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Father Abram Joseph Ryan

Elmwood Cemetery
4th Alley West, Lot 27
(1838 – 1886)

Abram Joseph Ryan, OSFS, was an American poet, an active proponent of the Confederate States of America, and a Roman Catholic priest. He has been called the "Poet-Priest of the South," and less frequently, the "Poet Laureate of the Confederacy."

Ryan was born on February 5, 1838 in Hagerstown, Maryland, to Irish immigrants Matthew Abraham Ryan and Mary Coughlan Ryan of Clogheen, County Tipperary. He moved with his family to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was educated first at the Academy of Christian Brothers, then studied for the priesthood at St. Mary's of the Barrens Seminary near Perryville, Missouri, with a year serving as prefect at Niagara University in New York State. On September 12, 1860, he was ordained a priest in the Vincentian order.
As a new priest, he taught theology at St. Mary's of the Barrens and was also listed in 1860-61 on the faculty roster of the diocesan seminary in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In the fall of 1861, soon after the start of the American Civil War, he was transferred to Niagara University but remained there for less than a year, until being transferred again to parish duties in La Salle, Illinois. Early researcher Fr. Joseph McKey believed that Ryan took occasional periods of sick leave from these positions due to bouts of neuralgia, but several clerical contemporaries believed that Ryan made sporadic early appearances as a free-lance chaplain among Confederate troops from Louisiana. Some circumstantial evidence supports Lucey's position; Ryan's handwritten entries disappeared from the St. Mary's Seminary house diary for a full month after the battle of First Manassas, for example, during a period when the Archbishop of New Orleans was actively recruiting free-lance (unofficial) Catholic chaplains to serve Louisiana troops. And in a newspaper account of his 1883 sermon in Alexandria, Virginia, Ryan was quoted as having mentioned his ministry to Louisiana soldiers during the war. Respected Tennessee historian Thomas Stritch confirms that Ryan began making appearances in Tennessee in 1862, even while his official postings were in Niagara and Illinois, and these absences from his northern posts may have been the underlying cause of his frequent reassignments.

Father Ryan began formal full-time clerical duties in Tennessee in late 1863 or early 1864. Though he never formally joined the Confederate Army, he clearly was serving as a free-lance chaplain by the last two years of the conflict, with possible appearances at the Battle of Lookout Mountain and the Battle of Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga (both in late November 1863), and well-authenticated service at the Battle of Franklin (November 1864) and the subsequent Battle of Nashville (December 1864). Some of his most moving poems—"In Memoriam" and "In Memory of My Brother"—came in response to his brother's death, who died while serving in uniform for the Confederacy in April 1863, probably from injuries suffered during fighting near Mt. Sterling, Kentucky.

On June 24, 1865, his most famous poem, "The Conquered Banner", appeared in the pages of the New York Freeman’s Journal over his early pen-name "Moina." Because the same pen-name had been used by southern balladeer Anna Dinnies, anthologist William Gilmore Simms mistakenly attributed "The Conquered Banner" to her, prompting the Freeman's Journal to reprint the poem over Fr. Ryan's name a year later. Published only months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, "The Conquered Banner" captured the spirit of sentimentality and martyrdom then rising in the South. Its metrical measure was taken, he once told a friend, from one of the Gregorian hymns. Within months it was being recited or sung everywhere from parlors to public meetings.

Furl that banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently—it is holy--
For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not—unfold it never,
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people's hopes are dead!
—The Conquered Banner

Starting in 1865, near the war's end, Ryan moved from parish to parish throughout the South, moving from a brief posting in Clarksville, Tennessee (November 1864-March 1865), with subsequent stays in Knoxville (April 1865-December 1867), Augusta Georgia (January 1868-April 1870), and a lengthier tenure in Mobile Alabama (June 1870-October 1880). He then spent a year in semi-retirement at Biloxi, Mississippi (November 1881-October 1882) while completing his second book, A Crown for Our Queen.

