Let us! my dear friend, console ourselves for the unsuccessful efforts of our lives to serve our fellow creatures by recollecting that we have aimed well.
~~Dr. Benj. Rush to John Adams about the day they signed the Decl. of Ind.
Nor cringe if come the night: Walk through the cloud to meet the pall, Though light forsake thee, never fall From fealty to light. ~~Melville, The Enthusiast
Long I’ve plotted an epic poem, a poem to stand in relation to my native country as those broad stripes stand in relation to our flag. The subject would have to be the Civil War, of course; it was then, as at no time since the Revolution, that the country grew articulate in self-definition. Lincoln was the poet we elected president. The Civil War generation was the most letter-writing cohort of warriors America has ever produced. Brother fought brother, fathers took up arms against their sons, and slaves escaped to return fire at their former masters–and then forgive them when they stood in post-war relation to each other as citizens.
And when articulation failed, and all the buzzwords of secession and abolition grew sharp as bayonets, the forges of war found their tongues, and vile shrapnel was vomited in Shenandoah’s sleepy dells. The Civil War, like every war, found its heroes on both sides of the battle line; unknown men arose who proved equal to their times and mastered the moment presented them.
* * * * *
On a personal level, as I contemplated my (potentially calamitous) approach to a Civil War epic, I found myself confounded as much as coddled by the breakneck immensity of resources available to investigate the old wounds of yesteryear. All things lead to all things via the lightspeed factcheck that Google presupposes. And where facts were in dispute, the very best disputations were available–along with interactive 3D battlemaps, and endless chances to reengage and rejigger the results with computer game simulations or alternative history sci-fi. As a poet, I am most drawn to pipe-smoking and twiddling long strands of grass between my thumbs. Books are fuel for mules; how much more senseless was a digital dive into the cacophonous black hole of internet archives.
Still, in all, I did a fair amount of death-grip gazing into backlit screens, and mumbling over luminous words in book after book. I felt the hair-raising chill of listening to surviving veterans cry out a final Rebel Yell on YouTube from a 1923 reunion, each man aimed at the microphone and camera and instructed by a friendly fat man to “Do your worst, Grandpa.” And then one last cry in unison, and every cat in the house snapped to look at the speaker as if at a ghost. I’m sure a dog would have returned the unearthly howl.
* * * * *
How, exactly, I asked myself, was the Civil War that “most American of all America’s wars” after the Revolution itself? Where, exactly, is the anchoring pin in this crazy pinwheel of deeds? The Gettyburg Address? The glum dignity in the surrender at Appomattox, where Lee surrendered his sword while Grant attempted polite small talk to ameliorate the sting of defeat his fiercest foe surely felt? I take some comfort in Yeats’ statement (who midwifed modern Ireland into being in many ways), when he said “It is always necessary to affirm and to reaffirm that nationality is in the things that escape analysis.” Perhaps all my moody brooding was for naught. I should be content to be a teller of tales, a stenographer of fact. In any case, hesitation on my grand project was no longer an option–whatever America was and whatever being an American meant would be an emergent quality that arose from dream and poem. So, I’d better start writing.
* * * * *
You may have noticed that you are not holding an epic poem in your hands. That ambition my muse has decided to deny me in this round at the foundry. But, page after page, you’ll find flickers whisked together; you can follow muddy footprints to Shiloh, or pace over an acre of Petersburg’s siege as I have done. Whether these poems are equal to their theme, the reader must discover. Every poet has his Zoilus, as they say, and if mine is reading this book today or is yet to be born, I do not know. Still, there’s something here that time has folded and put in my pocket.
I give it to you.
Gregg Glory May 5, 2019
True and Untrue;
or, The Facts of the Matter
I hadn't seen a piece of soap in a year. ~~John T. Wickersham
Yeats’ “affable, Falstaffian man” is as much a part of the story of his Irish civil war as those great public events of the rebellion in poems like “Easter 1916.” No one wants to distort the facts, but even a selection of facts slants the story. And poetry is more than mere story, it is the soul of every story. Poetry tells the facts why they must be true. Like the formula of the alchemist, or the equation of the quantum mechanic, poetry arbitrates, through exploration and discovery, the bounds of our reality.
The historian has a hard road, and must site map and affidavit for his every step. A poet, when his soul’s alight, burns away the tightrope that he treads. These poems seek a meaning in-between these stark extremes. Helen and the burning tower is no more evocative than Lincoln in his tophat. Well, not necessarily. The eye that weeps the tear, floods the landscape. A nation’s history is crafted by its participants; they see, they feel the meaning of the thing. For one’s truth to become a public truth, it must resonate–in both emotion and in fact. History is no free ride for those with an ax to grind, for those who would delete the subjectivities of the past with their Buzzfeed-fresh agenda.
Accordingly, my approach is hedged round with doubts. I’m trying to find the seed of things in the desiccated plant on the sill. Sometimes, a very personal approach, a singular story, helps flesh the skeleton whose hand I hold while he tells his dead man’s tale. Sometimes, it is only through the torrent of future events that some aspect of the past has grown significant. And here, the mirror is watery. I fret and pull the threads of fate; I squint and wipe the ocean from my diver’s mask, hoping to reach the beach.
Quotation and epigraph abound in these poems to lessen the culpability of Clio’s amanuensis. Lee and Lincoln are brought to the docket to testify on their own behalf; or words recorded by others are introduced to damn or indemnify the figure on trial. Such a strategy has its own half-life, and the phrases used can cut against the organic unity of the poem even as they apply a thin veneer of authority to the proceedings. Rhythm is the one vitality that no poem can do without, and my slinky attraction to quotation can leave me in the unenviable position of a mynah bird, eerily reiterating the last words of a murder victim.
There are several other common dangers in this sort of poeticization of history. One can succumb to the expert’s hip elision, a habit of reference that only communicates to those already “in the know.” This is already a danger in poetry generally, which prefers by far to implicate than to provide evidence. With factual antecedents, the danger of missed connections increases, and the poem’s secret limbic system is liable to go offline or develop incoherent buboes. “Only connect…” was James Dickey’s rigorous dictum, and maintains its imperative strength to this day. It is ignored at the author’s, and, more importantly, the reader’s, peril.
In this collection, abortions along the highway to an epic birth, the language alternates rather harshly between a creampuff softness and the bony planks of bare narrative. In “Night Ride (Toward Gettysburg),” there is so much dreaminess that the rider on his horse literally falls asleep! The entire poem is a subjective guess, almost wholly an invention born of one small act of fact. The epigraph to the poem tells the fact: completely exhausted regiments fell asleep in their saddles while riding toward the next day’s battlefield. And this detail, to me, was the seed, the soul, of the contrasting humanity and inhumanity of war–in all times and places. Still, there’s a queasy awkwardness I feel in filling out a page that history left blank. These men in blue and grey, and all the others, slave and civilian, are my national companions, and I am loathe to touch their suffering as if it were my own.
And sometimes, of course, the stars are gone and the moon is down.
As a kind of dry repentance for my sins of invention–a Lenten giveback to God above–there are a number of passes at narrative verse in these pages. These can feel too simple, “ripped from the headlines” as the TV movies say. A pristine example is “The Midnight Ride of Abraham Lincoln,” which is just literally Ward Hill Lamon’s report of Lincoln telling Lamon the story of his nail-biting escape from a gunman, gussied up a touch and poured into a vacant vase of verse. Lincoln is a master storyteller, and I couldn’t improve upon his shaggy dog tale if I had two MFAs.
An ampler, and more typical, example of the process of transition from history to poetry is available in “Pieces of the Old Battle Flag.” It is practically unrhymed, and virtually without invention. I changed John Wickersham’s name to Ned. He left his own narrative about coming home from the war, and I read it in B.A. Botkin’s collection of Civil War tales and folktales. Its simplicity and reality left me trashed with tears. My poem, direct as it is, manages to miss a great deal of his easy poignancy–and yet it is my best attempt at a teetering retelling. I left all the symbols in de minimus outline, and make the reader rip his humanity on the hard edges of the words. There’s very little “mood music” to queue up the reader’s response. Even reading it out loud, the old-fashioned sound of it is more like a grandfatherly wheedle than a poem. And yet it stands, returned to the page even as John/Ned returned to the uncomprehending arms of his family.
Between fact and abstraction, there is certainly room for legitimate invention–coloring inside the lines, as it were. But how different from the satisfaction of Milton’s Satan, standing shaggy-legged and monstrous against a Deity of perfection! I’m as reconciled as a pendulum to my method.
As for a third kind of poem, those that have grown truly unfashionable, anthems of anything other than naked identity, I can refer most reassuringly of all to the historical record. Many are the casuistries and verities of that distant day. Even the nimble Timrod parsed out his “Ethnogenesis,” mad with reified abstractions to unseat the Northern tyrants from their “evil throne.” But, to me, the “terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,” of that poetry, like Thomas Read’s “Sheridan’s Ride,” has more in common with the verified goodness of verse than the many idiot rants that assail my ears in the New Yorker, each one banking on the slim authority of “my truth” to avoid a scrupulous accounting of their faults. These are my chosen battle lines, where poetry and history meet and conflict.
I have squared off in my corner, and will defend my stance against all comers. And so I can say, with unironic vigor:
Assemble! Ghosts of a time not yet made witless.... GGB
What tragedy befell us in those days Is not mine alone to toll, to tell-- A thousand voices, a million all Wailing in abominable chorus could not Convey the terror, anxiety and waste Of those dead days. Whatever one man can carry Out of Hell, I'll carry to tell you. What words cannot do, let bones Knitted by raw time at the breaks Display in mute witness. Assemble! Ghosts of a time not yet made witless, Armies whose worn shoulders show As increasing mist, gather without regard To blue or grey, and let your old voices Roll coldly now that once had the hot Imprint of youth.
TROUBLE AT THE FORD
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys. ~~Herman Melville
The Abolitionist Congregation
And about this time, I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams.
