Arthurus alter Christus: Sallie Bridges, Part I

Arthurus alter Christus: Sallie Bridges, Part I May 28, 2023


The Battle of Fredericksburg by Carl Röchling (Image courtesy of the blog “Pennsylvania in the Civil War.”)



A kind of nationalized Christian millennialism may have been the most common lens through which Americans viewed their nation in the nineteenth century but it was not the only one. Indeed, Americans drew from several sources in the construction of their national story. And while the millennialist ideology necessarily tied the nation’s value to its future, there were also ways of thinking about the United States that anchored its worth in the past. While Americans might celebrate their victorious struggle for independence from Great Britain and remain suspicious of that nation as a political power throughout the 1800s, they never lost an attachment to Britain as a source of culture and heritage.

Indeed, much of the American story was rooted in an idealized British past. As Reginald Horsman puts it in Race and Manifest Destiny, “the settlers in America fully absorbed the mythical view of the English past developed between 1530 and 1730” (Horsman 15), in which British history was seen as a continual struggle of heroic, democratic Anglo-Saxons against various forms of tyranny imported from abroad. This view rooted Americans’ professed love of liberty in an idealized Germanic prehistory. Robert C. J. Young, in The Idea of English Ethnicity, remarks on how thoroughly early Americans identified with the Saxons, noting that the use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” as a synonym for “English speaker” was “invented around the time of the American Revolution for the (formerly) English colonists who adopted the name of the English ancestors with whom they most identified” (Young 16). This identification with a Germanic people that claimed England by displacing an earlier population no doubt helps to explain the tendency of white Americans of the time and after to trumpet their own freedom while violently denying freedom to the country’s nonwhite inhabitants.

It was in this context that King Arthur was appropriated into the national framework. Despite the claim of Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack in their expansive scholarly study, King Arthur in America, that “Americans in search of their identities would seem more likely to reject Old-World stories with a theme so innately British … than to embrace them” (Lupack and Lupack 1), Arthur held an appeal to Americans because he was rooted in the same ancient British past that they liked to find their own country’s origins in. True, as the greatest enemy of the Anglo-Saxons, he could never fit comfortably into the narrative of continual Saxon progress through history. But he could still offer the young nation something important. As Lupack and Lupack note, the first great Arthurian boom came as the result of Tennyson’s Arthurian poems reaching American shores. It was thus the dreamy, idealized portrait of Arthur and his times found therein that became dominant in the United States and left a profound imprint on the American psyche. Lupack and Lupack remark:

Surprisingly, one of the greatest influences on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Arthuriana was the British laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Like Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a number of American writers responded to Tennyson’s lofty idealism with satire or parody … Tennyson’s Idylls and other poems, however, were even more influential in providing a view of knighthood that Americans enthusiastically adopted. (xi)

What Arthur provided—at least in Tennyson’s works—was an idealized view of heroism, upright conduct, and proper living which, if not as directly relevant to the American experience as the belief in Anglo-Saxons colonizing foreign lands in the name of freedom, could be made to align with it. The Lupacks argue that American writers assimilated Arthur into the national mythos “by associating the Dream of Camelot with the American Dream and the related notion of the American Adam, perhaps America’s only truly native mythology” (3). Americans cast the Dream of Camelot as a primordial incarnation of the later American Dream and, indeed, as the previous embodiment of the Edenic innocence destined to be rediscovered in the New World. Thus, Arthur’s reign became the ancestral precursor of America itself, and of all the ideals that America saw itself as destined to spread across the globe.

If Americans were going to hunt for their country’s origins in the woods and fields of British history, it was probably better for all concerned if that search took them to Tennyson’s ideal of perfection rather than the racial implications of Anglo-Saxonism. However, there is another reason for Arthur’s appeal. As noted in a previous entry, with the Last Emperor narrative having fallen away, the millennial implications of Arthur’s return were no longer anchored to the Christian apocalyptic narrative and given a safe outlet as a prelude to Christ’s own return. This allowed Tennyson to fully unleash those implications by directly substituting Arthur for Christ as the one who rings in “the thousand years of peace.” This too was the Arthur who came to America, where Tennyson’s reinterpretation of his return complemented Americans’ own highly unorthodox understanding of their country as the seat of the future millennial kingdom. Perhaps it was inevitable that the Arthurian millennialism of Tennyson and the nationalist millennialism of the United States would eventually intermingle, producing new and shocking visions of the end-times. This is what ultimately happened in the time of the Civil War when the two millennialist systems met in the person of Sallie Bridges.

