In my June 30, 2013 post— Gettysburg: The Hallowed Hills and Fields, I wrote
“It is estimated there were over 50,000 casualties of the blue and gray. These soldiers were farmers, teachers, laborers, professionals in business and the military; and many, far too many, were young teenagers. In death on a battlefield it makes no difference to the silent reapers who or what you were in life on this planet traversing the cosmos.
“Death brings finality and stillness to a battlefield. As one looks over the vast fields of carnage, weapons lay silent and death adds sacredness to the place hallowed by innocent blood spilt in a conflict between brothers.
“The morning after a battle of this magnitude one feels the morning mists hovering with a chill, a bone-deep chill which shakes one to their very core. The air smells musky with a taste of iron lingering in the mouth.”
As I was pondering on this bloody battle, I came across in my research a book of poems by Thomas A. T. Hanna about Gettysburg. The book has many touching poems with rich layers of metaphors and similes.
Listed below is one of the poems: The Eve of Battle. A young man, perhaps a teenager, ponders on life back home on the farm.
He hopes his parents are praying for him as he senses the chill of battle in the night air. His cloak seems like little comfort.
He thinks about the family’s cows. He wonders if he will ever drink their milk again at the supper table with his parents and sister.
He ponders on the “silent harvester” who is preparing his sickle for the morning harvest. His harvest would not be corn but the men who will die on the battle field.
Finally, his thoughts turn to the girl left behind as he went off to war. Like two bees they met on a red flower, perhaps a lily or rose—the poet does not say.
Their love, especially their kisses on the day of his departure, was like “Like pearls beneath a dim-green eastern sea”. His memory of their departure still lingered as fresh as the morning dew, if I may be poetic.
Thomas Hanna captures the emotion of this young man in his poem. As we ponder on the young and old men lost at Gettysburg on those bloody three days and those who died afterward from their wounds, may we take a moment of silent and offer a paean to their brave acts of valor.
Regardless of how one may view a particular war, veterans deserve our respect and gratitude. A degree of honor should be bestowed on them.
Based on my research, I had three great, great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War. One lost part of his leg in a battle, but this missing limb did not hinder him from raising a family and running a farm when he returned from the war.
In my post—Jayne’s Letter (A Civil War Short Story), I told about a teenager who wanted a letter written to his wife, Jayne, before the Battle of Gettysburg. There was a sergeant who did this for the men who could not write.
As they discussed Jayne and the war, the teenager asked the sergeant a poignant question,
“Sergeant, this war can’t last much longer can it?”
“War has a life of its own. The more it takes, the more it wants. Your Jayne could not bake enough blueberry pies to keep it fed. There isn’t enough blood to cover its ugly face.”
“I am getting so tired of digging holes, Sir. To bury these men so far from home and loved ones. I hope if I die in battle that someone will make sure to tell my Jayne where I am in case she wants to come to visit me someday.”
“You think about dying much, private?”
“Only when I do burial detail.”
“Remember, you have a wife waiting for you. Don’t get yourself killed.”
“I don’t plan so, Sir.”
Life and death meet on a battle field. Be they physical or mental the wounds are “deeper than the earth’s core”, especially the final good-bye.
G. D. Williams © 2014
The Eve of Battle by Thomas Hanna
“We greet thee, Caesar, on our way to death,”
So said the gladiator band at-Rome;
But on the eve of battle, soldier’s breath
Go forth in sighing for the loved at home:
O Father, mother, little sister, now
If ever ye would pray, make haste to bow.
And on the bivouac: “Be still, boys, hark,
Do ye not hear the sound of mooing kine?
It is the ‘tween-light of day and dark,
The hour, in that York-midland home of mine,
The cows come pouring sweet breath up the lane;
I wonder if I’ll drink their milk again?”
And over the fast-glooming fields there comes.
Made musical by distance, cry of hound;
And they lie wakeful (who can sleep in drums
And bugles) just to hear the homely sound.
For never seems our home so far away
As on the even of the battle-day.
“It was the hour when fond desires move
The mariners, and tender grows the heart;
For they have said, Farewell, to whom they love:
For then must Love’s new-exiled pilgrim start
And thrill — at sound of bell from some far bourne,
When seems the dying day its death to mourn.”
So sang the iron-featured Florentine,
Whom Florence loved, and hated, and exiled;
Oh, how he loved the dawn, on waters seen.
And the soft footsteps of the evening mild.
Majestic soul; at home among the stars;
But we must leave him, and come down to wars.
‘Tis golden middle of the summer now,
When earth is pregnant with the fruits to be.
Green leaves, prophetic of the golden bough,
And fields, as creamy as the moonlit sea —
One silent harvester awaits the morn.
When he shall reap, — and men will be his corn.
Now, as the western glory fails and dims.
Some hearts would breathe, “Lord, teach us how
Aeolian memory whispers the dear hymns
Left on the heart-strings from an earlier day.
List, as the evening grows more dark and still.
The trine staccato of the whippoorwill.
Thou dost not weep, thou red-cheek’d subaltern;
No, but dost grind thy teeth to stay the tears;
In mind thou seest thy father, strong and stern;
Thy mother’s face, love-aureoled, appears.
Sore was that mother’s sob, that father’s sigh.
When thou didst rush from them with light “Good-
And who is he, immersed in wakeful dream,
His face irradiate with the sun’s last rim?
Ask who is she, beside Chenango’s stream,
Whose soul is busy still with thoughts of him,
With trembling eyelids there, and trembling mouth,
She walks alone, to turn her vision south.
And, as two bees may meet on one red flower,
His memory and hers are draining bliss
From soft rehearsals of that parting hour,
When lips quarternion framed a single kiss.
From that one kiss how many more were born.
Till the broad bosom from the soft was torn?
Sweetest and costliest of the fruits of earth,
But oft, ah, growing on forbidden tree:
Too rich for memory, too sweet for mirth.
The touch of lips which, glad, together flee.
More generous far than apple or than rose.
Where one such kiss is plucked, another grows.
Too soon to be forever parted, breath
Now mingles in the dear salute of love;
Sweet foretaste of the bitterness of death.
When melting hearts and lips together move.
Kisses that sank deep in the memory.
Like pearls beneath a dim-green eastern sea.
Like birds that sang before the tempest fell.
While half the forest gloomed beneath the cloud,
But disappeared, ah, who can whither tell,
When the tornado through the forest plowed?
But these, or other birds, at other whiles,
Shall chant again, in those green-vaulted aisles.
Kisses of parting, deep, and still, and sweet,
Must all that sweetness perish in a day?
Are they so evanescent, they so fleet.
And must their thrilling impress pass away;
Those seals of memory, pressed upon the heart,
Through joined lips, that were so loath to part?
Till Death, till Death shall part them; hateful
(Who hath a spite at lovers) from his throne.
Breathes on their lips with his Septentrion breath.
And turns those eager lips to silent stone:
And one twin-heart turns rigid at his chill;
And one is broken, but is beating still.
In fault or fold of strata is no pain,
Although an hundred layers be upborne,
And the deep canon seams the western plain;
But when a heart from heart is reft and torn,
The cleft is deeper and the wound is more,
For man’s heart still is deeper than earth’s core.
The painting “Hancock at Gettysbug” by Thure de Thulstrupwas copyrighted 1887 by L. Prang and Co. Boston
The full text of Thomas A. T. Hanna’s book—The Battle of Gettysburg and Other Poems (copyrighted 1912) is found on the website: https://archive.org/stream/battleofgettysbu00hann#page/n5/mode/2up