The preacher in his pulpit blazed: "One God for them and us! Never once since the seventh day Has God divided races-- It's man by man we're saved Or damned and thrown to Hades." A peace surpassing passed among The Boston congregants; They knew a truth and knew it strong Beyond all argument. They stood in choir and raised great song Above collars starched and neat: "Let salvation's mustard seeds Be blown among the nations-- Where it grows their taste shall be Sharp for generations. Let war pour forth the blood we need To hasten our germination!"
Why the Confederacy Became
Fanaticism is inculcated in the Northern mind and ingrained in the Northern heart, so that you may make any compromise you please, and still, until you can unlearn and unteach the people, we shall find no peace….
~~Overheard at Virginia’s secession convention
Attack our ways and wound our own Who'd brought Jefferson and Washington And all those famous firsts to stirrup-- Rebel men who would not give up Beating pell-mell into the dawn Virginian steeds, and would not stop. Now that revolutionary dawn Grows stale and cold in Northern hearts, Tyranny grinds with iron wheels All minds and every thought. How can they who hammer and cog Find valor in a ball of cotton? To no king nor any petty liege Shall rebel spines bend what brave Steel runs through them yet: let All come! Let gamblers place their bets! Before the first Virginian grieves Yankee widows will pace and fret.
The War Comet;
or, Oola’s Prophecy
You see dat great fire sword, blazin’ in de sky? Dat’s a great war coming and de handle’s to’rd de Norf and de point to’rd de Souf, and de Norf’s gwine take dat sword and cut de Souf’s heart out.
~~Oola’s prophecy, as told to Lincoln
A shadow at the bedroom window Tall without his stovepipe hat; Long his looking at the ragged coal Of the fiery sword of comet. His tan hand patted a padded pocket In time to a nameless tune; A time was coming to grasp the sword, And the time for peace near gone. The comet flickered, weak and wily, While clockhands met in prayer-- His eyes upcast to skies to read What was written there in fire. What moved one heart would move a million; Both for and against, it flashed; The man in the black coat turned, and turned Again, in the shadow of fire and ash. Restless fingers in his pocket then Moved upon the restless words: He hath loosed the fateful lightning Of his terrible, swift sword.
The Anaconda Unwound
Winfield Scott takes McClellan aside after a White House winter dance
Comes the winter as came the summer, comes war As sure across the Potomac when spring unhinges-- All's a dance, McClellan, verily a dance. Dash and pause, And pause, and dash. I've seen it snake across the years, Wily or swift, snap-jaw or anaconda pressure-hold, Mate and checkmate as the tables turn, as time Reveals the pattern waiting in the dance. When the Whigs put me up for president in '52 Our notions for the nation were leggiero, Lightly, lightly, the high baton mocking the drum's Hard-tapped time; but the country then was all Lilt and liberamente, the dour South already skittish At school-marm abolitionists preaching through their teeth Sturm und drang drama from Northern pulpits. And Time the snake hissed me out of office: Ssstay a sssoldier, Sscott, await the drat of duty's drum When time's old do-si-do comes round again. --Yes, yes, as you say, tonight's cotillion Was an elegant affair, you the prettiest man, McClellan, ever to show a leg upon those boards. The ladies smiled as if some young Napoleon Had asked their hand, and turned a tune with them. Fine times, fine times, but as I was saying-- The plan, the plan that stays unstated says: defeat! Must return to the topic, as the snake to his coils. I've heard time's sad lento movement unroll As well; spent a dead year imprisoned in cold Canadian irons, legs listless that had been restless. In 1812, I little knew, and less guessed How such lento languishment led on in time To hazardous pizzicato punch and push: At Lundy's Lane, one fighting night above Niagara, Troops unready for the Brits' fire and bitumen-- A blaze of blood to end all advancing, Rifles' firelight a flame of snake in the waters, The falls a sourceless roar around us: war! The dead spilled everywhere like Indian beads.... I would not have such red spillage now. No, Dash and pause is the plan, a sidewinder waltz. Wait, and work the odds, then pitch the table Hard enough, and the most stubborn marble rolls. Confine the Confederates from advance, cinched Hip-by-jowl in our close contredanse--slow The fiddle, and slow the fife--here at Washington. Then twenty loaded gun boats, and forty more of men To sweep the Mississippi's spine quite clear, A slithering pas-de-deux, in one blasting pass; And make what blockade we can at oceanside, Threading in ships-of-the-line at adagio speed. Soon you'll see, without the terrible expense Of invasion and defense, the dance'll come Back round to us. Cotton will go rotten on their docks! Plantation men are money men, McClellan, Those fire-eaters will be in a fix but quick, With cold water hosing down their backs! It all winds round to politics--the dance Of dash and pause, the slink and strike of snakes. If, by gunboat and blockade, we impose a pause-- Dash against dash must annihilate in peace, As self-meeting ripples cancel when they kiss. Let's spare our southern brethren and ourselves. I would not raise my hand against my feet; The dance is not a dance that has no steps.... Let us lace our anaconda constrictor Around the rebel states, and let the pauses Pull them home by inches to our loving arms.
Choosing Sides; or,
Mark Twain Enters the War, Almost
If the bubble reputation can only be obtained at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty.
Here at Hannibal, Zeb, unhurried waters Ain't much in a fit, so let's us not rush As war turns its great gears--let time loiter, Turn the riverboat wheel like a paint brush, And see what water greenesses unfold.... War's not such a thing as we've been told Reading chivalrous tales of Ivanhoe And gettin' on a horse dressed up like a stove. What it is, though, I don't likely know. Saw little kids parading, yelling ‘Jeff Davis!' Since there's not yet no song for all this Whatever it is the country's doing, tearing Itself to nothing like a worried bone. What dog's got us in its teeth? Go wary, Zeb, them Union men mayn't leave us alone As we row along to Memphis. At home They'll be busy choosing sides, picking teams For all this folderol of flags and hats. Take the bend easy, who knows what dreams We may disturb at the blockade, or what-- (A cannonball smashes the pilothouse windows out.) "Good Lord a'mighty, Sam, what'd they mean by that!?"
A Parade of Gallantry
“I am Henry Wilson,” said he, “United States Senator;” but the teamster, perfectly unmoved by the announcement of the dignity and importance of his petitioner, cried out, “I don’t give a — who you are,” and lashing his mules, sped on his way.
"A parade of gallantry, surely," she said, Servants fetching fourth the wrapped roasted Chicken and basket of champagne to pop the cork When push becomes shove, and those rapscallions Run high-tailin' it home. "They look so small, Even in the opera glass, our men, Henry-- Have a glance where dusts are gathering some." Unfolded by their picnic, idle congressman and wife Thought a day of arms would settle a ten years' strife And snug closed the fraternal argument sprung Open among wide America's battalion of brothers. "There's a snap, hear it? And some skinny pink fingers Amid the cotton balls. Must've crossed Bull Run, swung Left into their scattered flank. Soon we'll see, dear. Pass the asparagus, thanks." Sometimes a little cheer Rose among the checkered blankets, ragged and thin As half of Congress applauded itself, the creek Thickening with skirmish, and, after a few hours, Ghostly and sickening, the Rebel Yell, As if from those about to die and win.
The Traveling Darkroom; or,
Mathew Brady Carrying a Camera
Eyes that… stare too wide to close.
~~ W. D. Snodgrass
A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.
More dark! More dark! Let's see at last What war has left upon my plated glass. Carrying my heavy camera to the front, crumbed In dust, I frame the conflict with an artist's thumb. Here at Bull Run the NY fire zouaves Put a sword in my hand that I might preserve Life and limb a minute longer when the Federal line Collapsed snakelike, a windtorn kite's dead twine. Each plate I rescued from the field of battle, Slimed with collodion like a salamander's Skin, mirrors in miniature the exploding world: Shells like sunbursts, spasmed faces angry and bold. I follow troops in my long duster; a black tent, My traveling darkroom, dragged on horsecart. That's where alchemy becomes advertisement, So newspapers can print what war has wrought. With exposure, light passes through a glass Darkly and excites the emulsion, as God shining down upon the soul does. Bathed in ferrous sulfate, I bring forth those Final images of modern men from time's Gluey muck, shuffle the glass cards, and then Fix 'em like an insect pinned in my collection. The mortician's touch of potassium cyanide-- Too perfect to change! Let's see what verified Heroes come jumping from this chemic pool, The square of ruby light catching me coolly Red-handed at my work. When John Q. Adams Sat in studio with his lion's mane, I felt Franklin's lightning beat my fist and let The shutter drop on history, my best Camera lens the doll's eye of posterity. From the first, I pledged to my country To save the faces of historic men and mothers So we citizens might recognize each other. Something's coming through now, shapes of shapes. I see the tilde of a zouave officer's flying cape-- Would-be blue blurs are moving over clearer Figures grinded to a stillness nearer The killing ground... are these all dead bodies? In cartes de visite I made my first real money; I told departing soldiers packing their haversacks Down at the recruiting station: Tell your Mom that "You cannot tell how soon it may be too late."
Trouble at the Ford
Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.
Did that dread-sick blue-grey couple spin Drunk about a cracking axle? Broken music of the grand battle Swings mud-laden boys around again Where Bull Run stream breaks the land And a gambler nation lays its longshot hand. Congress came with cakes and wine, Gallantry to make fine ladies swoon Shot and counter-shot done by noon, Checkerboard kings crowned by dying men. But the dancers of that great game Were blind, and soon enough grew lame. Soon confusion enfiladed every line, Filleted the Union on their back Reversed them down their beaten track As if all clocks rewound the time; Although new blood flowed by the old Stone Bridge Defeat was all men had to give. 10,000 men in grey gave hellish chase; 10,000 blues threw down their guns To ease the striding of their run-- A wild rebel yell bid them haste While summer ladies whipping parasols Raced pell-mell through Congress' halls.
A Bedside Whitman
Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr, and rank.
~~Bronson Alcott’s description of Whitman
Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. A little after eight it rain’d a long and violent shower. The pale, helpless soldiers had been debark’d, and lay around on the wharf and neighborhood anywhere.