Little is known about Sallie Bridges’s life, but she was both a Northerner and a supporter of the Union.  A literary publication fittingly named The Round Table lists her as “Miss Sallie Bridges of Philadelphia” in an announcement of upcoming publications from J. B. Lippincott and Co; the other books listed in the same announcement are all explicitly in support of emancipation and the Union, and bear names such as “The Wrong of Slavery, the Right of Emancipation, and the Future of the African Race in the United States” and “Life of Gen. McClellan” (“Announcements” 39). Both Nina Silber in Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War and Jessica Ziparo in This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D. C., document that Bridges sought work in the U. S. government, applying for a position in the Treasury Department in 1865 (see Silber 119 and Ziparo 28, 50-51, 235 n. 90, and 298 n. 65). Her application even included a recommendation from a family friend named Colonel Henry G. Stebbins, described in his New York Times obituary of December 11th, 1881 as “a staunch adherent of the war policy of the Government” (The Death List of a Day” 2) during the Civil War. Thus, in addition to her residency in Philadelphia, Bridges’s professional ambitions and social relations tied her strongly to the Union cause.

However, besides the Treasury job—which she seems not to have received—Bridges harbored another ambition. She was an aspiring poet who published her works in various Philadelphia and New York newspapers before collecting them into a single volume, released in 1864 under the unwieldy title, Marble Isle, Legends of the Round Table, and Other Poems. However, she never achieved the lofty heights of literary fame that she hoped for. Despite receiving a notice in the London Quarterly Review of October 1866 that praised her “true and glowing poetry” (“Brief Literary Notices” 247), Bridges’s work went largely unnoticed by the reading public of the time and has remained in obscurity ever since. While almost nothing is known of Bridges’s literary career afterward, during my research I came across a poem entitled “Bayre” in the Autumn 1893 edition of a publication called Modern Art that bears all the hallmarks of Bridges’s style. It is credited to a “Sallie Bridges Stebbins” which—given Bridges’s above-noted connection to the Stebbins family—suggests that this is the same person, and that Bridges continued to write and publish poems throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. (Those interested can find a link to that poem, as well as to Bridges’s known works, in the Works Cited below.)

As noted, Bridges was tied directly to the Union cause in the Civil War. That she felt passionately about it, and about the United States’s place in the world more generally, is demonstrated by her poem, “The Question of the Day in 1860.” This poem, judging by its title, was written as the Civil War stood on the horizon; in it, Bridges attempts to rally the American people to the cause of the undivided Union. She explains the necessity of preserving the Union in starkly millennialist terms. Indeed, “The Question of the Day” serves as a kind of catechism of the ideology of American nationalist millennialism, conveying all the common beliefs about America’s divinely appointed destiny. Bridges warns:

                        Dissolve the Union, that the worn-out thrones

Across the sea may mock us as we fall,

And envious powers grow secure in ill,

And crush their peoples with an iron heel

To grind out gold and blood from subject-worms,

That they no more uplooking from the dust

May westward turn their hearts of yearning faith,

And murmur to their children, “Ah, ’tis there!”

The land of promise, wherein men may think,

And not be slain for speak or robb’d of right!”


Dissolve this Union and dear hope dies out

In all the eager souls that watch its stars

Rise steadfast o’er the earth with growing light.

Pray that they prove not meteors that fade,

When they should guide all steerless ships of state

To one great haven of ensampled peace.

Save our great eagle and her eyrie broad,

From pecking crows, and vultures that await

Her parting struggles to usurp her nest,

Lest e’en the pure, white stripe of our proud flag

Be dipp’d by anarchy’s foul hand in gore,

And wave no more the beacon of the world. (“The Question of the Day in 1860” ll. 1-22)

Here, Bridges clearly makes the case that the United States is the hope of the world. The oppressed peoples of Europe are said to “westward turn their hearts” toward America in the belief that they can be free there. The American flag is the “beacon of the world.” Bridges conceives of America’s influence in the world as entirely benevolent and ennobling; it inspires other peoples to similarly reach for freedom. All of this is what is threatened if the Union, the undivided United States, does not survive. The fall of the Union will be the death of “dear hope” in not just Americans but to “eager souls” across the world. America, then, is the sole hope of the suffering people of earth and its downfall is portrayed as the final end of humanity’s ability to hope for something better than oppression and tyranny.

But there is more to Bridges’s plea than simply the histrionic belief that everyone everywhere—except cruel tyrants—admires America and wants it to succeed. Bridges also portrays America’s destiny as important in a cosmic sense. The stars of the Union that “[r]ise steadfast o’er the earth with glowing light” seem like an obvious allusion to the canton of the American flag, which is later called the “beacon of the world,” implying that it, too, lights the world just as the stars do. But the stars also convey a sense of fate rooted in astrology. They are the guiding stars of America’s destiny, whose rising has corresponded with the rise of the nation to prominence and glory. Thus, the United States is a fated nation, guided by cosmic destiny toward the fulfillment of some great purpose.

