Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE BALLAD OF NEW ORLEANS, by GEORGE HENRY BOKER



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THE BALLAD OF NEW ORLEANS, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Just as the hour was darkest
Last Line: Were resting the will and the power.
Subject(s): American Civil War; Farragut, David Glascow (1801-1870); New Orleans, Battle Of (1862); United States - History


JUST as the hour was darkest,
Just between night and day,
From the flag-ship shone the signal,
"Get the squadrons under way."

Not a sound but the tramp of sailors,
And the wheeling capstan's creak,
Arose from the busy vessels
As the anchors came apeak.

The men worked on in silence,
With never a shout or cheer,
Till 't was whispered from bow to quarter:
"Start forward! all is clear."

Then groaned the ponderous engine,
Then floundered the whirling screw;
And as ship joined ship, the comrades
Their lines of battle drew.

The moon through the fog was casting
A blur of lurid light,
As the captain's latest order
Was flashed into the night.

"Steam on! and whatever fortune
May follow the attack,
Sink with your bows still northward
No vessel must turn back!"

'T was hard when we heard that order
To smother a rising shout;
For it wakened the life within us,
And we burned to give it out.

All wrapped in the foggy darkness,
Brave Bailey moved ahead;
And stem after stern, his gunboats
To the starboard station led.

Next Farragut's stately flag-ship
To port her head inclined;
And midmost, and most in danger,
Bell's squadron closed behind.

Ah! many a prayer was murmured
For the homes we ne'er might see;
And the silence and night grew dreadful
With the thought of what must be.

For many a tall, stout fellow
Who stood at his quarters then,
In the damp and dismal moonlight,
Never saw the sun again.

Close down by the yellow river
In their oozy graves they rot;
Strange vines and strange weeds grow o'er them,
And their far homes know them not.

But short was our time of musing;
For the rebel forts discerned
That the whole great fleet was moving,
And their batteries on us turned.

Then Porter burst out from his mortars,
In jets of fiery spray,
As if a volcano had opened
Where his leaf-clad vessels lay.

Howling and screeching and whizzing
The bomb-shells arched on high,
And then, like gigantic meteors,
Dropped swiftly from the sky.

Dropped down on the low, doomed fortress
A plague of iron death,
Shattering earth and granite to atoms
With their puffs of sulphurous breath.

The whole air quaked and shuddered
As the huge globes rose and fell,
And the blazing shores looked awful
As the open gates of hell.

Fort Jackson and Fort Saint Philip,
And the battery on the right,
By this time were flashing and thundering
Out into the murky night.

Through the hulks and the cables, sundered
By the bold Itasca's crew,
Went Bailey in silence, though round him
The shells and the grape-shot flew.

No answer he made to their welcome,
Till abeam Saint Philip bore,
Then, oh, but he sent them a greeting
In his broadsides' steady roar!

Meanwhile, the old man, in the Hartford,
Had ranged to Fort Jackson's side;
What a sight! he slowed his engines
Till he barely stemmed the tide;

Yes, paused in that deadly tornado
Of case-shot and shell and ball,
Not a cable's length from the fortress,
And he lay there, wood to wall.

Have you any notion, you landsmen,
Who have seen a field-fight won,
Of canister, grape-shot, and shrapnel
Hurled out from a ten-inch gun?

I tell you, the air is nigh solid
With the howling iron flight;
And 't was such a tempest blew o'er us
Where the Hartford lay that night.

Perched aloft in the forward rigging,
With his restless eyes aglow,
Sat Farragut, shouting his orders
To the men who fought below.

And the fort's huge faces of granite
Were splintered and rent in twain,
And the masses seemed slowly melting,
Like snow in a torrid rain.

Now quicker and quicker we fired,
Till between us and the foe
A torrent of blazing vapor
Was leaping to and fro;

While the fort, like a mighty caldron,
Was boiling with flame and smoke,
And the stone flew aloft in fragments,
And the brick into powder broke.

So thick fell the clouds o'er the river,
You hardly could see your hand;
When we heard, from the foremast rigging,
Old Farragut's sharp command:

"Full ahead! Steam across to Saint Philip!
Starboard battery, mind your aim!
Forecastle there, shift your pivots! Now
Give them a taste of the same!"

Saint Philip grew faint in replying,
Its voice of thunder was drowned;
"But ha! what is this? Back the engines!
Back, back, the ship is aground!"

Straight down the swift current came sweeping
A raft, spouting sparks and flame;
Pushed on by an iron-clad rebel,
Under our port side it came.

At once the good Hartford was blazing,
Below, aloft, fore and aft.
"We are lost!" "No, no; we are moving!"
Away whirled the crackling raft.

The fire was soon quenched. One last broadside
We gave to the surly fort;
For above us the rebel gunboats
Were wheeling like devils at sport.

And into our vacant station
Had glided a bulky form;
'T was Craven's stout Brooklyn, demanding
Her share of the furious storm.

We could hear the shot of Saint Philip
Ring on her armor of chain,
And the crash of her answering broadside,
Taking and giving again.

We could hear the low growl of Craven,
And Lowry's voice clear and calm,
While they swept off the rebel ramparts
As clean as your open palm.

Then ranging close under our quarter,
Out burst from the smoky fogs
The queen of the waves, the Varuna,
The ship of bold Charley Boggs.

He waved his blue cap as he passed us;
The blood of his glorious race,
Of Lawrence, the hero, was burning
Once more in a living face.

Right and left flashed his heavy pieces,
Rams, gunboats -- it mattered not,
Wherever a rebel flag floated
Was a target for his shot.

All burning and sinking around him
Lay five of the foe; but he,
The victor, seemed doomed with the vanquished,
When along dashed gallant Lee.

And he took up the bloody conflict,
And so well his part he bore,
That the river ran fire behind him,
And glimmered from shore to shore.

But while powder would burn in a cannon,
Till the water drowned his deck,
Boggs pounded away with his pivots
From his slowly settling wreck.

I think our great captains in Heaven,
As they looked upon those deeds,
Were proud of the flower of that navy,
Of which they planted the seeds.

Paul Jones, the knight-errant of ocean,
Decatur, the lord of the seas,
Hull, Lawrence, and Bainbridge, and Biddle,
And Perry, the peer of all these!

If Porter beheld his descendant,
With some human pride on his lip,
I trust, through the mercy of Heaven,
His soul was forgiven that slip.

And thou, living veteran, Old Ironsides,
The last of the splendid line,
Thou link 'twixt the old and new glory,
I know what feelings were thine!

When the sun looked over the tree-tops,
We found ourselves -- Heaven knows how --
Above the grim forts; and that instant
A smoke broke from Farragut's bow.

And over the river came floating
The sound of the morning gun;
And the stars and stripes danced up the halyards,
And glittered against the sun.

Oh, then what a shout from the squadrons!
As flag followed flag, till the day
Was bright with the beautiful standard,
And wild with the victors' huzza!

But three ships were missing. The others
Had passed through that current of flame;
And each scar on their shattered bulwarks
Was touched by the finger of Fame.

Below us, the forts of the rebels
Lay in the trance of despair;
Above us, uncovered and helpless,
New Orleans clouded the air.

Again, in long lines we went steaming
Away towards the city's smoke;
And works were deserted before us,
And columns of soldiers broke.

In vain the town clamored and struggled;
The flag at our peak ruled the hour;
And under its shade, like a lion,
Were resting the will and the power.





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