December 30, 2015 by RJ
Mr. Howard arrived during seeding
to exhort the young men of Ripley
to take up arms; he wore wired-rimmed glasses
and city clothes, dusty from his long journey.
He carried a strongbox and a pile of broadsides.
Your country needs you!
Protect the western frontier!
Free uniforms, Free firearms!
Stand up with President Lincoln!
Twenty-five dollars bounty to Enlist!
Cost what it may, Our nation must be saved!
Mr. Howard sat at a makeshift table that Saturday
in front of Jenkin’s Feed Lot,
and Frankie and Louis and I signed up;
Mama cried and said I was too young, I wasn’t to go,
Frankie’s Daddy beat him—who will work the fields, he raged.
Louis, who was an orphan, and lived with Reverend Loomey and his wife,
stood up at Methodist meeting and said he was going to war;
the girls rushed to his side afterwards,
where he stood by the lilacs, and said how brave he was.
My sister Maggie started knitting him socks.
I will be back for you in a fortnight, said Mr. Howard,
meanwhile practice your march, and then he left
on the next stage to Washington.
Weary with dread as daylight looms
behind a stand of American elm,
leafed out, filled with the dawn’s light,
we are preparing for battle
It’s August now, and it’s been a hot summer,
but there’s a breeze this morning,
and as we brush the dirt from our uniforms,
we talk about fishing along the Kanawha.
Captain comes to check our feet.
Make certain there’s no holes, he says,
a soldier can’t fight on sore feet
and have a bite to eat, boys,
a soldier can’t fight without a bit of meat
When the drummer starts to beat, we take our place on line
rifles to the ready, shoulders touching;
three sets of eyes strain to see the firing command,
the bells ring out and firing commences
We take our time to aim and a rhythm overcomes us,
aim, fire, load, aim, fire, load and the air
gets heavy with dust and smoke
My fingers ache, holding the rifle tight,
and grit in our eyes makes it hard to see the enemy
who’ve crouched down low in shallow holes
they’ve dug, and our ears ring from the
din of screams and guns
The drummer carries water to the boys on the line
and once an hour the captain comes by;
we’re holding on, boys he says, we’re holding on,
I believe they are retreating, I believe we’ve got them licked.
It’s closer to dusk than dawn when the battle is done,
and we stretch our sore legs and look around
to see who’s left and see who’s down
The medics hurry into the field with stretchers
to carry the bloody wounded away, we take off our boots and socks
as Frankie begins to sing:
“All quiet along the Potomac tonight,
where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming,
and their tents in the rays of the clear autumn moon,
and the light of the campfires are gleaming.
A tremulous sigh as the gentle night wind
thro’ the forest leaves slowly is creeping,
while the stars up above, with their glittering eyes,
keep guard o’er the army while sleeping.”
ANDREA WYATT is the author of three poetry collections. Her work has appeared lately or is forthcoming in The Copperfield Review, Gargoyle and Gravel. Wyatt’s poem Sunday Morning Gingerbread was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart. She works for the National Park Service in Washington, DC and is associate editor of poetry journal By&By.