The Tragedy of “Little Giffen”

Complete credit and thanks go to for “Little Giffen” and its analysis.   Of all the Civil War poems I have read thus far, “Little Giffen” is the one that illustrates better than I ever could the horrors of children going to war.

I try to address this tragedy in several of my poems, but the one that came to mind as I read “Little Giffen” was “Guided Tour,” a poem inspired by one of my visits to Stone Bridge and the park lands beyond it.

*Note on pic: I took this photo of the old boardwalk at Stone Bridge after a snowfall.

from “Guided Tour”

Follow their faces.

Ask them, why do

cracked trees bend

but still leak sap?

When did these woods

stop brandishing boys?

How did they teach

these children to hide,

to shoot at every noise?


“Little Giffen”

This poem is true in every detail. The facts, often misstated, are set forth in a letter which the poets granddaughter, Miss Michelle Cutliffe Ticknor, courteously furnished for these pages. During the war, the wife of the poet daily visited the improvised hospitals of Columbus, Georgia. ” In one of these, the old Bank’s building, Mrs. Ticknor first saw the boy, Isaac Newton Giffen, and was so haunted by his pitiful condition that when the doctors declared his case hopeless, she carried him in her own carriage to ‘ Torch Hill,’ the country home of the Ticknors. There under the personal care of Dr. and Mrs. Ticknor he won his fight against death. Brought to ‘ Torch Hill’ in October, 1864, he left only in March, 1865, on receiving news of Johnston’s position. During his convalescence Mrs. Ticknor taught Giffen to read and write, and his deep gratitude toward the Ticknors leaves only one solution to his fate. How be met it, however, remains as obscure as his family history. That his father was a blacksmith in the mountains of East Tennessee is the only positive fact of his ancestry. He was sixteen years of age when taken by Mrs. Ticknor and had been engaged in eighteen battles and skirmishes.” It will thus be seen that the boy was wounded in one of the battles about Atlanta when Johnston and Hood were opposing Sherman. We may suppose that the Captain’s reply, given in the poem, was written after the battle of Nashville, December 15-16, 1864. In March, 1865, Johnston was again opposing Sherman, this time in the Carolinas, and it must have been in one of the closing battles of the war that ” Little Giffen ” lost his life.
Source: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Volume V

Little Giffen
Francis Orray Ticknor (1822 – 1874)

Out of the focal and foremost fire,
Out of the hospital walls as dire,
Smitten of grape-shot and grangrene,
(Eighteenth battle, and he sixteen!)
Spectre! Such as you seldom see,
Little Giffen, of Tennessee.

“Take him- and welcome!” the surgeons said;
“Little the doctor can help the dead!”
So we took him and brought him where
The balm was sweet in the summer air;
And we laid him down on a wholesome bed-
Utter Lazarus, heel to head!

And we watched the war with abated breath-
Skeleton boy against skeleton death.
Months of torture, how many such!
Weary weeks of the stick and crutch;
And still a glint of the steel-blue eye
Told of a spirit that wouldn’t die.

And didn’t. Nay, more! In death’s despite
The crippled skeleton learned to write.
“Dear Mother,” at first, of course; and then
“Dear Captain,” inquiring about the men.
Captain’s answer: “Of eighty-and-five,
Giffen and I are left alive.”

Word of gloom from the war, one day;
“Johnston pressed at the front, they say.”
Little Giffen was up and away;
A tear-his first-as he bade good-by,
Dimmed the glint of his steel-blue eye.
“I’ll write, if spared!” There was news of the fight;
But none of Giffen. He did not write.

I sometimes fancy that, were I king
Of the princely knights of the Golden Ring,
With the song of the minstrel in mine ear,
And the tender legend that trembles here,
I’d give the best on his bended knee,
The whitest soul of my chivalry,
For Little Giffen, of Tennessee.

Find out more about the author and poem at “Dead Poets of Georgia.”

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