady friend who owns a superannuated but highly respectable old guitar that she has cast aside? If so, please, Madam, show to her this postscriptum, and beg her to send it to me. Tell her that by so doing she will have the felicity of knowing that she is relieving the ennui of a poor Reb who has taken a very great fancy to learn that instrument, but who has been deprived of the one he borrowed by recent changes in the prison.”

• “I am sincerely your obt. servt. Geo. McKnight Maj.”

The letter is in fine condition and comes with photocopies of many of McKnight’s “verses.”

#L11-19-63 – Price $395

Transcription:

Military Prison, Johnson’s Isle
Nov. 19th 1863.

My Dear Madam:

I was just upon the point of sending you a letter this morning; but I am glad, now, I did not do it for two reasons.  One of them is the fact that your very welcome favor of the 16th reached me this afternoon, Col. Pierson having very kindly and promptly sent it in to me.  I am glad in the second place, because of a change having taken place in my physical self, which I will endeavor to explain:

          On Sunday night last, whilst conversing with some of my Companions in misery, in a tone of voice fully as clear as I ever possessed, I suddenly lost all power of articulation.  Much alarmed, I instantly made known my condition to my friends, who of course, could not render me any assistance.  I remained this way – except that I could speak in a low whisper – until about an hour ago – four days and one night – when my voice as suddenly returned to me.  Now, the letter I had written and intended to send you this morning entered fully into the subject, and I say I am glad I didn’t send it because I am “all right” again.

          I am much pleased to know that you have so recently and so pleasantly heard from Hansen, and I do not write it to flatter a fond mother’s heart when I say that “Old Blizzard” had not in his whole command one who more richly deserved promotion than the Captain.  He is not only ever ready for any duty pertaining to his position, but very prompt in its execution.  You must know, Madam, that the wild and almost uncivilized life of a soldier is a very severe test of a young man’s morals, and that it is very difficult, especially for a staff officer, to keep himself free from at least some of the social vices which cannot be shaken from the mess table or camp fire: and yet I feel proud to say that he has kept himself aloof from them all.  He is one of the few I have met with since I entered the service in whose moral training has been too deeply inculcated to be eradicated by vicious association or example.  I have a right to speak thus, for I believe I am some seven years his senior; and your remark that he is a “good son and never gave you a moment’s trouble” does not astonish me.

          I sincerely sympathize with you in your unhappiness respecting the misfortune you refer to in the closing portion of your letter, which misfortune I suppose will have culminated before this reaches you.  It is very sad to think of the vast amount of our best blood which has flowed to feed the demon of this horrid war.  God grant it may soon end.

          You speak of one of my name who married a Miss Marshall.  I do not know if he be a relative of mine.  My nearest of kin belong to South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.  My own immediate family are of the former state where I was born.

          I was unable to find Col. Critcher this afternoon, neither could I see Capt. Harper.  I will find out what block he is in tomorrow, and deliver Mrs. N’s message.  Capt. Lynn sends kind remembrance to you, and begs you will give his love to Mrs. Snyder, who, he says, is a near neighbor of yours. 

I have written you a long letter, Madam, much longer perhaps than will be agreeable to you.  If so, forgive me for this time, and I will in future take up less of your valuable time.  But oh! If you only knew what a relief from weariness it is to me to have a correspondent so kind and so prompt as yourself, you would not blame me for overrunning ordinary limits in my epistolary exercises.  But I must close.  With my very best wishes for yourself and family,

I am sincerely your obt. servt.
Geo. McKnight
Maj.

P. S. 
I have another favor to ask of you.  Have you a lady friend who owns a superannuated but highly respectable old guitar that she has cast aside?  If so, please, Madam, show to her this postscriptum, and beg her to send it to me.  Tell her that by so doing she will have the felicity of knowing that she is relieving the ennui of a poor Reb who has taken a very great fancy to learn that instrument, but who has been deprived of the one he borrowed by recent changes in the prison.  Tell her that I will learn a pretty little song upon it and play it in her praise just before going to sleep every night.  If successful, it might be sent by express, care of Lt. Col. Pierson. 
G. M.





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