Poet, author, musician, soldier—Sidney Lanier was one of the south’s most prolific minstrels. Lanier only spent his twilight years in North Carolina but his service in the Civil War, combined with his accomplishments in literature and education, has ensured his legacy as a Son of the South.
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Sidney Clopton Lanier (1842-1881) was born in Macon, Georgia, to Robert and Mary Jane Lanier on February 3, 1842. His father a successful lawyer, Lanier grew to adolescence in an environment where an appreciation for the fine arts was cultivated. He graduated from Oglethorpe University in 1860, and the following year enlisted with his brother Clifford in Company C, 2nd Battalion Georgia Infantry. In early 1862 his unit was assigned duty in the Wilmington area and helped construct Fort French and Fort Fisher. While there he wrote some of his earliest poetry including “The Tournament” which was later published with much acclaim. An accomplished musician, Lanier and his brother Clifford are recorded in several contemporary accounts as having played a number of recitals in the Southport area entertaining the local populace.
Two years later, having transferred to the Confederate Signal Corps, Lanier was assigned as a signal officer aboard the fleet of blockade runners that operated out of the lower Cape Fear River, coordinating their maneuvers with signal operators stationed at nearby Fort Fisher. On November 2, 1864, while running the blockade onboard the vessel Lucy, Lanier was captured just off of Fort Fisher by the Union Navy. While Lanier found his subsequent confinement in Point Lookout in Maryland deplorable, he had time enough to translate several literary works and reflect on his wartime experiences. His first and only novel, Tiger-Lilies (1867), was based in part on his service in North Carolina during the Civil War.
After the war, Lanier found little success in his professional pursuits. Having contracted an illness upon returning to Macon after his release in early 1865, he struggled through intermittent bouts of disease and a constant lack of interest in law, for which he was formally trained. His marriage to Mary Day in December of 1867, albeit a blissful one, brought added the responsibilities of supporting a family. Finally, knowing that illness would claim his life sooner rather than later, Lanier chose to blindly follow his musings. In his remaining years, Lanier became an accomplished flutist, serving in the Peabody Symphony and Baltimore Orchestra, and lectured in English literature at The Johns Hopkins University. All the while, he published several books and poems. In 1881 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, moving again to Lynn in Polk County soon thereafter. It was in Lynn where he wrote his last poems, and succumbed to his illness on September 7, 1881.
While he pursued many interests, Lanier was foremost a poet, and the works for which he is best remembered deal with nature. “The Marshes of Glynn” and “Sunrise” were inspired by memories of his native Georgia. The house he occupied in Lynn still stands, along with a library that bears his name in nearby Tryon. Lanier was immortalized in stone within the Duke Chapel in Durham, as one of the three “Great Men of the South”. His friend George Westfeldt, to whom Lanier dedicated the poem “Sunrise,” is buried at Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher.
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, X, 601-5 (1946)—sketch by Edwin Mims
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV, 18 (1991)—sketch by William S. Powell
J.F. Newber, Jr., An Imperfect Sketch to the Various Tributes to Sidney Lanier in North Carolina (2003)
Susan Copeland Henry, “Sidney Lanier” in The New Georgia Encyclopedia, online at: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.com/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-533