Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE RIVER FIGHT; APRIL 18, 1862, by HENRY HOWARD BROWNELL



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THE RIVER FIGHT; APRIL 18, 1862, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Do you know of the dreary land
Last Line: And the traitor flags come down.
Subject(s): American Civil War; Farragut, David Glascow (1801-1870); Navy - United States; New Orleans, Battle Of (1862); Patriotism; Slavery; United States - History; American Navy; Serfs


Do you know of the dreary land,
If land such region may seem,
Where 'tis neither sea nor strand,
Ocean, nor good, dry land,
But the nightmare marsh of a dream?
Where the Mighty River his death-road takes,
'Mid pools and windings that coil like snakes,
A hundred leagues of bayous and lakes,
To die in the great Gulf Stream?

No coast-line clear and true,
Granite and deep-sea blue,
On that dismal shore you pass,
Surf-worn boulder or sandy beach, --
But ooze-flats as far as the eye can reach,
With shallows of water-grass;
Reedy Savannahs, vast and dun,
Lying dead in the dim March sun;
Huge, rotting trunks and roots that lie
Like the blackened bones of shapes gone by,
And miles of sunken morass.

No lovely, delicate thing
Of life o'er the waste is seen
But the cayman couched by his weedy spring,
And the pelican, bird unclean,
Or the buzzard, flying with heavy wing,
Like an evil ghost o'er the desolate scene.
Ah! many a weary day
With our Leader there we lay.
In the sultry haze and smoke,
Tugging our ships o'er the bar,
Till the spring was wasted far,
Till his brave heart almost broke.
For the sullen river seemed
As if our intent he dreamed, --
All his sallow mouths did spew and choke.

But ere April fully passed
All ground over at last
And we knew the die was cast, --
Knew the day drew nigh
To dare to the end one stormy deed,
Might save the land at her sorest need,
Or on the old deck to die!

Anchored we lay, -- and a morn the more,
To his captains and all his men
Thus wrote our old commodore
(He wasn't Admiral then): --
"General Orders:
Send your to'gallant masts down,
Rig in each flying jib-boom!
Clear all ahead for the loom
Of traitor fortress and town,
Or traitor fleet bearing down.

"In with your canvas high;
We shall want no sail to fly!
Topsail, foresail, spanker, and jib
(With the heart of oak in the oaken rib),
Shall serve us to win or die!

"Trim every sail by the head
(So shall you spare the lead),
Lest if she ground, your ship swing around,
Bows in shore, for a wreck.
See your grapnels all clear with pains,
And a solid kedge in your port main-chains,
With a whip to the main yard:
Drop it heavy and hard
When you grapple a traitor deck!

"On forecastle and on poop
Mount guns, as best you may deem.
If possible, rouse them up
(For still you must bow the stream).
Also hoist and secure with stops
Howitzers firmly in your tops,
To fire on the foe abeam.

"Look well to your pumps and hose;
Have water tubs fore and aft,
For quenching flame in your craft,
And the gun crew's fiery thirst.
See planks with felt fitted close,
To plug every shot-hole tight.
Stand ready to meet the worst!
For, if I have reckoned aright,
They will serve us shot,
Both cold and hot,
Freely enough tonight.

"Mark well each signal I make
(Our life-long service at stake,
And honor that must not lag!), --
Whate'er the peril and awe,
In the battle's fieriest flaw,
Let never one ship withdraw
Till the orders come from the flag!

Would you hear of the river fight?
It was two of a soft spring night; --
God's stars looked down on all,
And all was clear and bright
But the low fog's chilling breath --
Up the River of Death
Sailed the Great Admiral.

On our high poop-deck he stood,
And round him ranged the men
Who have made their birthright good
Of manhood, once and again, --
Lords of helm and of sail,
Tried in tempest and gale,
Bronzed in battle and wreck:
Bell and Bailey grandly led
Each his Line of the Blue and Red,
Wainwright stood by our starboard rail,
Thornton fought the deck.

And I mind me of more than they,
Of the youthful, steadfast ones,
That have shown them worthy sons
Of the Seamen passed away --
Tyson conned our helm that day,
Watson stood by his guns.

What thought our Admiral then,
Looking down on his men?
Since the terrible day,
(Day of renown and tears!)
When at anchor the Essex lay,
Holding her foes at bay,
When, a boy, by Porter's side he stood
Till deck and plank-sheer were dyed with blood,
'T is half a hundred years --
Half a hundred years to-day!

Who could fail with him?
Who reckon of life or limb?
Not a pulse but beat the higher!
There had you seen, by the starlight dim,
Five hundred faces strong and grim --
The Flag is going under fire!
Right up by the fort, with her helm hard-a-port,
The Hartford is going under fire!

The way to our work was plain,
Caldwell had broken the chain
(Two hulks swung down amain,
Soon as 't was sundered).
Under the night's dark blue,
Steering steady and true,
Ship after ship went through,
Till, as we hove in view,
Jackson out-thundered.

Back echoed Philip! ah, then
Could you have seen our men,
How they sprung, in the dim night haze,
To their work of toil and of clamor!
How the loaders, with sponge and rammer,
And their captains, with cord and hammer,
Kept every muscle ablaze!
How the guns, as with cheer and shout
Our tackle-men hurled them out,
Brought up on the water-ways!