~~Whitman, The Wounded from Chancellorsville
Whitman loped through hospital wards His brotherly shoulders huge and stooped Over the endless injured. Whitman bending through hospital wards Wiped the weeping white-hot iron brows Of heroes held down. Whitman sat attentive in the hospital wards Big spry hands cradling an inch of pencil stub Taking restless dictation. Whitman walked the rounds in hospital wards Dripping water careful as communion wine Where dry mouths chirped. Whitman exited backlit hospital wards Nightly beneath the rapid stars Striding, striding, striding.
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
~~ W.E.B. Dubois
We come in clothes of yesterday to save tomorrow's history. With lifesavers of facts, we enter Heraclitus' stream And run time backward until we see fons et origo of Today's catastrophe. With Thucydides we wade to war And drive our wayward Volvos home by GPS and guess; Here, Lee. There, Buell camped or tramped, tents speared Heavenward in plea and supplication--a million Iphigenias Sacrificed upon the bow when confounding headwinds blew Us back upon ourselves, pledges that've rattled packed Since Adams and Hancock fled the Redcoat flood to Concord. Words must amend what time upends. So we, doughty In our woolen socks, with crates of hardtack rations bought By ApplePay, are walking words buttoned up to do some good On Instagram and Facebook, where kids will laugh at Dads. "We inhabit the post-apocalypse of Lincoln in blue and grey," I say beneath my Union selfie. "We're the zombies of that day!" Young emoticons undercut me with memes and zingers As I pace my final picket circuit and whistle back to camp: "We will rally from the hillside, we'll gather from the plain..." And wild in the woods, when the moon intrudes on shoulders Tapping us back to a fantastical past, it is for us alone The campfire hustles, the smell of rashers real in air, Cold muskets carefully at-ready, our scripts pre-written Who believe no more in God or Fate. Are we the men Our forbears were, wakeful where they slept? Tomorrow's Tableaux vivant tautens invisibly in dreams, the battle lines Drawn in ready dust, the punch and counterpunch of armies Arresting rest, until we, too, fill our diaries with prayers. "I do not know what comes, my dear, for me, although I know Great forces constellate about this present nexus, with only Inches of river between the drowned man and the saved. I remember you, the farm, our home; and you again, my love."
To the North Star
When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.
~~ Harriet Tubman, crossing the Mason-Dixon line
Follow me, follow the North Star That parts the Red Sea darkness, That makes us strangers at freedom's shore Arriving proud and chartless. Woods are full of sounds tonight: Every owl a hooded accuser, Invisible rivers galloping hot Are horses of bounty hunters. Brothers, we were not called to birth To live and die by starlight; Cast into a cage, or worse, We were born to run tonight. Toward no stray star we climb, But follow unhesitating The northernmost that abides, Its steady fire not forsaking. Ben, don't be the runaway horse Who losing his way returns To the master's gate perforce, Half-tangled in his reins. You won't find love awaits you, Harry, calm words and a patted snout, But a whip and a hiss that you Had ever ventured out. Keep the trail and keep your feet, Through root and wreckage spur; If we lose our way we'll navigate By the sturdy Northern Star. It's one star that snaps our ropes, One freedom that we chase, One freedom's constellation trace In footsteps of escape.... Once past the Pennsylvania line Where choirs of stars stare down, The jewel of all that shine Will be our hallelujah crown! And there, as kings and queens we'll dance Who never dreamed of scepters-- Ben and Harry, please, just this once Follow me, follow the North Star.
GETTING TO GETTYSBURG
The broken light, the shadows wide-- Behold the battle-field displayed! God save the vanquished from the blade, The victor from the victor's pride. ~~Ambrose Bierce
The Rebel Belles
If you knew my brother, I’m sure you would not fire upon him.
~~A Warrington belle, down at the Green Hotel
Southern girls circle floors in their hoops, Rebel belles who obligingly dance, Slim fingers stoppered in ears When "Battle Hymn" music is heard. Caught in the crossfire of chance, Deftly circling floors in their hoops, The rebel belles were ladies first When partisan cannonballs burst. Whatever victory, whatever defeat, Love waltzes on pass after pass.... Damsels circle floors in their hoops, Their dancecards folded and neat. Heavily their families' hearses Driven with seven fine horses-- In defiance of death they dance, Circling worn floors in their hoops.
The Quiet Man
Afterward, men could remember nothing more than the fact that when he came around things seemed to happen.
~~ Bruce Catton, Grant Moves South
"Well, he had a hard look, and soft way of talkin', is all." "He weren't nothin', just a slouch hat and no rank 't'all." "When old Colonel Souse was howled out of camp, Grant Sauntered in with a shrug and said ‘Guess I'll take command.'" "The fairgrounds were a fair place to preach and practice Discipline: first, last and second place, as they say." "Them Illinois farm boys was sweat into an army That long summer, parading every sunset after Daylong drill and drill again, under a brunt sun." "Springfield to Quincy is about a hundred miles Footsore marching. But we'd be damned, if the gov'ment Wanted to send us to war by freight car, we'd walk." "And walk is just what that danged Grant had us do, Whistling to keep awake: Jordan Am a Hard Road to Travel." "Our feet taught us more than any Army Manual." Years later, in his memoirs, the quiet man explained: "Give anyone, even a volunteer, a reason good enough And he'll follow you to hell, smooth as Aristotle; Common soldiers are as smart as town folk, you bet."
[He felt] strange in the presence of men who talked excitedly of a prospective battle…with nothing but eagerness and curiosity apparent in their faces. It was often that he suspected them to be liars.
~~Stephen Crane, Red Badge of Courage
Out of the old wood with whicker and stamp A soldier's horse escaping camp-- ‘Coward!' cries the owl, the moon balloon-huge Caught in branches bare as a dirge. The rider listens for the picket's hist Then taps his horse onward to grassy mist-- A burnt shadow moving in a cowl of milk, Steps soft-fallen as a kiss on silk. Soon enough, reeds arise and the river wakes, Silver manacles clasp the horse's shanks; The far bank lifts a lover's face, Heart and foot find quickened pace. Horse and soldier race in moonlit circles, An empty lasso whipping endless; Fires from camp catch the deserter's eye, Stars sunk in woods from a fallen sky. The solider faces the remembered camp; His halted horse shakes his reins and stamps. Slowly the river's cold molasses is recrossed. "Who goes there?" comes the picket's hist.
Another City Night
What hospital nurse has not a bone ring or trinket carved by her men in the ward?
~~Jane Woolsey, Hospital Days
He passed away with less than a whisper-- That agony more than mortal finally Relieved. The cap he kept at bedside here So regiment friends would know more readily Their campmate "swaddled like a darned baby," I place upon two hands I hold and cross: Perfect, white, elegant as a lady's; Hands that kept his captain's charger glossy. I fold his last letter home, told through gauze, Read back aloud to get the humor right, Imaging his mother's laugh, his father's brays. Outside has come another city night, City lights granting summer air a haze-- Not these tears, I swear, though I bite my lip.
The Plank Bridge; or,
Major Pelham’s Overnight Bridge
We used to dance a great deal too. You didn’t get an idea of how strong he was until you danced with him–that was grand…. There wasn’t a single line of hardness in his face. It was all tenderness, as fresh and delicate as a boy’s….
SHE His face is a splendid boy's alight on his bay, Youthful and edgeless, sun of a million rays. HE Between our grey houses meander grey floods That disfigure her shoes with grey Georgia mud. SHE Summer days are running, and I run all the more To trouble the mud that lays wet at his door. HE THEN SHE "Come dance in the parlor, come sing one more song." "Night rain is coming, and I soon must be gone." HE So I built a plank bridge, an oak rainbow of wood, That her feet may stand spotless as Noah's doves stood. SHE At dawn came a bugle, and grand cannon in town; I heard his bay racing as I reached for my gown-- HE To war, my horse, to war, now clamor the planks To save all our dear ones, for whom we give thanks. SHE I saw him once more as he crossed his plank bridge: Through his face in the coffin--a bullet's red ridge.
Master of the Monitor
All my underclothes were perfectly black. I had been up so long, and under such a state of excitement…my nerves and muscles twitched as though electric shocks were continually passing through them. I laid down and tried to sleep–I might as well have tried to fly.
~~Dana Greene, executive officer
The ovoid deck is tidy, trim and flat, A shard of soul steamrolled for war And riveted to a central spar-- The turret's a kind of revolving hat. I am bound by iron as she is bound, Having sworn lucre and limb and deed Obey what martial duty decrees And not the useless bright cry of the hounds. With bit and whip and serrated spur I chased bloodhounds through columned trees Chased patter of possum and fox and me In the flying hours before the war. At sea I'm less than a socketed eye, A man of gears and grinding oars Who sees the world through slits, nor soars When he hears the useless bright cry of the hounds.
A Balloon on the Loose
an episode of the civil war
It was a weird spectacle–that frail, fading oval gliding against the sky, floating in the serene azure, the little vessel swinging silently beneath, and a hundred thousand martial men watching… powerless to relieve or recover. We saw [Gen’l Fitz-John Porter, without a pilot]… no bigger than a child’s toy, clambering up the netting and reaching for the cord.
~~George Alfred Townsend, Campaigns of a Non-Combatant
A balloon suddenly relieved of its gas will always form a half sphere, provided it has a sufficient distance to fall in, to condense a column of air under it. A thousand feet, I presume, would be sufficient.
