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

Southern States: Potomac, the River, Va.

The Picket-Guard

By Ethel Lynn Beers (1827–1879)

  • The authorship of this poem has been attributed to different writers. The New York Evening Post says: “We have before us a note from Mr. H. M. Alden, the editor of Harper’s Weekly, informing us that it was written by Mrs. Ethel Lynn Beers, and originally contributed to Harper’s Weekly.”

  • ALL quiet along the Potomac, they say,

    Except now and then a stray picket

    Is shot, as he walks on his beat, to and fro,

    By a rifleman hid in the thicket.

    ’T is nothing: a private or two, now and then,

    Will not count in the news of the battle;

    Not an officer lost,—only one of the men,

    Moaning out, all alone, the death-rattle.

    All quiet along the Potomac to-night,

    Where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming;

    Their tents, in the rays of the clear autumn moon,

    Or the light of the watch-fires, are gleaming.

    A tremulous sigh, as the gentle night-wind

    Through the forest leaves softly is creeping;

    While stars up above, with their glittering eyes,

    Keep guard,—for the army is sleeping.

    There ’s only the sound of the lone sentry’s tread

    As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,

    And thinks of the two in the low trundle-bed,

    Far away in the cot on the mountain.

    His musket falls slack; his face, dark and grim,

    Grows gentle with memories tender,

    As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep,—

    For their mother,—may Heaven defend her!

    The moon seems to shine just as brightly as then,

    That night, when the love yet unspoken

    Leaped up to his lips,—when low, murmured vows

    Were pledged to be ever unbroken.

    Then drawing his sleeve roughly over his eyes,

    He dashes off tears that are welling,

    And gathers his gun closer up to its place,

    As if to keep down the heart-swelling.

    He passes the fountain, the blasted pine-tree,—

    The footstep is lagging and weary;

    Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light,

    Toward the shades of the forest so dreary.

    Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?

    Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?

    It looked like a rifle: “Ha! Mary, good by!”

    And the life-blood is ebbing and plashing.

    All quiet along the Potomac to-night,—

    No sound save the rush of the river;

    While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead,—

    The picket ’s off duty forever.