First, as we fired at their flash,
'T was lightning and black eclipse,
With a bellowing roll and crash;
But soon, upon either bow,
What with forts, and fire-rafts, and ships,
(The whole fleet was hard at it now,
All pounding away!) and Porter
Still thundering with shell and mortar,
'T was the mighty sound and form
Of an equatorial storm!

(Such you see in the Far South,
After long heat and drouth,
As day draws nigh to even:
Arching from North to South,
Blinding the tropic sun,
The great black bow comes on,
Till the thunder-veil is riven,
When all is crash and levin,
And the cannonade of heaven
Rolls down the Amazon!)

But, as we worked along higher,
Just where the river enlarges,
Down came a pyramid of fire --
It was one of your long coal barges
(We had often had the like before).
'T was coming down on us to larboard,
Well in with the eastern shore,
And our pilot, to let it pass round,
(You may guess we never stopped to sound)
Giving us a rank sheer to starboard,
Ran the Flag hard and fast aground!

'Twas nigh abreast of the Upper Fort,
And straightway a rascal Ram
(She was shaped like the devil's dam)
Puffed away for us with a snort,
And shoved it with spiteful strength
Right alongside of us, to port.
(It was all of our ship's length,
A huge crackling cradle of the Pit,
Pitch-pine knots to the brim,
Belching flame red and grim)
What a roar came up from it!

Well, for a little it looked bad;
But these things are, somehow, shorter
In the acting than the telling.
There was no singing-out nor yelling,
Nor any fussing and fretting,
No stampede, in short;
But there we were, my lad,
All afire on our port quarter,
Hammocks ablaze in the netting,
Flames spouting in at every port,
Our Fourth Cutter burning at the davit,
No chance to lower away and save it.

In a twinkling the flames had risen
Halfway to maintop and mizzen,
Darting up the shrouds like snakes.
Ah, how we clanked at the brakes!
And the deep steam-pumps throbbed under,
Sending a ceaseless flow.
Our topmen, a dauntless crowd,
Swarmed in rigging and shroud --
There, ('t was a wonder!)
The burning ratlines and strands
They quenched with their bare hard hands;
But the great guns below
Never silenced their thunder!

At last, by backing and sounding,
When we were clear of grounding,
And under headway once more,
The whole rebel fleet came rounding
The point. If we had it hot before,
'T was now, from shore to shore,
One long, loud thundering roar --
Such crashing, splintering, and pounding,
And smashing as you never heard before!

But that we fought foul wrong to wreck,
And to save the Land we loved so well,
You might have deemed our long gun deck
Two hundred feet of hell!

For all above was battle,
Broadside, and blaze, and rattle,
Smoke and thunder alone;
But, down in the sick-bay,
Where our wounded and dying lay,
There was scarce a sob or a moan.

And at last, when the dim day broke,
And the sullen sun awoke,
Drearily blinking
O'er the haze and the cannon-smoke,
That ever such morning dulls,
There were thirteen traitor hulls
On fire and sinking!

Now, up the river! -- though mad Chalmette
Sputters a vain resistance yet,
Small helm we gave her on our course to steer, --
'Twas nicer work than you well would dream,
With cant and sheer to keep her clear
Of the burning wrecks that cumbered the stream.

The Louisiana, hurled on high,
Mounts in thunder to meet the sky!
Then down to the depths of the turbid flood, --
Fifth fathom of rebel mud!
The Mississippi comes floating down,
A mighty bonfire from off the town;
And along the river, on stocks and ways,
A half-hatched devil's brood is ablaze, --
The great Anglo-Norman is all in flames
(Hark to the roar of her trembling frames!),
And the smaller fry that Treason would spawn
Are lighting Algiers like an angry dawn!

From stem to stern, how the pirates burn,
Fired by the furious hands that built!
So to ashes forever turn
The suicide wrecks of wrong and guilt!

But as we neared the city,
By field and vast plantation
(Ah! millstone of our nation!),
With wonder and with pity,
What crowds we there espied
Of dark and wistful faces,
Mute in their toiling places,
Strangely and sadly eyed,
Haply 'mid doubt and fear,
Deeming deliverance near
(One gave the ghost of a cheer!).

And on that delorous strand,
To greet the victor brave,
One flag did welcome wave --
Raised, ah me! by a wretched hand,
All outworn on our cruel land, --
The withered hand of a slave!

But all along the levee
In a dark and drenching rain
(By this 'twas pouring heavy),
Stood a fierce and sullen train,
A strange and frenzied time!
There were scowling rage and pain,
Curses, howls, and hisses,
Out of Hate's black abysses, --
Their courage and their crime
All in vain -- all in vain!

For from the hour that the Rebel Stream
With the Crescent City lying abeam,
Shuddered under our keel,
Smit to the heart with self-stung sting,
Slavery died in her scorpion-ring
And Murder fell on his steel.

'Tis well to do and dare;
But ever may grateful prayer
Follow, as aye it ought,
When the good fight is fought,
When the true deed is done.
Aloft in heaven's pure light
(Deep azure crossed on white),
Our fair Church pennant waves
O'er a thousand thankful braves,
Bareheaded in God's bright sun.

Lord of mercy and frown,
Ruling o'er seas and shore,
Send us such scene once more!
All in line of battle
When the black ships bear down
On tyrant fort and town,
'Mid cannon cloud and rattle;
And the great guns once more
Thunder back the roar
Of the traitor walls ashore,
And the traitor flags come down.




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