BY FORCEYTHE WILLSON.
THE carrier cannot sing to-day the ballads
With which he used to go
Rhyming the grand rounds of the Happy New Years
That are now beneath the snow;–
For the same awful and portentous shadow
That overcast the earth,
And smote the land last year with desolation,
Still darkens every hearth.
And the carrier hears Beethoven’s mighty dead-march
Come up from every mart,
And he hears and feels it breathing in his bosom,
And beating in his heart.
And to-day, like a scarred and weather-beaten veteran,
Again he comes along,
To tell the story of the Old Year’s struggles,
In another New Year’s song.
And the song is his, but not so with the story;
For the story, you must know
Was told in prose to Assistant-Surgeon Austin,
By a soldier of Shiloh;–
By Robert Burton, who was brought up on thae Adams
With his death-wound in his side,
And who told the story to the Assistant Surgeon
On the same night that he died.
But the singer feels it will better suit the ballad,
If all should deem it right,
To sing the story as if what it speaks of
Had happened but last night.
“Come a little nearer, Doctor–Thank you! let me take the cup!
Draw your chair up!–draw it closer–just another little sup!
May be you may think I’m better, but I’m pretty well used up–
Doctor, you’ve done all you could do, but I’m just a going up.
“Feel my pulse, sir, if you want to, but it is no use to try.”
“Never say that,” said the Surgeon, as he smothered down a sigh;
“It will never do, old comrade, for a soldier to say die!”
“What you say will make no difference, Doctor, when you come to die.
“Doctor, what has been the matter?” “You were very faint, they say;
You must try to get to sleep now.” “Doctor, have I been away?”
“No, my venerable comrade.” “Doctor, will you please to stay?
There is something I must tell you, and you won’t have long to stay!
“I have got my marching orders, and am ready now to go;
Doctor, did you say I fainted? –but it couldn’t have been so–
For as sure as I’m a Sergeant and was wounded at Shiloh,
I’ve this very night been back there–on the old field of Shiloh!
“You may think it all delusion–all the sickness of the brain:
If you do, you are mistaken, and mistaken to my pain;
For upon my dying honor, as I hope to live again,
I have just been back to Shiloh and all over it again!
“This is all that I remember; the last time the Lighter came,
And the lights had all been lowered, and the noises much the same,
He had not been gone five minutes before something called my name–
‘ORDERLY-SERGEANT-ROBERT-BURTON!’–just that way it called my name.
“Then I thought, who could have called me so distinctly and so slow–
It can’t be the Lighter, surely; he could not have spoken so;
And I tried to answer, ‘Here, sir!’ but I couldn’t make it go!
For I couldn’t move a muscle, and I couldn’t make it go!
“Then I thought it all a nightmare–all a humbug and a bore!
It is just another grapevine, and it won’t come any more;
But it came, sir, notwithstanding, just the same words as before,
‘ORDERLY-SEARGEANT-ROBERT- BURTON!; more distinctly than before!
“That is all that I remember, till a sudden burst of light,
And I stood beside the river, where we stood that Sunday night,
Waiting to be ferried over to the dark bluffs opposite,
When the river seemed perdition, and all hell seemed oopposite!
“And the same old palpitation came again with all its power,
And I heard a bugle sounding, as from heaven or a tower;
And the same mysterious voice said: “IT IS–THE ELEVENTH HOUR!
ORDERLY-SERGEANT–ROBERT BURTON–IT IS THE ELEVENTH HOUR!”
“Dr. Austin!–what day is this?”–“It is Wednesday night, you know.”
“Yes! To-morrow will be New Year’s, and a right good time below!
What time is it, Dr. Austin?”–“Nearly twelve.”–“Then don’t you go!
Can it be that all this happened–all this–not an hour ago!
“There was where the gunboats opened on the dark, rebellious host,
And where Webster semicircled his last guns upon the coast–
There were still the two log-houses, just the same, or else their ghost–
And the same old transport came and took me over –or its ghost!
“And the whole field lay before me, all deserted far and wide–
There was where they fell on Prentiss–there McClernand met the tide;
There was where stern Sherman rallied, and where Hurlbut’s heroes died–
Lower down, where Wallace charged them, and kept charging till he died!
“There was where Lew Wallace shoved them he was of the cannie kin–
There was where old Nelson thundered, and where Rouseau waded in–
There McCook ‘sent them to breakfast,’ and we all began to win–
There was where the grape-shot took me just as we began to win.
“Now a shroud of snow and silence over everything was spread;
And but for this old, blue mantle, and the old hat on my head,
I should not have even doubted, to this moment, I was dead;
For my footsteps were as silent as the snow upon the dead!
“Death and silence! Death and silence! starry silence overhead!
And behold a mighty tower, as if builded to the dead,
To the heaven of the heavens lifted up its mighty head!
Till the Stars and Stripes of heaven all seemed waving from its head!
“Round and mighty-based, it towered–up into the infinite!
And I knew no mortal mason could have built a shaft so bright;
For it shone like solid sunshine; and a winding stair of light
Wound around it and around it till it wound clear out of sight!
“And, behold, as I approached it with a rapt and dazzled stare–
Thinking that I saw old comrades just ascending the great stair–
Suddenly the solemn challenge broke, of, ‘Halt!’ and ‘Who goes there?’
‘I’m a friend,’ I said, ‘if you are.’–‘Then advance, sir, to the stair!’
“I advanced–that sentry, Doctor, was Elijah Ballantyne–
First of all to fall on Monday, after we had formed the line!
‘Welcome! my old Sergeant, welcome! Welcome by that countersign!’
And he pointed to the scar there under this old cloak of mine!
“As he grasped my hand, I shuddered–thinking only of the grave–
But he smiled, and pointed upward, with a bright and bloodless glaive–
‘That’s the way, sir, to headquarters.’==’What headquarters?’–‘Of the brave!’
‘But the great tower?’–‘That was builded of the great deeds of the brave!’
“Then a sudden shame came o’er me at his uniform of light–
At my own so old and tattered, and at his so new and bright:
‘Ah!’ said he, ‘you have forgotten the new uniform to-night!
Hurry back, for you must be here at just twelve o’clock to-night!’
“And the next thing I remember, you were sitting there, and I–
Doctor! it is hard to leave you–Hark! God bless you all! Good by!
Doctor! please to give my musket and my knapsack, when I die,
To my son–my son that’s coming–he won’t get here till I die!
“Tell him his old father blessed him as he never did before–
And to carry that old musket–” Hark! a knock is at the door!–
“Till the Union”–see! it opens!–“Father! father! speak once more!”–
“Bless you!” gasped the old, gray Sergeant, and he lay and said no more!
When the Surgeon gave the heir-son the old Sergeant’s last advice–
And his musket and his knapsack–how the fire flashed in his eyes!–
He is on the march this morning, and will march on till he dies–
He will save this bleeding country, or will fight until he dies! *
* This very remarkable poem was distributed on the first day of the year, 1863, by the carriers of the Louisville Journal.
Originally posted 2009-08-07 22:09:00.