Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Bay Fight

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

Southern States: Mobile, the Bay, Ala.

The Bay Fight

By Henry Howard Brownell (1820–1872)

(August 8, 1864)

THREE days through sapphire seas we sailed,

The steady Trade blew strong and free,

The Northern Light his banners paled,

The Ocean Stream our channels wet,

We rounded low Canaveral’s lee,

And passed the isles of emerald set

In blue Bahamas’ turquoise sea.

By reef and shoal obscurely mapped,

And hauntings of the gray sea-wolf,

The palmy Western Key lay lapped

In the warm washing of the Gulf.

But weary to the hearts of all

The burning glare, the barren reach

Of Santa Rosa’s withered beach,

And Pensacola’s ruined wall.

And weary was the long patrol,

The thousand miles of shapeless strand,

From Brazos to San Blas that roll

Their drifting dunes of desert sand.

Yet, coastwise as we cruised or lay,

The land-breeze still at nightfall bore,

By beach and fortress-guarded bay,

Sweet odors from the enemy’s shore,

Fresh from the forest solitudes,

Unchallenged of his sentry lines,—

The bursting of his cypress buds,

And the warm fragrance of his pines.

Ah, never braver bark and crew,

Nor bolder flag a foe to dare.

Had left a wake on ocean blue

Since Lion-Heart sailed Trenc-le-mer!

But little gain by that dark ground

Was ours, save, sometime, freer breath

For friend or brother strangely found,

’Scaped from the drear domain of death.

And little venture for the bold,

Or laurel for our valiant chief,

Save some blockaded British thief,

Full fraught with murder in his hold,

Caught unawares at ebb or flood;

Or dull bombardment, day by day,

With fort and earthwork, far away,

Low couched in sullen leagues of mud.

A weary time,—but to the strong

The day at last, as ever, came;

And the volcano, laid so long,

Leaped forth in thunder and in flame!


“Man your starboard battery!”

Kimberly shouted;

The ship, with her hearts of oak,

Was going, mid roar and smoke,

On to victory!

None of us doubted—

No, not our dying—

Farragut’s flag was flying!

Gaines growled low on our left,

Morgan roared on our right—

Before us, gloomy and fell,

With breath like the fume of hell,

Lay the Dragon of iron shell,

Driven at last to the fight!

Ha, old ship! do they thrill,

The brave two hundred scars

You got in the River-Wars?

That were leeched with clamorous skill

(Surgery savage and hard),

Splintered with bolt and beam,

Probed in scarfing and seam,

Rudely linted and tarred

With oakum and boiling pitch,

And sutured with splice and hitch,

At the Brooklyn Navy-Yard!

Our lofty spars were down,

To bide the battle’s frown

(Wont of old renown),—

But every ship was dressed

In her bravest and her best,

As if for a July day;

Sixty flags and three,

As we floated up the bay,—

Every peak and masthead flew

The brave Red, White, and Blue,—

We were eighteen ships that day.

With hawsers strong and taut,

The weaker lashed to port,

On we sailed, two by two,—

That if either a bolt should feel

Crash through caldron or wheel,

Fin of bronze or sinew of steel,

Her mate might bear her through.

Steadily nearing the head,

The great flag-ship led,—

Grandest of sights!

On her lofty mizzen flew

Our leader’s dauntless blue,

That had waved o’er twenty fights.

So we went, with the first of the tide,

Slowly, mid the roar

Of the rebel guns ashore,

And the thunder of each full broadside.

Ah, how poor the prate

Of statute and of state,

We once held with these fellows:

Here, on the flood’s pale-green,

Hark how he bellows,—

Each bluff old sea-lawyer!

Talk to them, Dahlgren,

Parrott, and Sawyer!

On in the whirling shade

Of the cannon’s sulphury breath,

We drew to the line of death

That our devilish foe had laid;

Meshed in a horrible net,

And baited villanous well,

Right in our path were set

Three hundred traps of hell!

And there, O sight forlorn!

There, while the cannon

Hurtled and thundered,—

(Ah, what ill raven

Flapped o’er the ship that morn!)

Caught by the under-death,

In the drawing of a breath,

Down went dauntless Craven,

He and his hundred!

A moment we saw her turret,

A little heel she gave,

And a thin white spray went o’er her,

Like the crest of a breaking wave;

In that great iron coffin,

The channel for their grave,

The fort their monument

(Seen afar in the offing),

Ten fathom deep lie Craven

And the bravest of our brave.

