February 16, 2013 9:01:02 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
Sometimes research and writing takes you in unexpected directions, and that is the case today. As I started writing this column, I stumbled into one of those poignant stories of long ago that touches a present-day nerve.
My column was to be on Alexander B. Meek. Though no longer well- known, A.B. Meek once cut a wide swath across the American South.
He was born in Columbia, S.C., in 1814, and spent much of his life in Alabama, where he made a name for himself as an attorney, judge, speaker of the House of Representatives, Attorney General, assistant to the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, editor of the Tuscaloosa and Mobile newspapers, historian, moving force behind the creation of Alabama's public school system and a poet of national reputation.
After the death of his wife in Mobile, he moved to Columbus in 1863, where his much younger brother, Samuel, resided. Carolyn Kaye provided me with a fascinating tidbit on the Meeks. Samuel, also a prominent attorney, was married to Mary Cannon, the daughter of Col. William Cannon. Not long after Alexander arrived in Columbus, he married Col. Cannon's widow, making him his brother's stepfather. The old Meek home in Columbus had been built by Col. Cannon in 1854 and is now known as Wisteria Place.
Alexander B. Meek died in Columbus on Nov. 1, 1865, and was buried in Friendship Cemetery, his grave stone saying simply: "Here lies the body of Alexander B. Meek, Poet, Orator, Historian, and Statesman."
Strangely, the interesting twist I found centered not around Mississippi or Alabama but the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854. Alexander Meek wrote a poem, "Balaklava," honoring the bravery of the Light Brigade.
The poem initially won high praise, and it was said that Queen Victoria was so moved by it that she had copies printed to be distributed to the public. However, the poem was eclipsed by, and took a back seat to, Alfred Lord Tennyson's now immortal poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Meek's Balaklava is now largely forgotten.
While searching the archives of The New York Times, I came across one of those stories all but lost to history. It was an article from 1913 titled, "Last 'Light Brigade' Officer Dies; Kipling Poem Discovered." The article concludes by crediting A.B. Meek with writing the first poem honoring the Light Brigade and ending with a long excerpt from Meek's "Balaklava".
The story that was told was how in the late 1880s there were only about 30 survivors of the Light Brigade's charge still living and at least 20 of them were broke, almost penniless and with no future other than living in work houses. There began a national fund-raising drive to help these surviving heroes, but only a little more than $100 was raised. Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson then joined the effort and wrote a short sequel to his "Charge of the Light Brigade," with the proceeds designated to help the veterans.
Funds were raised which were overseen by "a Liberal Party charity". However, they had "other uses" for much of the money, which went not to the heroes of the Light Brigade but "an Irish nationalist came in for some of it and the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came in for more."
The heroes got only what was left over.
Kipling was so angered that he penned a poem little-known today, "The Last of the Light Brigade." The blistering poem concludes:
"O thirty million English that babble of England's Might
Behold there are twenty heroes, who lack their food tonight;
Our children's children are lisping to honor the charge they made,
But we leave to the streets and the workhouses the last of the Light Brigade."
We should always remember what both Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke and Sir Winston Churchill are credited with succinctly saying: "Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it."
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]