Bridges makes that great destiny clear when she says that those stars “should guide all steerless ships of state / To one great haven of ensampled peace.” The purpose that fate is guiding America to is the establishment of a universal peace, one that will include “all steerless ships of state” around the globe. There is, of course, in Christian thought and the national millennialist ideology that sprung out of it, only one such time of worldwide tranquility in humanity’s earthly future: the Millennium of Christ’s rule upon earth. Bridges directly connects the coming of the millennial era with the United States, suggesting that it is the United States’s continued success and increasing global influence that will lead the world into the millennial day. As noted previously, American nationalist millennialism had two main tenets: first, that the United States’s growth and prosperity would spread freedom and liberty across the globe and, second, that this would in turn represent the final part of God’s plan to bring about His kingdom on earth. Bridges manages to evoke and intertwine both ideas in the relatively compact span of a few verses. Thus, her poem acts as a quick and handy summation of the beliefs of American nationalism millennialism, an apocalyptic confession of faith for patriots, as it were.

Bridges’s passionate belief in this ideology and her fear at seeing it threatened both come through strongly here as well. She is, after all, arguing against secession, which in her telling threatens not only the United States but the whole world and even to God’s eternal plan itself. It is a supreme example of national self-aggrandizement, perhaps, but also a provocative and powerful argument for the Union cause. The issues at stake in the Civil War, slavery and freedom, federal authority and the composition of the nation itself, were weighty enough, but Bridges gives voice to a sense that the existence of the United States is, in some sense, the linchpin of history and of God’s grand design, adding a supernatural element to the Union cause. Despite this, what Bridges does next still comes as quite a shock. Near the end of the poem, she remarks:

In her deep heart she [America] holds some mighty dead,

Who stirr’d the nations with their words, and bore

With Atlas strength a world of care and thought.

Alas that they, the giants of those days,

Awake not now to hurl upon her foes

The curse of God on parricidal sin,

And win with charmed eloquence of yore

The sluggish masses to a holy rage,

Would crush the serpents that now hiss and sting,

Crawling in highest places of the land! (ll. 34-43)

Bridges imagines here a kind of resurrection. The “mighty dead” of America’s founding generation rouse from their eternal slumber in order to “hurl upon her foes / The curse of God on parricidal sin.” This is, of course, just a fantasy. Bridges is not arguing that it shall happen, only saying that she would like it to happen and visualizing what it would look like if it did. Indeed, in the next stanza, she expresses faith that the “people of the States that love your homes” and the “gallant hearts that throb with pure disdain / Of traitorous arts” (ll. 44-45) will be more than capable of meeting out retribution on the secessionists:

Build ye a Haman’s gallows for these knaves

That dare to raise a voice or hand to break

The sweet relationship our fathers left

To bind us all, cemented with their lives!” (ll. 46-49).

The current generation, in Bridges’s telling, will be able to punish secession and secure the “sweet relationship our fathers left” and “cemented with their lives.” Thus, the “mighty dead” can rest easy knowing that their successors will guard and defend the work that they gave their lives for. There is no need, at this stage, for a physical resurrection.

Still, it is striking that Bridges brings up the idea at all. She certainly did not have to. Leaving it out would not have made her call for an unshattered Union any less forceful. How interesting, then, that she inserts it, giving firm evidence that she is already thinking of heroes of the past returning in the present day to save the United States. Bridges had, according to her own account, already written most of her Arthurian poems by this point, and the resonance between the “mighty dead” returning to save America and Arthur’s future return to save his own nation is clear. It is all the more remarkable given that, in this poem, the return of the “mighty dead” would not only save America but also the hopeful future of the world and the coming Millennium itself. This chimes well with Tennyson’s own claim that when Arthur came again, “war shall be no more” and an era of universal peace would reign. Bridges was—despite her fiercest protestations to the contrary—well-aware of and influenced by Tennyson’s portrayal of Arthur’s return in her own poetry. It seems to have already been rubbing off on her here, as Bridges toys with something much like the strange solution she would eventually advocate for the conflict.