Then, in that deadly track,

A little the ships held back,

Closing up in their stations:

There are minutes that fix the fate

Of battles and of nations

(Christening the generations),

When valor were all too late,

If a moment’s doubt be harbored;

From the maintop, bold and brief,

Came the word of our grand old Chief,—

“Go on!”—’t was all he said;

Our helm was put to the starboard,

And the Hartford passed ahead.

Ahead lay the Tennessee,

On our starboard bow he lay,

With his mail-clad consorts three

(The rest had run up the Bay),—

There he was, belching flame from his bow,

And the steam from his throat’s abyss

Was a Dragon’s maddened hiss,—

In sooth a most cursèd craft!—

In a sullen ring, at bay,

By the Middle Ground they lay,

Raking us, fore and aft.

Trust me, our berth was hot,

Ah, wickedly well they shot;

How their death-bolts howled and stung!

And the water-batteries played

With their deadly cannonade

Till the air around us rung;

So the battle raged and roared—

Ah, had you been aboard

To have seen the fight we made!

How they leaped, the tongues of flame,

From the cannon’s fiery lip!

How the broadsides, deck and frame,

Shook the great ship!

And how the enemy’s shell

Came crashing, heavy and oft,

Clouds of splinters flying aloft

And falling in oaken showers:

But ah, the pluck of the crew!

Had you stood on that deck of ours,

You had seen what men may do.

Still, as the fray grew louder,

Boldly they worked and well,—

Steadily came the powder,

Steadily came the shell.

And if tackle or truck found hurt,

Quickly they cleared the wreck;

And the dead were laid to port,

All a-row, on our deck.

Never a nerve that failed,

Never a cheek that paled,

Not a tinge of gloom or pallor:

There was bold Kentucky’s grit,

And the old Virginian valor,

And the daring Yankee wit.

There were blue eyes from turfy Shannon,

There were black orbs from palmy Niger,—

But there alongside the cannon,

Each man fought like a tiger!

A little, once, it looked ill,

Our consort began to burn;

They quenched the flames with a will,

But our men were falling still,

And still the fleet was astern.

Right abreast of the Fort

In an awful shroud they lay,

Broadsides thundering away,

And lightning from every port,—

Scene of glory and dread!

A storm-cloud all aglow

With flashes of fiery red;

The thunder raging below,

And the forest of flags o’erhead!

So grand the hurly and roar,

So fiercely their broadsides blazed,

The regiments fighting ashore

Forgot to fire as they gazed.

There, to silence the foe,

Moving grimly and slow,

They loomed in that deadly wreath,

Where the darkest batteries frowned,—

Death in the air all round,

And the black torpedoes beneath!

And now, as we looked ahead,

All for’ard, the long white deck

Was growing a strange dull red;

But soon, as once and agen

Fore and aft we sped

(The firing to guide or check),

You could hardly choose but tread

On the ghastly human wreck,

(Dreadful gobbet and shred

That a minute ago were men!)

Red, from mainmast to bitts!

Red, on bulwark and wale!

Red, by combing and hatch!

Red, o’er netting and rail!

And ever, with steady con,

The ship forged slowly by;

And ever the crew fought on,

And their cheers rang loud and high.

Grand was the sight to see

How by their guns they stood,

Right in front of our dead

Fighting square abreast—

Each brawny arm and chest

All spotted with black and red,—

Chrism of fire and blood!

Worth our watch, dull and sterile,

Worth all the weary time;

Worth the woe and the peril,

To stand in that strait sublime!

Fear? A forgotten form!

Death? A dream of the eyes!

We were atoms in God’s great storm

That roared through the angry skies.

One only doubt was ours,

One only dread we knew:

Could the day that dawned so well

Go down for the Darker Powers?

Would the fleet get through?

And ever the shot and shell

Came with the howl of hell,

The splinter-clouds rose and fell,

And the long line of corpses grew:

Would the fleet win through?

They are men that never will fail,

(How aforetime they ’ve fought!)

But Murder may yet prevail,—

They may sink as Craven sank.

Therewith one hard fierce thought,

Burning on heart and lip,

Ran like fire through the ship:

Fight her, to the last plank!

A dimmer Renown might strike

If Death lay square alongside;

But the Old Flag has no like,

She must fight, whatever betide:

When the war is a tale of old,

And this day’s story is told,

They shall hear how the Hartford died!

But as we ranged ahead,

And the leading ships worked in,

Losing their hope to win,

The enemy turned and fled:

And one seeks a shallow reach,

And another, winged in her flight,

Our mate, brave Jouett, brings in;

And one, all torn in the fight,

Runs for a wreck on the beach,

Where her flames soon fire the night.