~~Thaddeus Lowe, Chief Aeronaut, Union Army Balloon Corps
In July when spiders fly swinging in their sacks, I go ballooning above the Rappahannock. I unsnare sandbag ballast and snag a cable. I swing beneath a ball, half-silver, dawdling. At the mistaken snap of a rope, I go soaring. Soldiers look up to see myself unmooring Into snaffling clouds, webbed and horrible. Ten thousand gasp like safety valves in mourning. I drift witnessed. I cross opposing lines. Rebel rifles pop and flower and flak the sky. But I am a cloud, a cork, and unbridled I climb. Eight-eyed and alone, I write and I spy. Richmond hills and Richmond men wave vividly Beneath my rapping knuckles, mapped and tiny. The town lays squared and gridded, a waffle. Front lines are scars in the grasses' ruffles. Confederates swarm like dots in a great restless etching Of a final edition still being written. War draws two sides together in a pucker, The last inch all shyness, each waiting for the other. Ascent throws the ball into opposite winds, The silken sack turns sulkily north now; now flattens. Ten thousand gesture and lightly cry "the valve!" I spider the netting. I trigger the latch. A white hissing goes up in hues of ovation. I land harsh, my chute torn open in nettles and thatch.
One Unday in Shiloh
Lord, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water.
~~Song of Deborah, Judges 5:4
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
~~Herman Melville, Shiloh: A Requiem
We saw Shiloh church and marched to the bells. Nothing was littler than that spire toward God. The guns were thunder, and their fire was Hell. Was Sherman still sleeping when we came to call? Pews were still warm in the April dawn's cold. We saw Shiloh church and marched to the bells. Through pasture and wood, that Sabbath appalled. We whipped 'em in pieces to Hornet's Nest road. Our guns were thunder, and their fire was Hell. We fought with their rifles, slept under their steeple, Shadows ourselves after such loss of blood. We saw Shiloh church and shots rang the bells. "We'll lick 'em tomorrow," rose Grant's voice from a well, His cigar pointing back where old Shiloh church stood. The clouds were thunder, and their rain was Hell. They came on at daybreak, backlit and fell. They pressed their advantage, and we cursed our God. We ran from the churchyard whipped by the bells. Their guns were thunder, and the fire was Hell.
Bread and Tears
Union troops on the road to Gettysburg
The land rolled rich in Maryland Golden miles of unmolested grain A yeoman God had tilled and laid In endless rows on endless plains. A farmer came with bales of bread: Undivided loaves, yeast-burst Risen crusts like handfuls of sun. "Walk up, boys, and get your rations! Bread and tears, tears and bread." The land seemed hurtless, hale and fed, Combers rolling gold and green To feed them all in amassing peace Till time and tide and all were one. Farmer and wife stood upreared as trees Over the loaves' uneven crests, Soft bricks pugged and fired and fresh. "Walk up, boys, and get your rations! Bread and tears, tears and bread." The farmer's wife was an apple of sun, Had kneaded and kept the fire just so Before the hours of night were done. "Oh, boys, ye don't know what's before you! I fear there's many will be mangled soon-- Lee's whole army is dead ahead And there'll be terrible fighting then." "Walk up, boys, and get your rations! Bread and tears, tears and bread."
Sharpshooter in Repose
They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.
~~Union General John Sedgwick just before being shot
by a sniper at Spotsylvania
Cornered in a coign of vantage, my eye is well Hidden, dark as a crack in cold boulder rock-- Along my rolled rifle's endless track A lead ball bead sweats unshelled, An angry star decanted into atmosphere And thrown into blood as into an ocean; It stops the salt sump of a heart at once Against the edgeless engine of its sphere. I'd played high among these old orange hills Endless days; looked lazily out to dream, Or sip a cracked clay pipe of cornsilk crimson In the shelter of summer hours spilled. Those boys I now knock down with thunder Climbed alien trees and sang in another school That marched them down my hollow valley, all Unready to touch the lightning in my finger Pinched in a small, steel trigger.
Unfolding Harper’s Weekly
The Constitution of the Southern Confederacy has been published. It is a copy of the original Constitution of the United States, with some variations.
~~Harper’s Weekly, The Two Constitutions
No fool but thinks this fool war's a foil For his private thought, grievance and toil Of thousands a canvas for his picaresque. Only his tongue's motion gives his mind its rest.
Longfellow in His Study
Longfellow in his study, reading the "terrible news" Penned no epic about the mess, whose terror And error He so intimately knew.
The Rebel Yell
Others live on in a careless and lukewarm state–not appearing to fill Longfellow’s measure: ‘Into each life, some rain must fall.’
~~Mary Todd Lincoln
My Lank Abe stands commanding where coalblack shadows spar; Heavy Chaos covers us over, a blanket without stars-- War is folding over my heart, and over all my days; War is wearing our beautiful country away. Men in thousands are marching, grey and shadowy, Their roiling horses thundering, thundering from afar. At silky midnight the medium returns, with crystal ball And long tin trumpet floating ghostly in the gaslit pall; And Willie's lisping voice buzzing there--to the life! Each dim word returns to my breast like a knife, Each dim dawn returns to the sound of the marchers' marshal fifes. The coffin that carried my heart away was waxed and small. Battleside at noon in our folding chairs, we watch the long lines Approach and cross, blue and grey, threads on a loom divine; Threads red and mud soon enough, soon enough. Always now my wronged, longing heart is crying out: enough! Always it is Willie I see atop the high chargers, out riding in the rough; Always I hear his hollow voice arising--in every Rebel yell.
I will not be afraid of death and bane,
Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane.
At the head of the snake, song broke out: "Cherry ripe, cherry ripe, ripe I cry" And various haloos resounded, wry Laughs as fellas skedaddled about Over fieldstone walls, sniping cherries, pop Pop pop back at men still marching, Whipping to hand sharp camp hatchets: "Cherry chop, cherry chop; chop, chop, chop." Loaded down limbs swung red minie-balls Like Christmas come to Dunsinane, And cherries flying and mouths open And a hail of wet spit pits over all! Cherries for the officers riding without stop, Cherries for the soldiers marching, Singing handy with their hatchets: "Cherry chop, cherry chop; chop, chop, chop." Antlered now, and merry, we descended Between declivities of hills, ripe ripe Ripe as the master sergeant's stripes, Toward a valley town defended-- Tired ourselves of singing as we looped The final little hill we rounded And their distant cannon sounded: "Cherry chop, cherry chop; chop, chop, chop."
Whole regiments slept in the saddle, their faithful animals keeping the road unguided.
At first the harness' small jangle-and-dangle and ease Played smooth music through the moody close wood; But after the harsh rasp of moonless miles these Musics offended, an unrelenting irk-itch of sound. I pulled down my slouch cap, pulled up my coat collar, Crossed reins over pommel, lost worry to darkness, And let my horse follow what horse he would follow Until turns turned again to blue moonlight through leaves. I dreamed when I dreamed of the slap-dash of the sea, Restless crests of the waves, the deepness of being. Dolphin and merman, finned and webbed, we rode the sea's Symphony: not flying, not falling, just floating.... A whinny of raindrops woke us much later, shook horse And rider out of their doze, mists raising fine steam From hillside's frail dawn, the clopped trail drawn loose-- First from the forest, and last, mile by mile, from my dreams.
The Midnight Ride of Abraham Lincoln; or,
The Tale of the Two Old Abes
A nearly verbatim transcript made by his friend Ward Hill Lamon. The Oval Office, midnight
I have something to tell you, Ward! Lock the door. You know I always thought you an idiot Fit for a strait jacket for your apprehensions Of my personal danger from assassination. You also know the way we skulked into this city In the first place, has been a source of shame And regret to me, for it did look so cowardly! Now, I don't propose to make you my father-confessor Or acknowledge a change of heart, yet I am free To admit that just now I don't know what to think.... Tonight, about 11 o'clock, I went out riding Old Abe, as you call him, to the Soldiers' Home Alone, and when I returned to the foot of the hill Leading back, I was just jogging along At a slow gait, immersed in deep thought, Contemplating what was next to happen In the unsettled state of current affairs, When suddenly I was aroused--lifted, I may say Out of my saddle as well as out of my wits-- By the report of a rifle, and the gunner Not fifty yards from where my contemplations Ended, and my accelerated transit began. My erratic namesake, with little warning, Gave proof of decided dissatisfaction At the racket, and with one reckless bound he Unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug-hat, Without any assent, expressed or implied, On my part. At break-neck speed we soon Arrived in a haven of safety. Meanwhile I was left In doubt as to whether death was more desirable From being thrown from a runaway federal horse, Or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired By a disloyal bushwhacker in the middle of the night. I tell you there's no time on record to equal that Made by the two Old Abes on that occasion. The historic ride of John Gilpin, and Henry Wilson's Memorable display of bareback equestrianship On a stray army mule from the scene of battle At Bull Run, a year ago, are nothing in comparison, Either in point of time made or in ludicrous pageantry. My only advantage over these worthies was In my having no observers. I can truthfully say That one of the Abes was frightened on this occasion, But modesty forbids my mentioning which of us Is entitled to that honor. This whole thing seems farcical. Yet, here's the hat, and that's the hole! No good Can result at this time from giving it publicity.
Out on a Scout
Let’s slip out on a scout; I’ll ride your horse, and you can ride mine.
~~J.E.B. Stuart to his clerk, Eggleston
He was enamored of my horse And we rode, I supposed then, For the pleasure of riding our course On an animal which pleased him. As stars were beginning to fade We leaned in and had a race; The war before us no more than a road, Danger a wind in our face. Our paces blurred pines as we passed Beyond the pickets' caution; We rode into dawn at the last Like mist over the mountain. The general gazed only forward, His form like a balancing cat's; He spoke to me as we sortied, His unearthly voice detached: "What are scouts who peer and run But sparks thrown off a match? And battle lines little more than one Spark that happens to catch?"
Little Round Top
I have never returned to Emmitsburg, but it would astonish me very little to hear that the two armies had gone to Gettysburg to fight on account of the miracle performed by St. Joseph, intervening in favor of these pious damsels.