But that was all still in the future. Here, Bridges remains confident that “North and South,—two brothers of one birth” (l. 50) will come together as a nation to speedily dowse the fires of secession. It was, as were most assessments of Union victory in the war’s early days, far too optimistic. While allegiances were certainly more jumbled than is the traditional picture of the war allows—some Southerners fought for the Union and some Northerners supported the Confederacy—the great enthusiasm for secession in the South and some parts of the North, and the formation of a league of secessionist southern states must surely come as a blow to Bridges and her early millennialist hopes. So too must the war’s early years, with their countless setbacks for the Union on the battlefield. While most of her contemporaries would simply find ways of keeping their millennialist faith in their country alive, Bridges would not be so fortunate. Her poetry records the process by which her faith in the Union war effort and, with it, her belief in America’s millennial destiny, would falter and collapse.

Especially poignant in this regard is Bridges’s poem, “After the Battle.” This work, about a mother searching for her son’s corpse at the site of a recent engagement, sees Bridges at her most pessimistic about the Union cause. Her protagonist, surveying the field and the dead, offers several caustic remarks that undercut the high aims of the Union war effort and its sense of providential destiny. In “The Question of the Day in 1860,” Bridges had worried that “the pure, white stripe of our proud flag” would “[b]e dipp’d by anarchy’s foul hand in gore, / And wave no more the beacon of the world.” Now, in a scene that seems to deliberately call back to that moment, Bridges’s protagonist discovers the Stars and Stripes amongst the dead and remarks, “Ah, here is the flag, / Torn, dripping with gore—Pah! they died for this rag!” (“After the Battle” ll. 35-36). The troubling vision that Bridges had imagined in “The Question of the Day” has been fulfilled. The flag has been “dipp’d … in gore” and is no longer the “beacon of the world” but is simply a meaningless “rag,” not worth the dying for. The mother’s contempt sounds like a renunciation of the lofty idealism of “The Question of the Day.” Perhaps, Bridges seems to be suggesting, the symbol was always just a “rag” and not capable of carrying all the high meanings she herself had attached to it just a few years before.

However, Bridges also takes aim, in this poem, at American nationalist millennialism more directly. In the same verse where she finds the blood-stained flag, the mother looks out on the scene of battle and takes a moment to offer a stinging rebuttal to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The last verse of that song, as seen previously, had promised that through the march of the Union armies, God was establishing His kingdom on earth and “the world shall be his footstool and the soul of Time his slave.” Seeing the carnage of war first-hand, the mother recalls this verse and offers a mocking rejoinder: “Christ, Christ, what a scene! Dost thou from thy heavens o’er such visions lean / And still call this curst world a footstool of thine?” (ll. 31-33). For Bridges as for her protagonist, the horrors of the battlefield have given the lie to the Battle Hymn’s resounding claims that God is making the world ready for His coming through the Union army. The war, in her eyes, is not turning the world into God’s footstool but making it more “curst,” something which Christ should be expected to turn away from rather than embracing as His millennial kingdom draws near. In one fell swoop, covering a verse in the text, Bridges has thus renounced both pillars of the American nationalist millennialism that she had so keenly trumpeted in “The Question of the Day.” Now, for her, the cause of preserving the United States is neither noble nor is it a key component in God’s ultimate plan for humanity. It has simply resulted in more of what human history has had far too much of: blood, gore, and needless death.

And thus, Sallie Bridges lost faith in America’s millennial destiny. She no longer could believe in the potential of her country, on its own merits, to bring the world into the promised era of universal peace. She could no longer agree with the Ohioan minister, quoted last time, who confidently announced that the Civil War was “one of the prominent ways by which the Lord will introduce the Millennial Day.” But Bridges was too immersed in the millennial expectation of her era, of the general belief that the happy conclusion to history was just around the corner, to lose faith in the Millennium entirely. She had simply lost faith in America’s ability to bring it about. She would thus need a new source of hope, a new mechanism by which the millennial kingdom could be achieved. To find this source, she would turn again to her early fantasy of the return of the “mighty dead.” But this time, it would be no hypothetical scenario. And the dead hero who returned for America’s sake (and the world’s) would not even be an American.

For, while Sallie Bridges gave voice to her country’s strife through her pen, and wrote on many other subjects besides, there was one topic that engrossed her mind like no other. This was the story of King Arthur and his knights. It is not for nothing that Legends of the Round Table is included so prominently in the title of her published book of poetry. Bridges’s high regard for Arthuriana and for the work she created on the theme is demonstrated both by the fact that she wrote fourteen Arthurian poems in total—more than on any other subject—and that they alone are set apart as a special category—also titled “Legends of the Round Table”—in the book. In fact, it appears that Sallie Bridges was one of the first American writers to offer a complete cycle of Arthurian poems, chronicling Arthur’s story from the beginning of his reign to his departure for Avalon and beyond.