And the Ram,—when well up the Bay,

And we looked that our stems should meet

(He had us fair for a prey),

Shifting his helm midway,

Sheered off, and ran for the fleet;

There, without skulking or sham,

He fought them, gun for gun,

And ever he sought to ram,

But could finish never a one.

From the first of the iron shower

Till we sent our parting shell,

’T was just one savage hour

Of the roar and the rage of hell.

With the lessening smoke and thunder,

Our glasses around we aim,—

What is that burning yonder?

Our Philippi—aground and in flame!

Below, ’t was still all a-roar,

As the ships went by the shore,

But the fire of the fort had slacked

(So fierce their volleys had been);

And now, with a mighty din,

The whole fleet came grandly in,

Though sorely battered and wracked.

So, up the Bay we ran,

The Flag to port and ahead,

And a pitying rain began

To wash the lips of our dead.

A league from the fort we lay,

And deemed that the end must lag;

When lo! looking down the Bay,

There flaunted the Rebel Rag:

The Ram is again under way,

And heading dead for the Flag!

Steering up with the stream,

Boldly his course he lay,

Though the fleet all answered his fire,

And, as he still drew nigher,

Ever on bow and beam

Our Monitors pounded away,—

How the Chickasaw hammered away!

Quickly breasting the wave,

Eager the prize to win,

First of us all the brave

Monongahela went in,

Under full head of steam;

Twice she struck him abeam,

Till her stem was a sorry work;

(She might have run on a crag!)

The Lackawanna hit fair;

He flung her aside like cork,—

And still he held for the Flag.

High in the mizzen-shroud

(Lest the smoke his sight o’erwhelm),

Our Admiral’s voice rang loud:

“Hard-a-starboard your helm!

Starboard! and run him down!”

Starboard it was; and so,

Like a black squall’s lifting frown,

Our mighty bow bore down

On the iron beak of the Foe.

We stood on the deck together,

Men that had looked on death

In battle and stormy weather;

Yet a little we held our breath,

When, with the hush of death,

The great ships drew together.

Our Captain strode to the bow,

Drayton, courtly and wise,

Kindly cynic, and wise,

(You hardly had known him now,—

The flame of fight in his eyes!)

His brave heart eager to feel

How the oak would tell on the steel!

But, as the space grew short,

A little he seemed to shun us;

Out peered a form grim and lanky,

And a voice yelled: “Hard-a-port!

Hard-a-port!—here ’s the damned Yankee

Coming right down on us!”

He sheered, but the ships ran foul;

With a gnarring shudder and growl,

He gave us a deadly gun;

But, as he passed in his pride,

(Rasping right alongside!)

The Old Flag, in thunder-tones,

Poured in her port broadside,

Rattling his iron hide,

And cracking his timber bones!

Just then, at speed on the Foe,

With her bow all weathered and brown,

The great Lackawanna came down

Full tilt for another blow:

We were forging ahead,

She reversed; but, for all our pains,

Rammed the old Hartford instead,

Just for’ard the mizzen-chains!

Ah! how the masts did buckle and bend,

And the stout hull ring and reel,

As she took us right on end!

(Vain were engine and wheel,—

She was under full steam),—

With the roar of a thunder-stroke

Her two thousand tons of oak

Brought up on us, right abeam!

A wreck, as it looked, we lay;

(Rib and plankshear gave way

To the stroke of that giant wedge!)

Here, after all, we go;

The old ship is gone!—ah, no,

But cut to the water’s edge.

Never mind then; at him again!

His flurry now can’t last long;

He ’ll never again see land;

Try that on him, Marchand!

On him again, brave Strong!

Heading square at the hulk,

Full on his beam we bore;

But the spine of the huge Sea-Hog

Lay on the tide like a log,—

He vomited flame no more.

By this he had found it hot:

Half the fleet, in an angry ring,

Closed round the hideous thing,

Hammering with solid shot,

And bearing down, bow on bow—

He has but a minute to choose;

Life or renown?—which now

Will the Rebel Admiral lose?

Cruel, haughty, and cold,

He ever was strong and bold,—

Shall he shrink from a wooden stem?

He will think of that brave band

He sank in the Cumberland:

Ay, he will sink like them.

Nothing left but to fight

Boldly his last sea-fight!

Can he strike? By Heaven, ’t is true!

Down comes the traitor Blue,

And up goes the captive White!

Up went the White! Ah, then,

The hurrahs that, once and agen,

Rang from three thousand men,

All flushed and savage with fight!

Our dead lay cold and stark,

But our dying, down in the dark,

Answered as best they might,—

Lifting their poor lost arms,

And cheering for God and Right!