“The years go slowly by, Lorena,
The snow is on the grass again;
The sun’s low down the sky, Lorena,
The frost gleams where the flowers have been.”
“Lorena” was the love song of the Civil War. It was sung around the campfires of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Generals were known to forbade it, for when men sung it or heard it sung, there was no room in their hearts for fighting or killing.
For some, like “Lily Marlene” in World War II, “Lorena” stood for unrequited love. Or she was the woman underneath the lampposts by every village square, waiting for her beloved’s return home from the war.
Few realized that this mythical sweetheart called Lorena was actually Ella Blocksom Johnson, and that she lived at the time of the Civil War and for most of her life at Seventh and Center streets in Ironton. She and her husband, William W. Johnson, who served as a chief justice on the Ohio Supreme Court, and their two children lie buried in Ironton’s Woodland Cemetery.
Before Ella met her husband, she fell in love with a preacher and he with her. But her family discouraged the union, saying that it would be demeaning to marry a poor, itinerant preacher. The preacher then penned the love song from his broken heart.
The song was published in 1857 by musician and composer J.P. Webster (no relation), who gave it its haunting, longing-for-home and a sweetheart love tune.
The song gained overnight notoriety, and not long after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumpter in 1861, it had become a tribute to the mythical sweetheart of both Johnny Reb and the Yankee.
In the August 1887 issue of “Century” magazine, writer Brander Matthews said “Lorena” was the song nearest the Confederate soldier’s heart.
“This ditty never stopped until the last musket was stacked, and the last campfire was cold,” he wrote.
In his biography of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, Howard Swiggett reported that Morgan claimed some of his soldiers, when they sang the song, became so homesick that they deserted.
Swiggett said Morgan at one point, whether serious or not, ordered his officers to capture the man who wrote it and shoot him on sight.
The story has its beginning in Zanesville, where Martha Ellen “Ella” Blocksom was born. She spent her young womanhood there with her sister, Amanda, whose husband, Henry Blandy, owned a large foundry and was recognized as one of the wealthiest and most influential citizens in the community.
She was nearly 20 in the fall of 1848, when the Rev. Henry de Lafayette Webster, at age 24 became the minister at the Universalist church, which she and her sister’s family attended. The church was located within sight of the Blandy estate. Ella was one of the congregation’s most active members, singing in the choir and serving as a substitute Sunday school teacher.
Romance bloomed in the spring of 1849. Henry and Ella were seen walking hand in hand in the hills above the Muskingum River, enjoying the sunsets together.
Sometimes they took a small boat onto the river to fish for bass, much as Zanesville native Zane Grey would do many years later.
When Ella came home one day wearing the engagement ring Webster presented to her, the sister and brother-in-law she lived with became alarmed. They looked forward to the day when Ella would marry a young man from a socially acceptable family.
The Blandys quickly cut off the relationship. Henry Webster, dirt poor, could not possibly give her the kind of life she had become accustomed to. She would lose everything if she insisted on following through with the engagement.
Ella Blocksom, torn between her duty to her sister and brother-in-law and her love for Webster, put off her decision for as long as possible.
Finally though, that very spring, she made her choice, returned the ring, and told him, “If we try, we may forget each other,” and turned her back on him forever.
“Yes, these were words of thine, Lorena,
They burn within my memory yet.
They touch some tender chords, Lorena,
Which thrill and tremble with regret.”
Webster knew that Ella’s decision had been forced on her by the Blandys. He immediately took his broken heart to pastor another church, in another state. In less than a year, he married a Sarah Wilmot.
Three years later, Emma married Johnson, already a promising attorney. They soon moved into the stately house at the corner of Seventh and Center streets in Ironton. The nearly 150-year-old structure was razed about a dozen years ago.
When people of that time back in Zanesville saw the name of its former pastor as the author of the song, they knew that Lorena was none other than his long-lost sweetheart, Martha Ellen Blocksom.
In 1962, historian Ernest Emurian published a booklet on the story of the girl who unwittingly became “the sweetheart of the Civil War.” He wrote that in Ironton, Ella undoubtedly also knew that Lorena was her, although there was no record of her ever admitting it publicly.
In the last of the six eight-line stanzas of the song, Henry Webster wrote:
“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!”
Reach G. SAM PIATT at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 932-3619.