~~ Colonel Philippe Regis de Trobriand, remembering the
nuns of St. Joseph’s Convent of Emmitsburg, a few
miles away from Gettysburg
Ten thousand angels upon a pin Whirlwinded little "Round Top" whistling Death by the minute fifteen decades ago Where our placid picnic spreads its afternoon Visiting green Gettysburg again-- Pickett's charge drawn inevitably up As an anchor from the sleeping sea.... Ten thousand angels in infernal clouds Flashed bayonets like wingtips in the smoke Where I rummage for a final cigarette To put our wine and sausages to bed, History re-folded neat as napkins in our basket. We shotgun stale heels of bread-ends downhill To the instant screech of skirling birds. The knuckled minie ball you roll perhaps Had pinned some farm-boy soldier through the hand Or aced a captain's eye from its socket.... But the lounging lemon clouds surrounding us Show nothing of the web in which we're stitched In the skinned wind of the world.
Seventeen miles the badgered men Bent greyly southward, beaten back-- Ambulance and stretcher burdened full Past Lee, who stood upon the track Murmuring those words like water: "You fought nobly, none better; I'm sorry; the fault is mine for all." Gettysburg grew small, turned blue Behind them, cannonade and crack Of rifles silent as the hills; Letters home filled with the endless wreck Of lives interred by slaughter: "You fought nobly, none better; I'm sorry; the fault is mine for all." Lincoln's words had not yet arisen To redeem the crisis, ruin and rack, To give to men drowned red, who fell, Some rippled pulse of meaning back-- Only those words that fell like water: "You fought nobly, none better; I'm sorry; the fault is mine for all."
IN MEDIAS RES
What’s dying but a second wind?
~~Yeats, Tom O’Roughley
In Medias Res
A runner arrives at Lee’s side after the failure of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
My heart is pinched, my eyes are dead With great sweat as the battlefield shrinks Littler than this folding tabletop of maps. The high ground's denied us, cemetery Ridge and seminary ridge and the twin Roundtops bristling blue above our grey Fog of men twisting listless in the valleys. Long the thought and long the march That brought us raiding north through cherry Lanes, and wheatfields rife with grain. Tomorrow revolves the calendar round To Independence Day, and we may yet Set new fireworks in American skies! The lines of battle are a hash of graphs, All our rebel arrows bending back Like fountain spouts to their hidden source. Defeat is a beginning too! The hazard Cast and failed returns the dice to hand.... Choking smokes boil gold with sunset, God's driving rays divided and feebled As troops of angels fall uncaught to Hell. Whip the stolen swine toward Richmond! Vast patchworks of cattle low homeward, And endless bins of raided goods are gone Down south to clothe our bare necessity. What we've garnered here will keep us In peaches through the wailing winter, And blot war office ledgers black. Even Jeff Davis' rail-thin visage will fatten By the thickness of a smile when these Long columns are totaled and summed. Pickett! I see the charge I ordered, Noble and doomed, following your sword No more than a glint above the tarry tide Of blood and men, and death and men. I thought surely--
A long frock coat, a stovepipe hat Straight as a core of coal, A long black ribbon at the top, The ax-drawn face hanging there As if Old Testament prophets Had burned to a single stare. Ghost to ghost, those shoving men Push heaven to the ground. Gettysburg incurred a debt Blood's spontaneous blot put out; That no wrong word, no marring phrase Or disjointed look would come He held a vigil of long silence-- All the simpleness of a sum. Ghost to ghost, those shoving men Push heaven to the ground. Because the Union had grown sick, That fine, long hand atrophied That had put the British from the field And shovelled back the Styx, A single, revolutionary mind Clacked truth from the burial bricks. Ghost to ghost, those shoving men Push heaven to the ground. "All men are created equal," A troubled voice had said it; Calm lightnings play the mortal storm Where dead limbs had bled it. Flies flit and alight among the faces Torn by universal wishes. Ghost to ghost, those shoving men Push heaven to the ground.
VICKSBURG AND AFTER
We’ll teach them dancing fine and neat
With cannon, sword, and bayonet.
~~Dixie All Right
And the Master Runned Away
The scritch-scritch of the chickens Is just the same As the scritch of chickens Yesterday. "Them Union tramps is tampin' Down on Vi'kberg this very night," Ol' Master said, and sure enough De thunder was a fright! His fine buff travelin' hat Settin' on its peg Was gone when the moanin' come-- Guess ol' Master used his legs! Smoke and mist on the river Blow this way n' that; But I never seen my master run Till his peg lost its hat. The scritch-scritch of the chickens Ain't the same As the scritch of chickens Yesterday.
“I Am a Verb”
The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer.
I signify all three.
I am a verb. Wait, waiting, to wait. Vicksburg terrifies me to my fingertips, A sawmill blade set spinning to split Me intemperately in two, if I Cannot mollify this gnat impatience, Invisible and ever-present against my skin. Impatience! I hear the word only as a mad Imprecation against my rolling going on. Was McClellan's awful caution a virtue then? God Himself could not command that man Out of his dithering, hither-and-thithering Of flying supplies, and men cemented To their posts, shining boots to a pupil-sheen. All the logic of supply is "scarcity." Pile high the warehouse against the day Bitter shots ring among the shoe-stuffed shelves-- Let epaulettes lie in golden ranks unearned; Tons of bullets packed like peas for porridge; Headless hats that wait in safety for the rain.... Not I, not I. To live cossetted in a scabbard When war's molten lava is at the gate-- Boots! The way this cold and slowing river Meets us, mud and current to the knees, Claims our long boots with a loving suck As my forward scrim of men attempt A snoring corner of Vicksburg's embankment. Look at the scene night and river give me: Sixty-thousand Confederates stoppered-up In walls as great as Troy's, cannons a lance Of steel to keep me back. To wait, to watch, While each least imp of breeze implores the bell, Ring! Ring says the hammer to the anvil-- I the hammer, Vicksburg the only anvil. I am the fire, Vicksburg the limitless tinder! I the guillotine, Vicksburg the hapless head. I am a verb-- They also serve who can't stand to wait.
Cannon Are Ringing Out;
or, Melt the Bells
Melt the bells, melt the bells,
… transmute the evening chimes
Into war’s resounding rhymes
~~F.Y. Rockett, written when Gen’l Beauregard appealed
to Kentuckians to contribute bells to melt into cannon
Bells, not bullets made of dullard stuff, But bright metal hammered alive enough To leave red forges quick with sound When lifted far enough from ground, When into belfries above choirs lifted. To the cause, the cause, they fall conscripted, Torn from skies their songs had christened By hands no longer paired in prayer To deform their voices' joyful playing, To bring their singing beings to the fire. Broken bells beaten new defend the town, Iron echoes of their sounding rounds Ring fire to the bloody ground, Keep every enemy at bay but time. Time remembers the silver lilt of chimes.
Morgan’s Great Raid
Those who swam with horses, unwilling to be laggard, not halting to dress, seized their cartridge boxes and guns and dashed upon the enemy. The strange sight of naked men engaging in combat amazed the enemy.
Hoist Morgan on your shoulders, boys, And round the campfire drag him-- Bragg orders us to stay, And today we disobey him. Drink to John Morgan and to Duke, Drink champagne from your boot! Rain delayed us, picking daisies; Tom Quick broke his right rein arm, Such omens won't detain us. Morgan's raiders, swarm! Drink to John and drink to Duke, Drink champagne from your boot! We break for Brandenburg To ferry the swift Ohio river; Such wild crossing's easy, urged By Kentucky's blue defenders. Drink to John and drink to Duke, Drink champagne from your boot!
We moved rapidly through six or seven towns without resistance, and tonight lie down for a little while with our bridles in our hands.
Ellsworth, knot the telegraph lines With false report and false surmise-- To sit such fine horses is to ride Streaming dawn astride an arrow! Burn the bridges and pester flocks Where hens pile eggs and barns are stocked; Trace Kentucky's hump through Ohio's wilds, And leave the rich fields fallow. Guard Indianapolis and Columbus, Like statues stand at empty doors. We'll raid defenseless shores Subterfuge and guileless ruse Have left, like magic casements, open. Our fingers grow rings, and our saddles Go belled; ham hangs from our bridles, Who on no kindnesses depend. Down Jackson streets in ladies veils (To defeat July and make it mild), With cobalt bolts of stolen cloth And goods of equal lustre sail The lightning regiments of death. With railyards wrecked behind, and more Devastation on call before, They strike with steel and stealth.
As the red flames created by the great burning timbers rose skyward, they illumined the entire valley, and in the flickering shadows which they cast for several miles around… huge, weird forms….
Bridges burned before us, and bridges burned behind. Men asleep on horses, and the horses falling down. Rivers, rivers, rivers, and the Ohio running high. The chase is on in earnest that'd been but seek-and-hide. No time to cook the stolen meat, or brush proud horses down. Bridges burned before us, and bridges burned behind. "Axes to the fore," the cry goes wide and high-- Another narrow roadway, and every tree chopped down. Rivers, rivers, rivers, and the Ohio running high. Pot-shots from the farmers, their wives leave poisoned pies. Man and horse move hollow-eyed, and night and day are one. Bridges burned before us, and bridges burned behind. The brazen bugle's revellie blows ugly and unkind. "Our last day in Ohio, men, in Virginny's our next town." Rivers, rivers, rivers, and the Ohio running high. At last we're at the river; all is black and we are blind. Are Union gunboats churning round Buffington Island now? Bridges burned before us, and our bridges burned behind. Rivers, rivers, rivers, and the Ohio running high.
