Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
America: Vols. XXV–XXIX. 1876–79.

Southern States: Fredericksburg, Va.

Bay Billy

By Frank Harrison Gassaway

’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

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,

And five times beaten back, re-formed,

And kept our column still.

At last from out the centre fight

Spurred up a General’s Aid.

“That battery must silenced be!”

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.

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,

That hero gray and grim.

Right well he 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.

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

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 dogged head.

“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,

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,

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,

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.

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,

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.

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

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,—

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

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.

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

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,

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

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,

Across the field some missing horse

Toiled up with weary tread,

It caught the Sergeant’s eye, and quick

Bay Billy’s name he read.

Yes! there the old bay hero stood,

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!

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

The whole line answered, “Here!”