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

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

Southern States: New Orleans, La.

The River Fight

By Henry Howard Brownell (1820–1872)

DO you know of the dreary land,

If land such region may seem,

Where ’t is neither sea nor strand,

Ocean nor good dry land,

But the nightmare marsh of a dream?

Where the Mighty River his death-road takes,

Mid pools and windings that coil like snakes,

A hundred leagues of bayous and lakes,

To die in the great Gulf Stream?

No coast-line clear and true,

Granite and deep-sea blue,

On that dismal shore you pass,

Surf-worn boulder or sandy beach,—

But ooze-flats as far as the eye can reach,

With shallows of water-grass;

Reedy savannas, vast and dun,

Lying dead in the dim March sun;

Huge rotting trunks and roots that lie

Like the blackened bones of shapes gone by,

And miles of sunken morass.

No lovely, delicate thing

Of life o’er the waste is seen;

But the cayman, couched by his weedy spring,

And the pelican, bird unclean,

Or the buzzard, flapping with heavy wing,

Like an evil ghost o’er the desolate scene.

Ah! many a weary day

With our leader there we lay,

In the sultry haze and smoke,

Tugging our ships o’er the bar,

Till the spring was wasted far,

Till his brave heart almost broke.

For the sullen river seemed

As if our intent he dreamed,—

All his sallow mouths did spew and choke.

But ere April fully passed,

All ground was over at last,

And we knew the die was cast,—

Knew the day drew nigh

To dare to the end one stormy deed,

Might save the land at her sorest need,

Or on the old deck to die!


Would you hear of the River Fight?

It was two of a soft spring night;

God’s stars looked down on all;

And all was clear and bright

But the low fog’s clinging breath:

Up the River of Death

Sailed the Great Admiral.

On our high poop-deck he stood,

And round him ranged the men

Who have made their birthright good

Of manhood once and again,—

Lords of helm and of sail,

Tried in tempest and gale,

Bronzed in battle and wreck.

Bell and Bailey grandly led

Each his line of the Blue and Red;

Wainwright stood by our starboard rail;

Thornton fought the deck.

And I mind me of more than they,

Of the youthful, steadfast ones,

That have shown them worthy sons

Of the seamen passed away.

Tyson conned our helm that day;

Watson stood by his guns.

What thought our Admiral then,

Looking down on his men?

Since the terrible day,—

(Day of renown and tears!)

When at anchor the Essex lay,

Holding her foes at bay,—

When a boy by Porter’s side he stood,

Till deck and plank-shear were dyed with blood:

’T is half a hundred years,—

Half a hundred years to a day!

Who could fail with him?

Who reckon of life or limb?

Not a pulse but beat the higher!

There had you seen, by the starlight dim,

Five hundred faces strong and grim:

The Flag is going under fire!

Right up by the fort, with her helm hard aport,

The Hartford is going under fire!

The way to our work was plain.

Caldwell had broken the chain,

(Two hulks swung down amain

Soon as ’t was sundered).

Under the night’s dark blue,

Steering steady and true,

Ship after ship went through,

Till, as we hove in view,

“Jackson” out-thundered.

Back echoed “Philip!” Ah! then

Could you have seen our men,

How they sprung, in the dim night haze,

To their work of toil and of clamor!

How the boarders, with sponge and rammer,

And their captains, with cord and hammer,

Kept every muzzle ablaze.

How the guns, as with cheer and shout

Our tackle-men hurled them out,

Brought up on the water-ways!

First, as we fired at their flash,

’T was lightning and black eclipse,

With a bellowing roll and crash.

But soon, upon either bow,

What with forts, and fire-rafts, and ships

(The whole fleet was hard at it, now),

All pounding away!—and Porter

Still thundering with shell and mortar,—

’T was the mighty sound and form!

(Such you see in the far South,

After long heat and drought,

As day draws nigh to even,

Arching from north to south,

Blinding the tropic sun,

The great black bow comes on,

Till the thunder-veil is riven,—

When all is crash and levin,

And the cannonade of heaven

Rolls down the Amazon!)