Snow came with Christmas, filling the camp with quiet. Sharpshooters trespassing skillful through the woods Licked snowflakes from their frozen sights and were silent. Morning began with coffee in the tin, and was good. Hardtack, foraged fowl and a garnish of shucked peas Done with before our prayers were said, or thought of-- A dishrag of brownbread shining the plate with ease As Major Anderson began to stir: "Look smart, boys, look smart." He marched us dizzy double-time, and we had a hunch: Here strutted a martinet in a polished boot, A ten-cent picture soldier not worth a punch-- Till Old Billy hatched a plan to ferret out the truth. Major Anderson tiptoed tautly along the drawn line, His beardless cheek shaved close as a new spring apple, His black Maine hat as he passed, a target "as fine As it was tall," hissed Billy as he bent grinning to scrape A quick snowball from the scarves the night had left-- Not too powdery--and flicked it, and it burst and popped Off the major's hat with a hop, which his gloved hands caught Beneath a reddened face pursed and contemplative and soft. Then a staticy laugh cracked at the back of the group And ran like lightning through a frozen pond, smiles Unzipping everywhere, laughter's thunder following up Until even the major was laughing after a while. His eyes glittered down the elated line: "Atten-hut!" And all laughter clamped shut like a splint. "Tell you men what-- I think you snow-ballers need a wee bit more target Practice. Y'un's nearly missed me! Bill, why'n't you paste your hat On that fence post yonder." Billy did the whipped-pup walk And carefully placed his brand new two-dollar Hardee hat As we shouldered arms, watching him brush the black nap Goodbye. "I suggest you men aim at the bugle crest." And we did as Major Anderson suggested, the whole troop. In a minute, wasn't much post, let alone hat, left but scraps. Myself, I guess I clipped the bugle's loop. As for the truth? Well, let's just say, after that day, Old Billy always "looked sharp" And snapped the first salute.
Jefferson Davis on His Sick Bed
Your letter found me in the depth of gloom… disasters have shrouded our cause.
~~Jefferson Davis, New Year’s Day 1862
It is the old story of the sick lion who even the jackal can kick without fear.
~~A Davis supporter
Varina, here, hand the hissing stack of papers hither. I've more correspondence going out by pony to Bragg Mired in Murfreesboro, his ranks fanged with vipers. The Union's first retreat has mired and snagged, Casting black iron from the heights across Stones River To spike and sink all hopes of once-boastful Bragg. Whatever else gets that gimlet man so hated, Where he puts his screws they anchor and bite, Keeping thin timber to timber sturdily mated. Take this poltice of words for Polk, too. May the sight Of it renew the sweetness of a friendship abated by Distance, and help him take Bragg's burrs more lightly. How go the Cumberland roses we planted last spring? I have not been up once this week of days, helping Deepen earth, or prune to health the tender things. If only Bragg's first telegram hadn't heralded victory! How much more bitter the dregs, more dark the clouds Hang on us now--those once blinding skies an effrontery To this minute's remembrance of them! Cry aloud, Dear Varina, as I must make these inks crawl and cry, Each cold word drawn out to web the page in blood.
Harriet Tubman in Ecstasy
Tubman underwent brain surgery in Boston’s Mass. Gen’l in 1898 to alleviate sleeplessness, pains and ‘buzzing’
If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
I'll bite my bullet, doc, if you but bite your tongue! I've seen a man in tearless pain grimace lead Nearly in two while the surgeon took his leg. What served for his anesthesia will serve for me. My brain cannot sleep, and all I've seen disables My eyes from closing--visions and varieties Of reality beyond a mortal's power to name. I'll point and be silent before the throne of God. Take your knife and knowledge and carve A little darkness in my skull where sleep may dwell, And I curl there like a possum, too, at noon. All my life I've had the sleeping fits, sleep Slipping under my eyelids day or night; At least, since that overseer knocked a knot Of iron against my head when I wouldn't nab Augustus as he took to his heels in flight. "Catch your own fish," I told him plain, and he Answered plainly, too. It wasn't too long after that That visions came unbidden, green-edged And lively as a willow in a windstorm, A million ribbons breathing, beating, And on each a hidden meaning writ revealed. Some things are more than the thing they seem, Said one. A man's tongue will look more purple When he lies, inscribed upon another ribbon. Oh! I feel you now, the clapping clack of bone Where the top of my head is coming off! Old brains, greet the very air! Pray you find Your cupful of oblivion again when sealed back in. Sweet the cerebrations of ignorant sleep. The surgeon touches a node of me, and I Smell candles. I see the faces of my brothers As I try and talk them North. Follow me, Ben and Harry, follow the North Star. No matter The miles, we'll find the rainbow's end, I've seen it. And now I see them turning back defeated, And feel myself turtle on, small and hard As this sour bullet between my teeth. Again and again the lighting divides my mind. Each strike emancipates a moonlit escapade. Varied and vivid the hands I held, traipsing The underground railroad house to house To Canada after the 1850 compromise that kept Blood off the streets a while, and my people Staked and abandoned in a Southern sun A decade past their liberation date! Follow me, To the green land above Mason-Dixon's line, sky A color unrecorded in the dreams of the unfree. Again the finding knife intrudes, and another Memory rears searing--down the Combahee River we are raiding, those tall good soldiers, Faces dark like mine, solemn over Union blue, And I commanding, salvaging slaves by the boatload, Unrivaled behind-the-lines spies every one. "Part the waters, Moses!" I heard the babies cry. Women running with a child at hip and little ones Worn round their necks like grain sacks. I still laugh to see that woman who slung a pig In a bag, and led a second on a leash, black And white Beauregard and Jeff Davis as we Named 'em on the creaky crowded steamer. How those pigs did wrestle and cavort! Over 700 Gen'l Rufus counted. Over 700 saved And brought by creek and stream to Freedomland. A wind is running through me, surgeon, and A scalpel of wit unrolls the final writ of ribbon: Women's suffrage, a voice and a vote. That, I'll lend my life to, too, and gladly Emancipate sister after sister to vote The Republican ticket, straight. "Listen folks," I'd say, "I freed thousands of slaves in my day, And could have freed thousands more, to boot, If only those poor souls had known that they Were slaves." Me and Susan B. can see all people Share essentialities from fingertips to spine. I'm sure you understand, my friend, who's held A battering human heart in the bareness Of your human hand.
Stars Above Tennessee; or,
The Ragged Stars
I see the stars at bloody war
~~ Mad Tom’s Song
Terror and courage and the rest Arrive and don't tell why; Ten thousand good men lost In one toss of arms. Terrible the day today, and Graveyard night the same. In the lee of a watery ditch Beset by sweat and worse, The cavalryman unhorsed Drinks from the moon hitched At his waist and sighs: May tomorrow never come. May night unroll forever Its ragged battle-flag; May day and its great heat Never crease horizon's rim. Roll me up in your rag of stars, O night, cool and everlasting!
Landing in the Crater
The rich grain was standing high in the surrounding fields. The harvest was almost ripe, but the harvesters had fled.
~~Horace Porter, Grant’s aide during Petersburg siege
It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.
~~Ulysses S. Grant
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
~~ Henry V
"Go on in and see what the matter is." So the miner went, hunched, with a candle in his hat Tracing the exhausted ash of a fuse, Facing extermination if a spark Should show ahead in the low-beamed tunnel. Could the fuse prepared have sputtered out? The coughing candle showed a zone of hole, Soughing almost soundless in interred dark. At last the tail of fuse, inertly unlit That had paused the thousands set to attack Twisted back and forth in the miner's fingers Insisting a new length of fuse into place And rolling back two hundred feet to find Colonel Pleasants rapping a pack of matchsticks Against his fidgeting thigh. "Have at it, sir." Thist! went the matchstick and hist! went the fuse Sparkling uneasily into the interior gloom. Hark! An expectant stillness enfilades the field, A hush as was before the world was made, And us no more than cosmic dust, a breath Unbreathed, a nothingness from nothingness Bequeathed. So stood all on tiptoe in predawn Dark, dawn herself but a secondhand's sweep away. Sharp the intake of breath, a boiling pan, When every Union eye perceived the blast --Clean as a cutout from the now dawning sky-- A volcano of ruin moving like a freight train Voluminously upward, and lightnings Veined eyeball-like within it, roving painterly Spikes of angry orange throughout the mass Great as a cathedral of spewed earth, Great as an Iceland geyser filled with arms and legs And cannon bright as gilded toothpicks, Spinning compass needles gone to Hell. "Forward!" cried the sergeant, and the captain. "Forward!" cried the colonel, and the general too. And forward went the men into a crater Frowsey grey with endless dusts, till they Were grey themselves and looked half burnt-up, Unsure with every step they were not ghosts Hovering above a pock-marked moonscape; Aberrations of a living grave dug by fire, Poor soldiers caught in a whirlpool of flame Or Inferno's undertow; walking dust In a waste landscape of the unlabeled dead, One face the same as the next in the end. The crater unmanned the redan and left A scar, raw and bleak, between bewildered Confederates gawping gape-mouthed at dawn, Unsinging grey kingbirds as they clung To the fractured walls they held, grey wings Toward a screeching sky, flightless, lit up Themselves by sunrise, and sighted by The busy shells of Union men bristling blue Along their enemy redoubt, a hundred guns Strong, and just one hundred yards away. "Thirty feet deep if an inch, I'd say. Thirty feet Of dirt and death, an open grave if we Don't mush on and take the little hill, that green Mount behind the lines of all their battleworks History hasn't quite spiked full of tombstones And victory or defeat will paint white as bones-- Blanford cemetery, an oasis in the air, Plain, with an easy excess of unturned grass, Still filigreed with leafing trees, and a view Full-on of downtown Petersburg, street by Street as if snapping a map. And there we'll Point directions out with artillery and bayonet Eviscerating resistance from our crowned Crowsnest, our precipice of destruction." So high officers prophesied and prayed, So stood looking at the Crater's smoking gash Full of hope and silence-- But in the pit Fools were standing, gulled and moored, not led, Not guided and inspired; acres of riflemen Wild to attack, but hamstrung on the leash Incompetence had necked them with, as if An ominous noose had been laid out by fate. The Crater was too deep to leap once