A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, And the Road Unknown

I was fortunate enough to have a teacher in the 8th grade who revered Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Walt Whitman

We did a unit on him, which was probably also a crossover unit as well. In the 8th grade, we studied American History through 1877. (For foreign readers of this blog, 1877 is the year Reconstruction in the South officially ended, ending the post-Civil War period. It is the end of an era for the US, and is usually seen as the dividing line in American history.) Walt Whitman experienced the Civil War, not as a soldier, but as a volunteer in many of the hospitals. His war poems are, for my money, not only the most effective and moving of his poems, but are an important historical record of that horrific time in American history. This is my favorite.

A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown
By Walt Whitman

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,
A route through a heavy wood with muffled steps in the darkness,
Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating,
Till after midnight glimmer upon us the lights of a dim-lighted building,
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building,
’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu hospital
Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke,
By these, crowds, groups of forms vaguely I see on the floor, some in the pews laid down,
At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,)
I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily,)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all,
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead,
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood,
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d,
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating,
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls,
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches,
These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor,
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me,
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,
Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.

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