Rufus Gale Speaks – 1852
Yes, – in the Lincoln Militia, – in the war of eighteen-twelve;
Many’s the day I’ve had since then to dig and delve –
But those are the years I remember as the brightest years of all,
When we left the plow in the furrow to follow the bugle’s call.
Why, even our son Abner wanted to fight with the men!
“Don’t you go, d’ye hear, sir!” – I was angry with him then.
“Stay with your mother!” I said, and he looked so old and grim –
He was just sixteen that April – I couldn’t believe it was him;
But I didn’t think – I was off – and we met the foe again,
Five thousand strong and ready, at the hill by Lundy’s Lane.
There as the night came on we fought them from six to nine,
Whenever they broke our line we broke their line,
They took our guns and we won them again, and around the levels
Where the hill sloped up – with the Eighty-ninth, – we fought like devils
Around the flag; – and on they came and we drove them back,
Until with its very fierceness the fight grew slack.
It was then about nine and dark as a miser’s pocket,
When up came Hercules Scott’s brigade swift as a rocket,
And charged, – and the flashes sprang in the dark like a lion’s eyes,
The night was full of fire – groans, and cheers, and cries;
Then through the sound and the fury another sound broke in –
The roar of a great old duck-gun shattered the rest of the din;
It took two minutes to charge it and another to set it free.
Every time I heard it an angel spoke to me;
Yes, the minute I heard it I felt the strangest tide
Flow in my veins like lightning, as if, there, by my side,
Was the very spirit of Valor. But ’twas dark – you couldn’t see –
And the one who was firing the duck-gun fell against me
And slid down to the clover, and lay there still;
Something went through me – piercing – with a strange, swift thrill;
The noise fell away into silence, and I heard clear as thunder
The long, slow roar of Niagara; O the wonder
Of that deep sound. But again the battle broke
And the foe, driven before us desperately – stroke upon stroke,
Left the field to his master, and sullenly down the road
Sounded the boom of his guns, trailing the heavy load
Of his wounded men and his shattered flags, sullen and slow,
Setting fire in his rage to Bridgewater mills, and the glow
Flared in the distant forest. We rested as we could,
And for a while I slept in the dark of a maple wood:
But when the clouds in the east were red all over,
I came back there to the place we made the stand in the clover;
For my heart was heavy then with a strange, deep pain,
As I thought of the glorious fight, and again and again
I remembered the valiant spirit and the piercing thrill;
But I knew it all when I reached the top of the hill, –
For there, with the blood on his dear, brave head,
There on the hill in the clover lay our Abner – dead! –
No – thank you – I don’t need it; I’m solid as a granite rock,
But every time that I tell it I feel the old, cold shock.
I’m eighty-one my next birthday – do you breed such fellows now?
There he lay with the dawn cooling his broad fair brow,
That was no dawn for him: and there was the old duck-gun
That many and many’s the time, – just for the fun,
We together, alone, would take to the hickory rise,
And bring home more wild pigeons than ever you saw with your eyes.
Up with Hercules Scott’s brigade, just as it came on night –
He was the angel beside me in the thickest of the fight –
Wrote a note to his mother – He said, “I’ve got to go,
Mother; what would home be under the heel of the foe!”
Oh! She never slept a wink, she would rise and walk the floor;
She’d say this over and over, “I knew it all before!”
I’d try to speak to her of the glory to give her a little joy.
“What is the glory to me when I want my boy, my boy!”
She’d say, and she’d wring her hands; her hair grew white as snow –
And I’d argue with her up and down, to and fro,
Of how she had mothered a hero, and this was a glorious fate,
Better than years of grubbing to gather an estate.
Sometimes I’d put it this way: “If God was to say to me now
‘Take him back as he once was helping you with the plow,’
I’d say ‘No, God, thank You kindly; ’twas You that he obeyed;
You told him to fight and he fought, and he wasn’t afraid;
You wanted to prove him in battle, You sent him to Lundy’s Lane,
‘Tis well!” But she only would answer over and over again,
“Give me back my Abner – give me back my son!”
It was so all through the winter until the spring had begun,
And the crocus was up in the dooryard, and the drift by the fence was thinned,
And the sap drip-dropped from the branches wounded by the wind,
And the whole earth smelled like a flower, – then she came to me one night –
“Rufus!” she said, with a sob in her throat, – “Rufus, you’re right.”
I hadn’t cried till then, not a tear – but then I was torn in two –
There, it’s all right – my eyes don’t see as they used to do!
But O the joy of that battle – it was worth the whole of life,
You felt immortal in action with the rapture of the strife,
There in the dark by the river, with the flashes of fire before,
Running and crashing along, there in the dark, and the roar
Of the guns, and the shrilling cheers, and the knowledge that filled your heart
That there was a victory making and you must do your part.
But – there’s his grave in the orchard where the headstone glimmers white:
We could see it, we thought, from our window even on the darkest night;
It is set there for a sign that what one lad could do
Would be done by a hundred hundred lads whose hearts were stout and true.
And when in the time of trial you hear the recreant say,
Shooting his coward lips at us, “You shall have had your day;
For all your state and glory shall pass like a cloudy wrack,
And here some other flag shall fly where flew the Union Jack,” –
Why tell him a hundred thousand men would spring from these sleepy farms,
To tie that flag in its ancient place with the sinews of their arms;
And if they doubt you and put you to scorn, why you can make it plain,
With the tale of the gallant Lincoln men and the fight at Lundy’s Lane.
Source: The Christmas Globe 1908 (poetry contest winner). Reprinted in his 1916 collection, Lundy’s Lane and Other Poems.