entered. Later, many men were unburied here, chained And damned, if black, or doomed to Andersonville And blamed for war's forlorn continuance. But here and now, all's a roar: confusion! Shut from that happy pasture behind the lines, Thousands churned in the gulping hole, cliffs Of sand surrounding them, drowning them-- Tumult of guns, horrible faces half buried Throughout muddy waves of earthen wreckage. People, even here, in this hole, found heroes Equal to the horror, the hallelujah Of brave souls rearing to their uppermost, Doves outspread against the shotgun's buckshot. Traverses, hidden trenches, a ruin of wood Spavined the Crater and men madly crept Sheer walls to bear their muskets against Fear-stuck foes in grey who, slow, reconvened At the precipitous lip, as at a pool That invited diving in, brimmed with blue. Shot, and rocks, and mortar soon poured down, Hot terror deboning the bluecoats' cool. Officers shouted themselves hoarse, swinging swords, Offering themselves to the fire to upend The soupbowl of soldiers and take the hill "Up there!" a quarter-mile, or less, green And trim, a haven like unto heaven then. When the colored troops marched the rim's flanks (At last released to fight who had trained first), Fast and keeping good order in the maelstrom They mustered at the Crater's far end And most of those below began to follow them Halfway to the graveyard, through sniper fire Laughing at their lateness to the task. Their battering forward soon boomeranged-- Bare-knuckled though they fought, they failed. Back the black men tumbled to the cauldron, Attacked by an encircling scythe of grey That stabbed them surrendering, or shivved Like crabs those who showed black backs to them. Black regiments at their crest were halted; Back they were turned, one upon the other, Unsaved by fate, by luck; returned they were, The brave few following, all were returned-- Pushed, rushed into the pit, into the pit Crushed as waves by waves are crushed till only Seas are seen, are heard, one great clap of Chaos, one being, one terrible discord. Carnage incontestable was occurring Cartridge after cartridge in the Crater, Yet not far off stood Colonel Pleasants, Hip against the battery's small wall Worrying his watch fob in distracted thought Sorry perhaps for having started it all Listening to a fellow miner from Schuylkill Listing how he'd "Blow the damned fort up quick" With sufficient shaft and charge to do it. With that, Colonel Pleasants surveyed the scene: Battlements like interlocking teeth faced Battlements--a trench war grim and endless Chewing men and munitions to a cud, Swallowing all. Was there a place these two Ferocities touched, an incisor that he Fearlessly could tug? The engineer walked Zigzags day and night with his theodolite Digging practice shafts with bayonets, camp picks Hammered to a miner's measure for deep Untrammeled work--it could be done, by God! Here as near as kissing came the eager walls, Here the slope would drain, the high ground be obtained If but the enemy's pale fang was pulled, If abatis and barbican were culled. Why not begin in earnest, get the brass behind it? The way was plain as day, and today the day. Swiftly flew the work, there yawned the gap. Without meaning to, the colonel's feet Danced a tango step, and the loop returned Dancer and dance to face unpleasantness: The boys were overwhelmed by bruising blows; The soil was eating up the fellows now, Consuming what the firefight refused; One son made a motion of obeisance And pulled a dead man from the mire, laid Hand over hand in a crossed last rest. Damn all the generals who let them Slam forward only to teeter into the pit: Damn Ledlie, damn Burnside, damn Ferrero! Damn them, damn them, damn them, damn them! Damn all generals who conspire to kill All men on every side for all of time: Jolly devils who only long for death, Death before them and death behind. Death was on the minds of men the night before, Stitching names and regiments into their coats, Such as who could. The black troopers singing Songs belonging only to themselves, fires' Long shadows and tall light casting over all A beautiful and solemn mahogany, The soulful sounds drawing awkward men To quiet attentiveness to hear how goes The spirit of men meant for the first push, Meant to lift up arms against oppressors Wanton in their crimes. How then sang these men? Their voices lifted up as one vast organ Choice and melodious praising creation-- Bitterness had no purchase in their souls, Little cared how plantation days wore away Simple dignity with outrageous assault. Civilly they faced their final day, and sang: I know moonrise, I know star-rise-- Lay dis body down. I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight-- Lay dis body down. My soul and your soul Will meet again one day-- When I lay dis body down.
Over the rebel parapet near the old mine crater came a white flag, with a bugler to blow a parley…. By the mysterious army grapevine, word went up and down the rival lines: the Confederacy was sending a peace commission to meet Lincoln….
~~ Bruce Carton, A Stillness at Appomattox
We desire peace at any sacrifice save that of honour and independence.
Let us discuss securing peace to the people of one common country.
Late came the day, and the sulky cattle lowing. Late the table laid, and late the peace-seeds sowing. Three men step across Southern battlements; Three men arrive, and Union lines must part. Three cheers arise, arise in ragged grey; And three hoarse cheers more in soiled blue reply. Down Hampton Roads a riverboat rolls waiting-- Lincoln's long shadow there in the picture window sitting. And last there came dovewhite ladies in a row. Late, late in the day, and the sulky cattle lowing. Three men gone away, and weeping ladies waving. Late, late in the day the peace-seeds sowing.
Mrs. Bickerdyke’s Battle;
or, Milk and Eggs
When one surgeon dared to ask where she received permission to do what she was doing, Bickerdyke retorted she was given orders by ‘the Lord God Almighty. Have you anything that ranks higher than that?’
Hospital days and hard tack, Chalk milk and sour eggs Were the bane of Mrs. Bickerdyke Mopping brows and counting legs. In the Union's Memphis hospital Each sheet was straight and whole; Quick-attended was each man and boy Until he died or rose. "Milk and eggs, milk and eggs!" Cried every feeble mouth; But milk and eggs could not be had In the war-torn, war-poor South. Mrs. Bickerdyke was small, was fierce, And had a soul of ‘sterner stuff;' With iron spine, eyes clear of tears: "We'll soon have enough." The epauletted surgeons scoffed, "Those enemy lines are garrote wire Pulled tight at supply line necks." But those who coughed knew well the while Who would fill their cups and plates: "The milk will be as a river, The eggs a flotilla upon it-- Mrs. Bickerdyke will deliver!" Through the rifles of Johnny Reb Her tracks ran frail as lace; At the slaughterhouse of Chicago Mrs. Bickerdyke unveiled her case: "Our blue men lay wounded, wanting No more than milk and eggs; Throw wide your pantry doors, Chicago And give me what I beg!" Thirty days she was gone away To siphon milk and gather eggs; On the thirty-first her train arrived Lowing, topped by cackling crates. Mrs. Bickerdyke beamed, wreathed In haloes of hissing steam: "These are Union cows, boys, And loyal, abolitionist hens!"
Quiet at Camp
Without music there would be no army.
~~Genl. Robt. E. Lee
The campfire throws faces, form after form: Faces adept at battle, or unready for the first charge Rise and recede in the unsteady flame. No time for thought when the lieutenant calls, When the barrage hails fate into your lap. All's disarray; endless disturbance of a waterfall. But now the tents are pitched, the camp at peace; Exhausted soldiers lie fallen in a snow of sleep, A calm rustled darkness of leaf on leaf. Indelible things have fallen to every boy and man: Sins of ages a few torn years must mend-- Shoulder-to-shoulder the blue, unready regiments stand. But now no fife of patriots taunts the heart, And all the soft fire's lofty murmur is gathering in Face after face: angry, ecstatic, mute.
A Nest of Copperheads; or,
or, Capt. Hines Takes a Holiday
Chicago graveyard. Democrat convention, 1864
Millions for defense; not a dollar or a man for aggressive and offensive civil war.
~~Clement Vallandigham, founder of the Copperheads
[My escape with Morgan] owes something to the fact that I had just completed the reading of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” containing such vivid delineations of the wonderful escapes of Jean Valjean….
~~Capt. Thomas Hines, Confederate raider
Close your eyes and swear the oath, Vallandigham, The Peace-Knights of the Golden Circle need you. Hand me that tracing paper, Beall, we've got Another Democrat voter mouldering in his grave here, Shrapnelled to smithereens at Antietam, looks like. Repeat after me, Clement, "I hereby swear: surrender Before war. Peace above prosperity, and the defeat Of Abraham Africanus above all!" Well done, now Take off that blindfold, here's charcoal and paper. I'll unfold a plot complete, my sixty stout Confederate conferees and me tidily devised Last month in Toronto. We've arsenal enough For Rock Island penitentiary and the six thousand Good men in grey snaffled harmless there. Six thousand! You know I snaked John Morgan out of the Ohio Pen, Well, I'll charm this passel of greybacks free as well. Just keep listening and collect those votes for peace. Cold feet, Clem? Think what mighty shoes we'll fill After such long years of wearying, rearing war! Copperheads, don't those liberty pennies on your lapels Mean anything in this degraded age? I'll need Five hundred minuteman Chicagoans, any who Avoided Yankee service on principle will do. With them, Moonlight and luck, we'll have six thousand merry Raiders ripping up track and blowing up armories From Lake Michigan to the Mississippi in no time. Howdy-do, the Union will sure sue for peace then, McClellan run into Washington on the peace plank Vallandigham has penned with widows' tears, A bald eagle feather for a quill--all his hiss Of rights everlasting, rights to secede and breathe free. Gather me those papers, Buell. Here, hand over. Look at these new votes we've stacked nigh high As a Gutenberg bible to swear a president in upon.
Sherman’s March to the Sea
See here, [Gen’l] Cox, burn a few barns occasionally, as you go along. I can’t understand those signal flags, but I know what smoke means.
~~Wm. Tecumseh Sherman
Sherman stalked the dining room, Lush upon a high Atlanta hill; The wallpaper, ornate and still, Writhed fire in the reflected gloom. Bayonetted cotton floods the street With pale, incandescent heat. Shouted voices spread the news But could not outrun the light Flicker-cast toward Georgia night Of his march's burning fuse. What shone revealed, what dread, what grace, In each illuminated face? Sherman strode the cold seashore All night beneath starfire-- His hooded eyes a mystery Homeless, aimless, and alone. He paused where firepale waters rushed, Heard his prayer, hissed, and did not rest.
…a sudden figure, a man, raises himself…stands a moment on the railing, leaps below to the stage…catching his boot-heel in the copious drapery (the American flag), falls on one knee, recovers…
~~Whitman’s report of Lincoln’s assassination
How I have loved the old flag, can never now be known.
