What would a superhero narrative be without “Saving the Day?” Snatching victory from the jaws of certain defeat? The improbable story of when all hope is lost, the hero arrives to rally everyone to victory?
The drama and exhilaration we feel when reading or watching these kinds of hero stories is typically linked to the hero or heroes swooping in when things appear to be at their bleakest, and ultimately defeat the villain. As it turn out, one of the earliest usages of the phrase “Save the Day” in literature has an equally thrilling story to accompany it, and it took place at a critical moment during the American Civil War at the Battle of Cedar Creek, on October 19, 1864.
The phrase is found in a poem by Thomas Buchanan Read called “Sheridan’s Ride”. It was quickly written to memorialize the epic effort of Union Army Major General Phil Sheridan during the battle, and this poem appears to be one of the first times that “Save the Day” was used in the context of a hero story.
The broad outlines of this history are as follows: rising Union star Mag. General Phil Sheridan had been given a command by General Ulysses S. Grant in the summer of 1864. With his troops, Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, up against Confederate General Jubal Early. Sheridan’s troops burned everything they could, sparing only the property of widows and orphans. They routed Early and effectively closed the Shenandoah Valley, which was a geographic “back door” that could threaten Washington. Further, the loss of territory and crops soon took a toll on the Confederate supply trains.
Without many options left to him, Early devised an early morning sneak attack plan against Sheridan’s troops, taking advantage of Sheridan’s absence. Sheridan had ridden to Washington, DC. for meetings and was on his way back, but he had stopped for the night 20 miles north of Cedar Creek in Winchester. With the Union troops at ease at Cedar Creek and without their leader, they were easily surprised and overrun by Early’s troops that morning. The soldiers scattered, leaving behind artillery, munitions, and of course, most important to the starving Confederate troops, food. Here’s a map.
Twenty miles away in Winchester, Sheridan woke to artillery fire in the distance.
Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.
Sheridan quickly mounted his black stallion, Rienzi, and took off down the road, riding so fast that one of his staff members said that “the devil himself could not have kept up.” Arriving late morning, he encountered his fleeing troops, which he rallied back to him. The soldiers quickly reformed their lines, and together mounted a counter-offense again the Confederate battalion, who had been allowed by Early to “rest” after the initial rout. The Union troops took back all their lost supplies and munitions, and claimed the Confederates’, in addition.
The Battle of Cedar Creek is considered a major win for the Union forces, and might even have marked a turning point in the war. The loss of supplies out of the Shenandoah Valley took a substantial toll. Less than six months after Cedar Creek, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
As a narrative, Read’s poem is told in a way to heighten tension while building to language that is meant to lead to the words “save the day,” with Sheridan at its heart. The narrative drama of this account is told in increments of miles, with almost every stanza counting down Sheridan’s return to his troops:
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
“I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.”
While other examples of “save the day” likely predate this particular usage, this one is clearly – and deliberately – deployed with these specific words as part of a thrilling hero narrative.
The poem was printed as a short book or pamphlet, and it is illustrated; as such, it might be an early candidate for the annals of graphic novels. Yet, its most compelling (and perhaps now timely) illustration is that of Sheridan on his horse as a statue, even before one could be made to memorialize the story. To be sure, “Sheridan’s Ride” was propaganda for the Union, and Sheridan’s story was used to promote the Union cause far and wide. Interestingly, Sheridan’s story in the poem is told without moralistic value judgements placed on the North or South. Instead, it commemorates the act of valor, not some morally righteous deed as we might conceive of it. In fact, the poem itself is meant to be a kind of statue to Sheridan, or it could be argued, his horse, Rienzi. It concludes:
Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
“Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester–twenty miles away!”
Of course, a statue was made to memorialize Sheridan’s Ride, and it is in Washington, DC, not on the Cedar Creek battlefield.
I leave others to determine the full import of Sheridan’s memorialization as a poem and statue, given these times and the current conversation about Civil War monuments, but life inspiring art, then inspiring living art, is maybe just another day in the life of a superhero.
UTA: Brendan Wolfe, the editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, has sent along some important information about the statue sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, further complicating this history. Borglum was an avowed anti-Semite, and joined the KKK while working on the Stone Mountain sculpture commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The sculpture features Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
Here is Brendan’s piece on the Aviator sculpture by Borglum in Virginia – Flight Forgotten.
Briefly, and editorially, memorials and statues are incredibly powerful and important ways of commemorating the dead and past war events. In her Memorials and Martyrs in Modern Lebanon, Lucia Volk writes:
Because they are characterized by their immutability, memorials are crucial ingredients in the cultural reconstruction of societies that have undergone profound transformation.
Memorials do a lot of cultural heavy lifting in approximating a mood or category of thinking at the time of its construction. For instance, we know that a lot of confederate memorials went up alongside new Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement. But these monuments also take on profound and symbolic meanings that shift and change with the culture that changes around them. The monuments (although subject to the elements) are immutable. But the culture around them is not, imbuing the monument with new meanings that reflect the times or what the times have culturally taken as the “intended” meaning of the sculpture; how a statue is viewed at any given time is a pretty good distillation of current attitudes.
I apologize to all my friends who are U.S. History folks. My PhD is in British history, not U.S. History, and this entry is, I’m sure, a rotten case of eliding details in the service of story. (This probably isn’t the first time this has happened.) The links included above are really good and you should read them.
Also, I’m still looking for other, earlier iterations of the phrase, “Save the Day.” Maybe this piece is just the first in a series. Let me know if you’ve found the phrase somewhere else at an earlier time.