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A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown, A route through a heavy wood with muffled steps in the darkness, Our army foil'd with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating, Till after midnight glimmer upon us the lights of a dim-lighted building, We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building, 'Tis a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital, Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made, Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps, And by one great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke, By these, crowds, groups of forms vaguely I see on the floor, some in the pews laid down, At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,) I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is white as a lily,) Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene fain to absorb it all, Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead, Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, odor of blood, The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill'd, Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating, An occasional scream or cry, the doctor's shouted orders or calls, The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches, These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor, Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in; But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me, Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness, Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks, The unknown road still marching.
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim, As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless, As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent, Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying, Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket, Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all. Curious I halt and silent stand, Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket; Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes? Who are you my dear comrade? Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling? Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming? Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory; Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
As toilsome I wander'd Virginia's woods, To the music of rustling leaves kick'd by my feet, (for 'twas autumn,) I mark'd at the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier; Mortally wounded he and buried on the retreat, (easily all could understand,) The halt of a mid-day hour, when up! no time to lose—yet this sign left, On a tablet scrawl'd and nail'd on the tree by the grave, Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade. Long, long I muse, then on my way go wandering, Many a changeful season to follow, and many a scene of life, Yet at times through changeful season and scene, abrupt, alone, or in the crowded street, Comes before me the unknown soldier's grave, comes the inscription rude in Virginia's woods, Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.
Not the pilot has charged himself to bring his ship into port, though beaten back and many times baffled; Not the pathfinder penetrating inland weary and long, By deserts parch'd, snows chill'd, rivers wet, perseveres till he reaches his destination, More than I have charged myself, heeded or unheeded, to compose march for these States, For a battle-call, rousing to arms if need be, years, centuries hence.
Year that trembled and reel'd beneath me! Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me, A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken'd me, Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself, Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled? And sullen hymns of defeat?
1 An old man bending I come among new faces, Years looking backward resuming in answer to children, Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me, (Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war, But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself, To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;) Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances, Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;) Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth, Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us? What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics, Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains? 2 O maidens and young men I love and that love me, What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls, Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover'd with sweat and dust, In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge, Enter the captur'd works—yet lo, like a swift-running river they fade, Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers' perils or soldiers' joys, (Both I remember well—many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.) But in silence, in dreams' projections, While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand, With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there, Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.) Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground, Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital, To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss, An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again. I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds, I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable, One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you. 3 On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!) The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,) The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through examine, Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard, (Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly.) From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood, Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side falling head, His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, And has not yet look'd on it. I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep, But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking, And the yellow-blue countenance see. I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound, Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive, While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail. I am faithful, I do not give out, The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen, These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.) 4 Thus in silence in dreams' projections, Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad, (Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested, Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)