Steven Vincet Benet’s: “John Brown’s Body” – An Excerpt

Other March 2, 2019 0
Steven Vincet Benet’s: “John Brown’s Body” – An Excerpt

“The monumental poem of the Civil War – an American classic, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”

                  The First Day of Gettysburg

That battle of the first day was a minor battle

As such are counted.


That is, it killed many men.

Killed more than died at Bull Run, left thousands stricken

With wounds that time might heal for a little while

Or never heal till the breath was out of the flesh.

The First Corps lost half its number in killed and wounded.

The pale-faced women, huddled behind drawn blinds

Back in town, or in apple-cellars, hiding,

Thought it the end of the world, no doubt.


And yet,

As the books remark, it was only a minor battle.

There were only two corps engaged on the Union side,

Longstreet had not yet come up, nor Ewell’s whole force,

Hill’s corps lacked a division till evening fell.

It was only a minor battle.


When the first shot

Clanged out, it was fired from a clump of Union vedettes

Holding a farm in the woods beyond the town.

The farmer was there to hear it – and then to see

The troopers scramble back on their restless horses

And go off, firing, as a grey mass came on…


Among these deaths a few famous.


Reynold’s is dead,

The model soldier, gallant and courteous,

Shot from his saddle in the first of the fight.

He was Doubleday’s friend, but Doubleday has no time

To grieve him, the Union right being driven in

And Heth’s Confederates pressing on toward the town.

He holds the onrush back till Howard comes up

And takes command for a while.


The fighting is grim.

Meade has heard the news, He sends Hancock up to the field

Hannock takes command in mid-combat. The grey comes on…


It is Hill and Ewell now against Hancock and Howard

And a confused, wild clamor – and the high keen

Of the Rebel yell – and the shrill-edged bullet song

Beating down men and grain, while the sweaty fighters

Grunt as they ram their charges with blackened hands.


Till Hancock and Howard are beaten away at last,

Outnumbered and outflanked, clean out of the town,

Retreating as best they can to a fish-hook ridge,

And the clamor dies and the sun is going down

And the tired men think about food…


So it ends, this lesser battle of the first day,

Starkly disputed and piecemeal won and lost.

By corps-commanders who carried no magic plans

Stowed in their sleeves, but fought and held as they could.

It is past. The board is staked for the greater game

Which is to follow – The beaten Union brigades

Recoil from the cross-roads town that they tried to hold.

And so recoiling, rest on a destined ground.

Who chose that ground?


There are claimants enough in the books…


And there are a dozen ifs on the Southern side,…


And the ifs and the thanks and the rest are all true enough

But we can only say, when we look at the board,

“There it happened. There is the way of the land.

There was the fate, and there the blind swords were crossed.”

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