The Army of the Potomac

Army of the Potomac

Army of the Potomac, advancing army,

Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,

City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,

Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,

Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,

And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,

Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry

“Here they come!  Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”

Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,

Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,

Germans who learnt their English under the shells

Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.

Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,

Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt

And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat

To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain

Against the millstone of Lee.

 

 

Good stallion,

Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns

By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.

The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,

They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,

And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands

And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,

Another rider comes with a different seat,

And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,

And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,

The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,

The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,

The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,

The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,

Not as Napoleons waste for a victory

But blindly, unluckily–

until at last

After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,

The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast.

 

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,

Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved

As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,

Takes you and uses you as you could be used,

Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.

You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,

But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you

But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor

They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,

But you have had other butchers who did not win

And this man wins in the end.

 

You see him standing,

Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.

You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer

But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.

Ulysses is all right.  He can finish the job.”

And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review

And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.