Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VIII. National Spirit
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VIII. National Spirit.  1904.
 
III. War
Bay Billy
Frank Harrison Gassaway (d. 1923)
 
[December 15, 1862]

’T WAS the last fight at Fredericksburg,—
  Perhaps the day you reck,
Our boys, the Twenty-Second Maine,
  Kept Early’s men in check.
Just where Wade Hampton boomed away        5
  The fight went neck and neck.
 
All day the weaker wing we held,
  And held it with a will.
Five several stubborn times we charged
  The battery on the hill,        10
And five times beaten back, re-formed,
  And kept our column still.
 
At last from out the centre fight
  Spurred up a general’s aide:
“That battery must silenced be!”        15
  He cried, as past he sped.
Our colonel simply touched his cap,
  And then, with measured tread,
 
To lead the crouching line once more
  The grand old fellow came.        20
No wounded man but raised his head
  And strove to gasp his name,
And those who could not speak nor stir,
  “God blessed him” just the same.
 
For he was all the world to us,        25
  That hero gray and grim.
Right well we knew that fearful slope
  We ’d climb with none but him,
Though while his white head led the way
  We ’d charge hell’s portals in.        30
 
This time we were not half-way up,
  When, midst the storm of shell,
Our leader, with his sword upraised,
  Beneath our bayonets fell.
And, as we bore him back, the foe        35
  Set up a joyous yell.
 
Our hearts went with him. Back we swept,
  And when the bugle said
“Up, charge again!” no man was there
  But hung his doggèd head.        40
“We ’ve no one left to lead us now,”
  The sullen soldiers said.
 
Just then before the laggard line
  The colonel’s horse we spied,
Bay Billy with his trappings on,        45
  His nostrils swelling wide,
As though still on his gallant back
  The master sat astride.
 
Right royally he took the place
  That was of old his wont,        50
And with a neigh that seemed to say,
  Above the battle’s brunt,
“How can the Twenty-Second charge
  If I am not in front?”
 
Like statues rooted there we stood,        55
  And gazed a little space,
Above that floating mane we missed
  The dear familiar face,
But we saw Bay Billy’s eye of fire,
  And it gave us heart of grace.        60
 
No bugle-call could rouse us all
  As that brave sight had done,
Down all the battered line we felt
  A lightning impulse run.
Up! up the hill we followed Bill,—        65
  And we captured every gun!
 
And when upon the conquered height
  Died out the battle’s hum,
Vainly mid living and the dead
  We sought our leader dumb.        70
It seemed as if a spectre steed
  To win that day had come.
 
And then the dusk and dew of night
  Fell softly o’er the plain,
As though o’er man’s dread work of death        75
  The angels wept again,
And drew night’s curtain gently round
  A thousand beds of pain.
 
All night the surgeons’ torches went,
  The ghastly rows between,—        80
All night with solemn step I paced
  The torn and bloody green.
But who that fought in the big war
  Such dread sights have not seen?
 
At last the morning broke. The lark        85
  Sang in the merry skies,
As if to e’en the sleepers there
  It bade awake, and rise!
Though naught but that last trump of all
  Could ope their heavy eyes.        90
 
And then once more with banners gay,
  Stretched out the long brigade.
Trimly upon the furrowed field
  The troops stood on parade,
And bravely mid the ranks were closed        95
  The gaps the fight had made.
 
Not half the Twenty-Second’s men
  Were in their place that morn;
And Corporal Dick, who yester-noon
  Stood six brave fellows on,        100
Now touched my elbow in the ranks,
  For all between were gone.
 
Ah! who forgets that dreary hour
  When, as with misty eyes,
To call the old familiar roll        105
  The solemn sergeant tries,—
One feels that thumping of the heart
  As no prompt voice replies.
 
And as in faltering tone and slow
  The last few names were said,        110
Across the field some missing horse
  Toiled up the weary tread.
It caught the sergeant’s eye, and quick
  Bay Billy’s name he read.
 
Yes! there the old bay hero stood,        115
  All safe from battle’s harms,
And ere an order could be heard,
  Or the bugle’s quick alarms,
Down all the front, from end to end,
  The troops presented arms!        120
 
Not all the shoulder-straps on earth
  Could still our mighty cheer;
And ever from that famous day,
  When rang the roll call clear,
Bay Billy’s name was read, and then        125
  The whole line answered, “Here!”
 
 
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