It was also these poems that readers of the time—such that they noticed anything that Bridges wrote—paid attention to. Unfortunately, that attention was rarely of a flattering kind. Indeed, what most reviewers noticed was that her Arthurian poems seemed remarkably derivative of Tennyson and his far better-known Arthurian visions. The London Quarterly Review, for instance, in its otherwise positive review of her poetry, observed, “‘The Legends of the Round Table’ … bear a singular resemblance to that admired production of the Poet Laureate” (“Announcements” 148). They had good reason to feel this way. Bridges’s Arthurian poems do feel like pastiches of Tennyson, but ones that lack his striking originality and glimmers of idiosyncrasy. Across thirteen of the fourteen poems, Bridges upholds contemporary conceptions of faith, family, and chaste love. Her staunch Christian faith is evident throughout the collection but her piety is so conventional that she seems incapable of matching Tennyson’s own greatest achievement, the level of spiritual innovation that he was able to offer in his own portrait of Arthur.

This was one of many Tennysonian features she seemed incapable of duplicating. Reviewers at the time seem to have generally judged her Arthurian works to be inferior imitations of the Poet Laureate and the criticism evidently stung, because Bridges annexes an author’s note to the “Legends of the Round Table” in the published volume in which she announces her intention to “exonerate myself from an anticipated accusation of plagiarism of idea” (“Note” 158) with regards to Tennyson. Remarkably, Bridges does this by furnishing a publication history of her own poems in an effort to prove that they had come out before Tennyson’s own:

The first six of the series were printed in the “Evening Journal” of Philadelphia, in 1857; the next two were published in 1859, before the appearance of “Idylls of the King;” the rest were written since, with the exception of “The Best Knight,” and “The Last Meeting of Launcelot and Guinevere,” which were composed more than a year before, though not issued in the “Home Journal” of New York until some time after Tennyson’s book came out.” (Bridges 158)

This is an incredibly useful statement, as it gives us an idea of when Bridges composed her Arthurian poems, with the first eight being before 1859 and four after, with Bridges claiming without verifiable proof that two more date to the pre-1859 period. As a defense against accusations of imitating Tennyson, it is much less convincing. While Tennyson did indeed first publish the original version of his Idylls of the King in 1859, he had been releasing Arthurian poems to the public since 1842, and these had played a much larger role in shaping the public reception of Arthurian literature than the rudimentary volume of four idylls did. Indeed, that year saw the publication of two poems, “Morte d’Arthur” and “Sir Galahad” that were still Tennyson’s most influential on Arthurian topics and which had, between them, set the tone of his Arthurian world and what the public’s reception of it. Thus, there was still plenty of time for Bridges to have encountered Tennyson and been inspired by him. Indeed, the defensiveness of her reply and her willingness to pretend as though Tennyson published no Arthurian works until 1859 suggests that she was very conscious of his influence on her and was actively working to keep it hidden.

But what is most interesting about Bridges’s author’s note is what it tells us about the final work in her Arthurian cycle. That work is not among the eight works said to be written before 1859, and thus must be one of the four works written afterward. This means that it was written during the Civil War years and, furthermore, the melancholy pessimism Bridges demonstrates toward the state of the world suggests that it was composed after the high optimism of “The Question of the Day in 1860” had vanished. This is the Arthurian text in which Bridges finally comes to address the contemporary situation of her country and tries to offer a solution that is not based on a kind of religious American exceptionalism. It is also the poem where she both seems most indebted to Tennyson, fully incorporating his vision of Arthur as a kind of divinity, and yet, ironically, where she manages to create something truly original. For, in what is her most innovative and best poem, “Avilion,” Bridges goes beyond Tennyson to suggest that is shall be Arthur himself who shall return to save the United States and achieve the millennial potential inherent in the American national project.


Works Cited

”Announcements.” The Round Table: A Saturday Review of Politics, Finance, Literature, Society and Art, vol. 2, no. 29 (2 July 1864): pp. 39.

Bridges, Sallie. Marble Isle, Legends of the Round Table, and Other Poems. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1864.

“Brief Literary Notices.” London Quarterly Review, vol. 27, no. 53 (Oct 1866): pp. 247-248.

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Lupack, Alan and Lupack, Barbara Tepa. King Arthur in America. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999.

Silber, Nina. Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Stebbins, Sallie Bridges. “Bayre.” Modern Art, vol. 1, no. 4 (Autumn 1893): p. 26.

“The Death-List of a Day: Sudden Death of Col. Henry G. Stebbins.” New York Times, 11 Dec 1881, p. 2.

Young, Robert J. C., The Idea of English Ethnicity. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Ziparo, Jessica. This Grand Experiment: When Women Entered the Federal Workforce in Civil War-Era Washington, D. C. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

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