The Song That Killed The South
As his horsemen slashed farther into the North than any other Confederate army before or since, General John Hunt Morgan knew he was not only fighting the Union, but a song.
“Lorena” is a heart-breaking ballad sung by a rejected lover about the woman who haunted his memory. Reverend Henry De Lafayette Webster was the heartbroken man who relates his tale in the song. It was sung around the campfires by Union and Confederate troops alike. Its mournful and captivating lyrics, said one Southern writer, was the song “nearest the Confederate soldiers’ hearts.”
Lorena reminded the Rebs of their own lovers — the ones they had left behind: wives and girl-friends and sweethearts. Because they had so few soldiers in comparison to the North, the Southern soldiers were granted home leave far fewer times. The ladies they left behind became an aching obsession.
One of them complained “that cursed ballad Lorena, to which many officers seriously attributed the loss of the war, was sung everywhere.” Morgan said that his men deserted in droves! He hoped he could capture Webster and have him shot on sight!
Desertion got so bad, that Morgan did not have enough men to defend his borders against the coming Union armies. Yes, Morgan was beaten by the Union soldiers, but he was set up to lose by Lorena.
The lady whose memory became Lorena, was born Ella Blocksom in 1827. She was orphaned and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law. Henry Webster was the new Minister at their church in Zaneville, Ohio. Ella was a young and beautiful 19 year old, and Henry was 25. He noticed her and began walking her home from choir practice and then began accompanying her to other church activities. His courting took them on long romantic walks to the top of a nearby hill where they watched the sunset and dreamed dreams. Being poetic he may have won her heart with his beautiful prose or just his charm. It wasn’t long before they became engaged and had begun planning their own wedding.
Ella’s sister and brother-in-law had hoped that they would lose interest in each other and when they hadn’t, her brother-in-law stepped in and told Ella that they would disown her if she didn’t break off with Henry. After all, he was a poor minister and not from a wealthy prominent family.
Ella gave in to their wishes and took one last walk up the hill with Henry. Handing him back her engagement ring, they slowly walked down the hill just as the sun was setting, and in the distance the church bells rang.
in her final letter to him, she wrote: “If we try, we shall forget.”
After their breakup Henry resigned as the minister of her church and left to become a minister in another town. He had only been in Zanesville for one year. Ella went on to marry a prominent lawyer, as her brother-in-law wanted. She left no surviving family. Henry was survived by several sons, so in a sense, he lives on. But Ella, as Lorena, is immortal.
The song ‘Lorena’ came about from a collaborate between Henry and a second (unrelated) Wester: composer Joseph Webster. Henry put his story about Ella into verse, changing her name to Bertha to save her embarrassment. Joseph knew that they needed a three-syllable name for the right sound, so they borrowed the haunting title of the song ‘Lorena’ from the name “Lenore”, in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, the Raven. In the Raven, Lenore has died, and broken lover asks if he can ever “forget this lost Lenore! Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.””
Ella knew that the song was actually about her, but she never re-connected with Henry. She had moved on. Henry always ached for her, writing this last stanza as a hope that there would one day be a final reunion:
It matters little now, Lorena
The past is in the eternal past
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast
There is a future! O, thank God
Of life this is so small a part
’Tis dust to dust beneath the sod
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart
Yes, to modern ears it is a bit cloying…but it is nevertheless so human and so hopeful.
Years later, in fact, the two Websters collaborated on a second song, in which Lorena declares her love for her long-ago sweetheart:
“There’s no snow upon the heart;
Tis always summer there.”
Who knows if they ever re-met, beyond the Pale.
But somewhere out there, where the ghost riders roam, John Hunt Morgan is looking for the men that Lorena took away.