But, as we worked along higher,

Just where the river enlarges,

Down came a pyramid of fire,—

It was one of your long coal barges.

(We had often had the like before.)

’T was coming down on us to larboard,

Well in with the eastern shore;

And our pilot, to let it pass round

(You may guess we never stopped to sound),

Giving us a rank sheer to starboard,

Ran the Flag hard and fast aground!

’T was nigh abreast of the Upper Fort,

And straightway a rascal Ram

(She was shaped like the Devil’s dam)

Puffed away for us, with a snort,

And shoved it, with spiteful strength,

Right alongside of us to port.

It was all of our ship’s length,—

A huge crackling Cradle of the Pit!

Pitch-pine knots to the brim,

Belching flame red and grim,—

What a roar came up from it!

Well, for a little it looked bad:

But these things are, somehow, shorter

In the acting than in the telling;

There was no singing out or yelling,

Or any fussing and fretting,

No stampede, in short;

But there we were, my lad,

All afire on our port quarter,

Hammocks ablaze in the netting,

Flame spouting in at every port,

Our Fourth Cutter burning at the davit

(No chance to lower away and save it).

In a twinkling the flames had risen

Half-way to maintop and mizzen,

Darting up the shrouds like snakes!

Ah, how we clanked at the brakes,

And the deep steaming-pumps throbbed under,

Sending a ceaseless flow.

Our top-men, a dauntless crowd,

Swarmed in rigging and shroud:

There, (’t was a wonder!)

The burning ratlines and strands

They quenched with their bare, hard hands;

But the great guns below

Never silenced their thunder!

At last, by backing and sounding,

When we were clear of grounding,

And under headway once more,

The whole rebel fleet came rounding

The point. If we had it hot before,

’T was now, from shore to shore,

One long, loud thundering roar,—

Such crashing, splintering, and pounding,

And smashing as you never heard before!

But that we fought foul wrong to wreck,

And to save the land we loved so well,

You might have deemed our long gun-deck

Two hundred feet of hell!

For above all was battle,

Broadside, and blaze, and rattle,

Smoke and thunder alone;

(But, down in the sick-bay,

Where our wounded and dying lay,

There was scarce a sob or a moan.)

And at last, when the dim day broke,

And the sullen sun awoke,

Drearily blinking

O’er the haze and the cannon-smoke,

That ever such morning dulls,—

There were thirteen traitor hulls

On fire and sinking!

Now, up the river!—though mad Chalmette

Sputters a vain resistance yet.

Small helm we gave her, our course to steer,—

’T was nicer work than you well would dream,

With cant and sheer to keep her clear

Of the burning wrecks that cumbered the stream.

The Louisiana, hurled on high,

Mounts in thunder to meet the sky!

Then down to the depths of the turbid flood,—

Fifty fathom of rebel mud!

The Mississippi comes floating down,

A mighty bonfire, from off the town;

And along the river, on stocks and ways,

A half-hatched devil’s brood is ablaze,—

The great Anglo-Norman is all in flames,

(Hark to the roar of her tumbling frames!)

And the smaller fry that Treason would spawn

Are lighting Algiers-like an angry dawn!

From stem to stern, how the pirates burn,

Fired by the furious hands that built!

So to ashes forever turn

The suicide wrecks of wrong and guilt!

But as we neared the city,

By field and vast plantation,

(Ah, millstone of our Nation!)

With wonder and with pity,

What crowds we there espied

Of dark and wistful faces,

Mute in their toiling places,

Strangely and sadly eyed.

Haply, mid doubt and fear,

Deeming deliverance near.

(One gave the ghost of a cheer.)

And on that dolorous strand,

To greet the victor brave

One flag did welcome wave,—

Raised, ah me! by a wretched hand,

All outworn on our cruel land,—

The withered hand of a slave!

But all along the Levee,

In a dark and drenching rain

(By this, ’t was pouring heavy),

Stood a fierce and sullen train.

A strange and frenzied time!

There were scowling rage and pain,

Curses howls, and hisses,

Out of hate’s black abysses,—

Their courage and their crime

All in vain,—all in vain!