Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, ON BOARD THE CUMBERLAND, by GEORGE HENRY BOKER

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

ON BOARD THE CUMBERLAND, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Stand to your guns, men!' morris cried
Last Line: For those beneath the wave!
Variant Title(s): Attack Of The Cumberland
Subject(s): American Civil War; Cumberland (ship); Hampton Roads, Virginia; Morris, George Upham; Sea Battles; United States - History; Virginia (ship); Naval Warfare; Merrimac (ship)

"STAND to your guns, men!" Morris cried.
Small need to pass the word;
Our men at quarters ranged themselves,
Before the drum was heard.

And then began the sailors' jests:
"What thing is that, I say?"
"A 'long-shore meeting-house adrift
Is standing down the bay!

A frown came over Morris' face;
The strange, dark craft he knew;
"That is the iron Merrimac,
Manned by a rebel crew.

"So shot your guns, and point them straight;
Before this day goes by,
We'll try of what her metal's made."
A cheer was our reply.

"Remember, boys, this flag of ours
Has seldom left its place;
And where it falls, the deck it strikes
Is covered with disgrace.

"I ask but this: or sink or swim,
Or live or nobly die,
My last sight upon earth may be
To see that ensign fly!"

Meanwhile the shapeless iron mass
Came moving o'er the wave,
As gloomy as a passing hearse,
As silent as the grave.

Her ports were closed, from stem to stern
No sign of life appeared.
We wondered, questioned, strained our eyes,
Joked, -- everything but feared.

She reached our range. Our broadside rang,
Our heavy pivots roared;
And shot and shell, a fire of hell,
Against her sides we poured.

God's mercy! from her sloping roof
The iron tempest glanced,
As hail bounds from a cottage-thatch,
And round her leaped and danced;

Or, when against her dusky hull
We struck a fair, full blow,
The mighty, solid iron globes
Were crumbled up like snow.

On, on, with fast increasing speed,
The silent monster came;
Though all our starboard battery
Was one long line of flame.

She heeded not, nor gun she fired,
Straight on our bow she bore;
Through riving plank and crashing frame
Her furious way she tore.

Alas! our beautiful, keen bow,
That in the fiercest blast
So gently folded back the seas,
They hardly felt we passed!

Alas! Alas! My Cumberland,
That ne'er knew grief before,
To be so gored, to feel so deep
The tusk of that sea-boar!

Once more she backward drew a space,
Once more our side she rent;
Then, in the wantonness of hate,
Her broadside through us sent.

The dead and dying round us lay,
But our foeman lay abeam;
Her open portholes maddened us;
We fired with shout and scream.

We felt our vessel settling fast,
We knew our time was brief;
"The pumps, the pumps!" But they who pumped,
And fought not, wept with grief.

"Oh, keep us but an hour afloat!
Oh, give us only time
To be the instruments of heaven
Against the traitors' crime!"

From captain down to powder-boy,
No hand was idle then;
Two soldiers, but by chance aboard,
Fought on like sailor-men.

And when a gun's crew lost a hand,
Some bold marine stepped out,
And jerked his braided jacket off,
And hauled the gun about.

Our forward magazine was drowned;
And up from the sick-bay
Crawled out the wounded, red with blood,
And round us gasping lay.

Yes, cheering, calling us by name,
Struggling with failing breath,
To keep their shipmates at the port,
While glory strove with death.

With decks afloat, and powder gone,
The last broadside we gave
From the guns' heated iron lips
Burst out beneath the wave.

So sponges, rammers, and handspikes --
As men-of-war's men should --
We placed within their proper racks,
And at our quarters stood.

"Up to the spar-deck! Save yourselves!"
Cried Selfridge. "Up, my men!
God grant that some of us may live
To fight yon ship again!"

We turned -- we did not like to go;
Yet staying seemed but vain,
Knee-deep in water; so we left;
Some swore, some groaned with pain.

We reached the deck. Here Randall stood:
"Another turn, men -- so!"
Calmly he aimed his pivot-gun;
"Now, Tenney, let her go!"

It did our sore hearts good to hear
The song our pivot sang,
As rushing on, from wave to wave,
The whirring bomb-shell sprang.

Brave Randall leaped upon the gun,
And waved his cap in sport;
"Well done! well aimed! I saw that shell
Go through an open port."

It was our last, our deadliest shot;
The deck was overflown;
The poor ship staggered, lurched to port,
And gave a living groan.

Down, down, as headlong through the waves
Our gallant vessel rushed,
A thousand gurgling, watery sounds
Around my senses gushed.

Then I remember little more;
One look to heaven I gave,
Where, like an angel's wing, I saw
Our spotless ensign wave.

I tried to cheer, I cannot say
Whether I swam or sank;
A blue mist closed around my eyes,
And everything was blank.

When I awoke, a soldier-lad,
All dripping from the sea,
With two great tears upon his cheeks,
Was bending over me.

I tried to speak. He understood
The wish I could not speak.
He turned me. There, thank God! the flag
Still fluttered at the peak!

And there, while thread shall hang to thread,
O let that ensign fly!
The noblest constellation set
Against our northern sky.

A sign that we who live may claim
The peerage of the brave;
A monument, that needs no scroll,
For those beneath the wave!

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