News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 10, 2013

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: ‘The Song of Iron,’ by George W. Cutter is praised

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — In December 1852, the Salem (N.J.) National Standard, a newspaper founded in 1819, published “The Song of Iron,” an unusual poem by former Terre Haute attorney George Wales Cutter.

The ballad attracted the attention of attorney Thomas J. Saunders of Washington, D.C., who, by his own words, was privileged “to enjoy Captain Cutter’s friendship.”

According to Saunders, the poem was first published in the National Intelligencer “a short time ago” and is “a production which is only equaled by another of a similar character entitled ‘The Song of Steam’ by the same author.”

Both poems extol the strength of modern technology. “The Song of Iron,” like “The Song of Steam,” captures the reader’s attention in its opening verse:

“Heave the bellows and pile the fire,

“Like the red and fearful glow

“Where the crater’s lurid clouds aspire

“O’er the darkened plains below;

“Let the weight of your pond’rous hammers smite

“With the power of the mountain streams;

“Or thunder beneath the earthquake might

“That dwells in the arm of steam!”

In a letter to the editor dated Jan. 8, 1853, Saunders provided biographical information about the poet, who “has an official position in the Treasury Department, having been appointed to that position by the present Secretary, who has known him long and who, as a man of refined taste, properly appreciates true literary genius.”

Cutter was known as “Indiana’s first man of letters” after the publication of his first anthology of poems in 1848.

The Secretary of the Treasury was Thomas Corwin, former governor, congressman and U.S. Senator from Ohio. Corwin, appointed to the post by President Zachary Taylor in 1850, commissioned Cutter but Taylor died before Cutter was named. Millard Fillmore succeeded Taylor and nicknamed Cutter “America’s Poet Warrior.”

Born in Canada, Cutter came to the U.S., when he was “about 14 years old” and resided with “the family of a relative in Indiana until he reached the age of manhood.”

“He studied law,” Saunders wrote, “and commenced the practice of it at Terre-Haute, as large town on the Wabash, in the Western part of the State. Whilst yet very young and during the sessions of 1838-39 and 1839-40, he represented the County of Vigo in the Legislature of Indiana.”

During his service in the state legislature, Cutter became identified with efforts to abolish imprisonment for debt. He was responsible for the first bill to eliminate that practice and continued to advocate its abolition until he achieved the desired result.

Cutter’s service with the Indiana legislature ended when he chose to move to Covington, Ky., opposite the city of Cincinnati. No mention was made in Saunders’ letter about Cutter’s marriage in Indianapolis on Jan. 23, 1840 to actress Frances Ann Denny Drake, widow of actor Alexander Drake and universally known as “Mrs. Drake, First Lady of American Stage.”

The marriage ceremony was performed by the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher.

The Cutters resided in Terre Haute for a few months before settling permanently in Covington, where Mrs. Drake maintained an elegant estate.

When war was declared against Mexico, Cutter volunteered his services and was elected captain of a company in the Second Kentucky Regiment “commanded by Col. Wm. R. McKee, and of which Henry Clay, Jr., was the second officer or Lieut. Colonel.”

“In making a charge at the close of the battle of Buena Vista,” Saunders wrote, “Col. McKee fell and Col. Clay took command. When advancing at the head of his men on foot, the latter received a wound in his right ankle. Proceeding a few steps, he found that he was disabled and, after giving the order to retreat, exclaimed: ‘Capt. Cutter, I can go no farther.’”

Cutter was at Col. Clay’s side the moment he was struck and, despite heavy enemy fire, urged the troops to rally around their colonel. While Cutter and three of his men attempted to carry the officer out of the range of enemy shells, a ball entered Col. Clay’s right hip and perforated his abdomen.

The other soldiers helping Capt. Cutter were killed. Only Cutter escaped harm. Col. Clay fell to the ground on his back and, with his last words, said: “Captain, take these pistols. I can hold them no longer. Take care of yourself. You can do no more.”

Cutter took the pistols, according to Saunders, “and kept them with religious care until his return to the United States and, then, as soon as convenient, placed them in the hands of the young officer’s venerable father at Ashland...

“The interview between the two gentlemen was of the most affecting character and was the means of establishing a relation very little short of that between father and son, one of the most beautiful testimonials which the heart of man could desire.

“Capt. Cutter constantly wears a gold ring, the gift of Henry Clay as a memento of gratitude for service rendered while his son was expiring on the field of battle.

“Capt. Cutter is upwards of 30 years of age (actually, he was more than 50 years old), of fine form and dignified carriage, and has about him an exuberance of political fervour, which perhaps one of these days will seek expression in a more elaborate production – one calculated to adorn our literature and to reflect credit upon our country.”

On Sept. 22, 1851, at the special invitation of the American Histrionic Society, Cutter’s wife helped celebrate the opening of the new Dramatic Temple in Louisville. Mrs. Drake played Lady Macbeth in the feature production and read Cutter’s patriotic poem, “E Pluribus Unum,” already dubbed “America’s National Song.”

Newspaper accounts of the affair did not mention Cutter’s presence and it is doubtful that he trekked from the District of Columbia to Louisville to attend.

In October of 1853, the marriage of George W. Cutter and Mrs. Drake ended in divorce granted by the Kenton County Circuit Court.

Cutter died as a pauper at Providence Hospital in Washington on Dec. 24, 1865.