~~John Wilkes Booth
The flag curls over like a wave of the surf, Over its lines a cold fold of stars, enough To show what sky can be when night is come: Red alive as rockets in the fabrics dim, White stripes welcome as oceans breaking home. Catch me by the heels who can, or catch me not at all. How split, how hate-estranged we've grown, old flag, Stripped of half your stars, your red stripes but rags To bandage bloodied men or bury them-- Fife, drum, and solemn bell are all your music now. Flown, blown apart, we two, who once together flew. Catch me by the heels who can, or catch me not at all. I'll stitch myself into the national scene, Rehearse my lines and look the part--I preen To patch divided stripes and each stray star return. Nothing but love, love alone bade me do this: Fire, jump, and shout ‘Sic semper tyrranis!' Catch me by the heels who can, or catch me not at all.
Mary Chesnut’s Diary
I do not write often now–not for want of something to say, but from a loathing of all I see and hear. Why dwell upon it?
~~ Mary Boykin Chesnut
Darkest of all Decembers ever has my life known, Sitting here by the embers, stunned, helpless, alone. Lay aside, faithful pen, and write no more; Richmond is bleak as a cauldron of burnt teeth. I'll close my eyes awhile, and lie prone Until some sweeter thought arises. I remember... The canopied bridge to Mulberry, tree After tree alive with yellow jessamine And with cherokee rose writhing wild On post and pillar, as we rode to James' Father's placid estate, Colonel Chesnut Erect and spectacleless at eighty, A fine speech on his lips about his visit Preaching generosity and Jesus Down at the Wateree Negro Mission. "I preach to them as to my own, young James, Our prayers made knee by knee to God above." When long life at last sent him onward, The plantation rained with tears, and all Was lamentation and appreciation For one who'd filled his cup of life with grace. Old Scipio was first among the pallbearers Who'd "dressed him in life, and dressed him dead." And night came, and a soothing singing came Up to the manse from the little slave cabins.
Pieces of the Old Battle Flag; or,
Hoe-cake and Hominy on the Way Home
My sisters that night made me underclothes from their skirts.
~~John T. Wickersham, in his homecoming narrative
A bugle broke night's silence as the colonel arrived, Drunk we thought, tilting on his stick-thin brindled mare; "The war's done, boys. Head on home." And in a few strides He was gone himself. Kelly had his knife, and then and there Began to parcel out the battle flag which had never veered To ground, although three good colorguards weren't spared. Some men wiped tears, some crept quiet from camp, hunched As if unspined, but no one raised their voice to sing our anthem A final time, nor have I heard it since, that song which once Marched us from Missouri's shores to the vale of dread Antietam. We soon enough were counted, and paroled to wander hence Barefoot to Memphis, or ride the Delta Darling steamboat down From the point of its departure. I rode until they threw me off, Unconscious on the docks of I knew not where, but not home. Alone and light-headed, I heard a colored woman close enough to scoff: "Po' devil, and Sunday comin' too," who led me like a lamb And fed me hominy and cornbread--of her poor portion half Until three weeks of days nursed me back to what I am: A sinner on the roadway with a hoe-cake in his hand. "Honey, don't you go it, you'll for sure die if you do." "Ninety miles to the Missouri line, I must try it if I can." Not a barn was left standing, not a town unburned, no, Not a cow in any pasture, nor a white man in the land. Not a black man played the stranger, but gave me kindness, too; Rough food to keep from fainting, sweet hands to bind my feet. Some went to hunt their masters, some heading for the North, Every one of them my better, to my shame and my regret. One night, near expiring, under the rainfall's gentle wrath I saw a lamp that beckoned me, deep in wood and sleet; On hands and knees I made it, too weak to try the latch; Within I heard them praying, a muffled forlorn grace, And put my ear the nearer who had not given thanks; Words, it seemed, imploring, to see their loved one's face Lost to war's disorders when taken from their ranks. With their prayer ended, I knocked and entered, felt the fireplace Warm me like a brandy that relieves the fever's shakes. "Bacon and rye coffee," I heard. "This man is almost dead!" The voice was my own mother's, and my sisters circled near; Father, serving coffee, cried: "Why, it's our own dear Ned!" They embraced me all in all their arms, shed relief-fed tears. They bathed me in hot water, and closed up every wound. To God I give my every thanks, who took away my fears.
In freedom's cause their voices raise, And burst the bonds of every slave; Till, north and south, and east and west, The wounds we bear shall be redressed. ~~ James M. Whitfield Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees. ~~Stonewall Jackson
Christmas Eve in Whitneyville
An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.
Easily a thousand times I'd touched a cuff, Flexed the luxury of a high thread count And dropped, as though left drowning in the surf, An empty sleeve without a second thought. Only now, in Whitneyville on a visit, Piling my cart with bales of breathable shirts, I think about the town's history, how it's stitched Day to day in time's continental drift. How, quick as a cat, Eli's nimble gin Clawed free a thread, crystalline from end to end, And that thread reached out across lost time To wind me in these sheets for bed.... Did Eli know his cotton gin would bring Us here together among the shining aisles-- He and I, and Southern slavers in a ring? And, by their rings, black slaves in lowly file? I dream of fields of cotton, brown and white, And dusky figures bending in a singing row, And colored sunset moving on toward night Where only sleeping darkness is allowed. I lie alone among the cotton clouds, Drifting in the droning surf of central air, My sleeves lifeless as my premie shroud. I hear my heavy breathing claw the air.
Reviving the Wreck; or,
The Raising of the Monitor
It was like finding a palace, with all its conveniences, under the sea.
The sea is full of sobbing Yet into the sea we go, To find that historical darling A tin ship from long ago. We fight (as they fought, perhaps, Who unlimbered cannon and tracked The foe) who (amid salvage and scrap) Wrestle seaweed and wrecks. With mask and fin descending, We delve disguised to the depths To uncharm the storm's spellbinding Upending you to death. Here's the Monitor that made such noise Harassing Merrimac on the James; It lists in a funk of silt and weeds, Rusted, contrite, and tame. History's filigree of detail, Its palimpsest of scribbled layers, Shows stripes of filtered light mottling A hulk abandoned by prayer. The darkness of Hatteras' stream We pierce without wit or pity, And the glance of our trifling beams Reveals a sunken city. Here glimmers a little Manhattan, The keel quaint 6th Avenue With Wahoo and Bluefin pedestrians, The whole glozed over in roux. All war and the waging of it Must come to this they say-- Two skeletons in an inverted turret Where minnows are wont to play. For weeks we belt and balloon and inflate To heave the iron whale by inches From the heaviness of its fate; Yet in my chest, a rebellious fish Quivers with questions and guesses: To itch at the layers of mystery, To reveal in detail what had been messy, May change what was of history. To scrape through the dark unknown With an arrow of light forlorn, With new instruments of our own.... Would we survive such inspection? Let Davy Jones entertain his guests, Let leviathan still swallow Jonah, Let Eve's innocence stay lost, And disturb not Shakespeare's bones.
In the Field of Lost Shoes
They faltered not, but kept the line.
~~About the adolescent VMI cadets who marched through heavy mud, losing their shoes as they advanced on the enemy at New Market
We planted palm-sized flags in uncounted rows As wind taunted them taut-- The colors almost gone to watercolor now Winter's passed and spring pants. The field still marshals blue and grey, although The skirmish lines are lost.... Where wildflower and meadowgrass grow long Memory simplifies to mist.
Draw the sword and throw away the scabbard!
To stand and stand and stand When every knee would fawn; To be a statue, resolute, That greets the pinkening dawn. No more can one man master Than his own traitorous feet; No more's expected, wanted, Than refusal to retreat. So Stonewall stood, and stands Granite and complete; Each fieldstone laid by careful hand: Duty, honor, brave intent.
When sullied world is gone, or rent Hidden meanings like hidden ghosts arise. That Lee might live the thought fidelity, To defeat or victory indifferent, A world's measure of gain and loss Lies in his sword's ceremonial cross. O nothing but a passion burns Mourned countries to their soot. Spotless Appomattox first and last, Lee's ruinous duty, and after Kent's canon that shook the stocks, Who served a sane, distracted Lear Because he knew a royal soul was one Human before humanity had come. Long, long lay the shadows on the grass; Uniformed men flit and pass. How many of the undiscerning multitude When Lee passed there had thought His great grey face all gravity, Stone blossom of a moral root. What first might drive a man To live an abstract thought? O nothing but a passion burns Mourned countries to their soot. Courthouse shadows judge the field Where Lee both tried and failed; A lonely, exalted thought that still Drives restless as a nail. O How had Athens come and gone Without one such man? Long, long lay the shadows on the grass; Uniformed men flit and pass.
Some books I read while writing
There’s a million books out there about the American Civil War. This is one of the facts that daunts, rather than tempts, the fidelity-minded contemporary writer. Some of the books I treasured, and mauled, the most during my journey through these sparse traces of poems are listed below. Of special note, to me, were the compendiums of contemporary accounts, tales and folklore (B. A. Botkin), or books that threaded a narrative together mainly through excerpts from eyewitness accounts, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, and official battle reports (Eisendchiml and Newman, Commager). I also enjoyed the robust and well-known popular history narratives of the war that use such accounts to bring their retellings to life (Catton, Foote, McPherson, Brown). You won’t regret picking up any of the titles below in addition to (or instead of) the little poetry book in your hands.
Civil War Treasury, B. A. Botkin Civil War, San American Iliad, Eisendchiml and Newman The Blue and the Grey, Henry Steele Commager Bruce Catton's Civil War Shelby Foote Civil War Trilogy Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson Vicksburg 1863, Winston Groom Battle Cry of Freedom, James Mcpherson Gettysburg, Noah Trudeau Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank, Wiley War Stories, Ambrose Bierce Words For the Hour, poetry, Barret and Miller Poets of the Civil War, J. D. Mcclatchy Embattled Rebel and Tried by War, James Mcpherson Embattled Courage, Gerald Linderman Ironclad, Paul Clancy The Battle of the Crater, Charles River Editions Sherman's March, Burke Davis Dee Brown's Three Main Civil War Books Landscape Turned Red, Stephen Sears Don't Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth Davis Any book by Douglas Southall Freeman
Helps to keep a good battle atlas at your elbow, rather than internet maps.