In Augusta, Georgia, he founded The Banner of the South, a religious and political weekly in which he republished much of his early poetry, along with poetry by fellow-southerners James Ryder Randall, Paul Hamilton Hayne, and Sidney Lanier, as well as an early story by Mark Twain. His newspaper was also notable for publishing submissions by a number of period women authors, including three poems by Alice Cary, and for his oft-quoted editorial supporting greater appreciation of the role of women in the study of history and literature. He continued to write poems in the Lost Cause style for the next two decades. Among the more memorable are "C.S.A.", "The Sword of Robert E. Lee", and "The South". All centered on themes of heroic martyrdom by men pledged to defend their native land against a tyrannical invader. As one line goes, "There’s grandeur in graves, there’s glory in gloom." Within the limits of the Southern Confederacy and the Catholic Church in the United States, no poet was more popular. But he actually penned a far greater number of verses about his faith and spirituality, such as "The Seen and the Unseen" and "Sea Dreamings," which reached a nationwide audience in The Saturday Evening Post (January 13, 1883, p. 13). In 1879, Ryan's work was gathered into a collected volume of verse, first titled Father Ryan's Poems and subsequently republished in 1880 as Poems: Patriotic, Religious, Miscellaneous. His collection sold remarkably well for the next half-century, going through more than forty reprintings and editions by the late 1930's. Ryan's work also found a popular following in his family's ancestral home of Ireland. An article about his work appeared in Irish Monthly during his life, and a decade after his death, yet another collection of his poetry was published in Dublin by The Talbot Press under the title Selected Poems of Father Abram Ryan.

In 1880 his old restlessness returned, and he headed north for the twofold object of publishing his poems and lecturing. He spent December in Baltimore, Maryland, where his Poems: Patriotic, Religious, and Miscellaneous were republished. He also delivered his first lecture on "Some Aspects of Modern Civilization". During this visit he made his home at Loyola College. In return for the Jesuit fathers' hospitality, he gave a public poetry reading and devoted the $300 proceeds to establish a poetry medal at the college. In November 1882 he returned to the north for an extended lecture tour that included appearances in Boston, New York, Montreal, Kingston, and Providence, Rhode Island. Contrary to an earlier biographical article which termed this tour unsuccessful, recent research into period newspapers shows that Fr. Ryan's lecture tours of 1882-83 were phenomenally popular, with newspapers in every city Ryan visited describing packed houses and thunderous ovations. In June 1883, he accepted an invitation to recite his poem "The Sword of Robert Lee" at a ceremony marking the unveiling of Lee's statue on the campus of Washington and Lee University, and the same month, delivered the commencement address at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Ryan died April 22, 1886, at a Franciscan friary in Louisville, Kentucky, but his body was returned to St. Mary's in Mobile for burial. He was interred in Mobile's Old Catholic Cemetery. In recognition of his loyal service to the Confederacy, a stained glass window was placed in the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans, Louisiana, in his memory. In 1912 a local newspaper launched a drive to erect a statue to him. Dedicated in July 1913, it included a stanza from "The Conquered Banner" below an inscription that reads: "Poet, Patriot, and Priest."*

The Father Ryan Lot at Elmwood Cemetery was purchased by Father Ryan to provide burial space for 60 unknown Confederate soldiers.  The site is marked by a monument engraved with the words, “In this lot rest in sleep sixty Confederate dead.  We know not who they were.  But the whole world knows what they were.  They died far from their homes, but fill heroes’ graves.  And glory keeps ceaseless watch about their tomb.”
More biographical information on Father Ryan can be found in the book:  Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan, by Donald Robert Beagle & Bryan Albin Giemza, The University of Tennessee Press, 2008. ISBN 10: 1-57233-606-4


Wikipedia References:  

http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/confederate/postwar/csa.html http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/confederate/postwar/csa.html

Biographical information provided by Norfolk Bureau of Cemeteries.

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