Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Old Sergeant

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

Western States: Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing), Tenn.

The Old Sergeant

By Forceythe Willson (1837–1867)

“COME a little nearer, Doctor,—thank you,—let me take the cup;

Draw your chair up,—draw it closer,—just another little sup!

May be you may think I ’m better; but I ’m pretty well used up,—

Doctor, you ’ve done all you could do, but I ’m just a going up!

“Feel my pulse, sir, if you want to, but it ain’t much use to try”—

“Never say that,” said the surgeon, as he smothered down a sigh;

“It will never do, old comrade, for a soldier to say die!”

“What you say will make no difference, Doctor, when you come to die.

“Doctor, what has been the matter?” “You were very faint, they say;

You must try to get to sleep now.” “Doctor, have I been away?”

“Not that anybody knows of!” “Doctor,—Doctor, please to stay!

There is something I must tell you, and you won’t have long to stay!

“I have got my marching orders, and I ’m ready now to go;

Doctor, did you say I fainted?—but it could n’t ha’ been so,—

For as sure as I ’m a Sergeant, and was wounded at Shiloh,

I ’ve this very night been back there, on the old field of Shiloh!

“This is all that I remember: The last time the Lighter came,

And the lights had all been lowered, and the noises much the same,

He had not been gone five minutes before something called my name:

‘Orderly Sergeant—Robert Burton!’—just that way it called my name.

“And I wondered who could call me so distinctly and so slow,

Knew it could n’t be the Lighter,—he could not have spoken so,—

And I tried to answer, ‘Here, sir!’ but I could n’t make it go;

For I could n’t move a muscle, and I could n’t make it go!

“Then I thought: It ’s all a nightmare, all a humbug and a bore;

Just another foolish grape-vine,—and it won’t come any more;

But it came, sir, notwithstanding, just the same way as before:

‘Orderly Sergeant—Robert Burton!’—even plainer than before.

“That is all that I remember, till a sudden burst of light,

And I stood beside the river, where we stood that Sunday night,

Waiting to be ferried over to the dark bluffs opposite,

When the river was perdition and all hell was opposite!

“And the same old palpitation came again in all its power,

And I heard a bugle sounding, as from some celestial tower;

And the same mysterious voice said: ‘It is the eleventh hour!

Orderly Sergeant—Robert Burton—it is the eleventh hour!’

“Doctor Austin! what day is this?” “It is Wednesday night, you know.”

“Yes,—to-morrow will be New Year’s, and a right good time below!

What time is it, Doctor Austin?” “Nearly twelve.” “Then don’t you go!

Can it be that all this happened—all this—not an hour ago!

“There was where the gunboats opened on the dark rebellious host;

And where Webster semicircled his last guns upon the coast;

There were still the two log-houses, just the same, or else their ghost,—

And the same old transport came and took me over,—or its ghost!

“And the old field lay before me all deserted far and wide;

There was where they fell on Prentiss,—there McClernand met the tide;

There was where stern Sherman rallied, and where Hurlbut’s heroes died,—

Lower down, where Wallace charged them, and kept charging till he died.

“There was where Lew Wallace showed them he was of the canny kin,

There was where old Nelson thundered, and where Rousseau waded in;

There McCook sent ’em to breakfast, and we all began to win,—

There was where the grape-shot took me, just as we began to win.

“Now, a shroud of snow and silence over everything was spread;

And but for this old blue mantle and the old hat on my head,

I should not have even doubted, to this moment, I was dead,—

For my footsteps were as silent as the snow upon the dead!

“Death and silence!—Death and silence! all around me as I sped!

And behold, a mighty tower, as if builded to the dead,

To the heaven of the heavens lifted up its mighty head,

Till the Stars and Stripes of heaven all seemed waving from its head!

“Round and mighty-based it towered,—up into the infinite,—

And I knew no mortal mason could have built a shaft so bright;

For it shone like solid sunshine; and a winding-stair of light

Wound around it and around it till it wound clear out of sight!

“And, behold, as I approached it, with a rapt and dazzled stare,—

Thinking that I saw old comrades just ascending the great stair,

Suddenly the solemn challenge broke of—‘Halt, and who goes there!’

‘I ’m a friend,’ I said, ‘if you are.’ ‘Then advance, sir, to the stair!’

“I advanced! That sentry, Doctor, was Elijah Ballantyne!—

First of all to fall on Monday, after we had formed the line!—

‘Welcome, my old Sergeant, welcome! Welcome by that countersign!’

And he pointed to the scar there, under this old cloak of mine!

“As he grasped my hand, I shuddered, thinking only of the grave;

But he smiled and pointed upward with a bright and bloodless glaive;

‘That ’s the way, sir, to head-quarters.’ ‘What head-quarters?’ ‘Of the brave.’

‘But the great tower?’ ‘That,’ he answered, ‘is the way, sir, of the brave!’

“Then a sudden shame came o’er me, at his uniform of light;

At my own so old and tattered, and at his so new and bright:

‘Ah!’ said he, ‘you have forgotten the new uniform to-night,—

Hurry back, for you must be here at just twelve o’clock to-night!’

“And the next thing I remember, you were sitting there, and I—

Doctor,—did you hear a footstep? Hark!—God bless you all! Good by!

Doctor, please to give my musket and my knapsack, when I die,

To my son—my son that ’s coming,—he won’t get here till I die!

“Tell him his old father blessed him as he never did before,—

And to carry that old musket”—Hark! a knock is at the door!—

“Till the Union”—See! it opens! “Father! Father! speak once more!”

“Bless you!” gasped the old, gray Sergeant, and he lay and said no more!