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The Last Stand of the Black Horse Troop

Something for the weekend.  I Am a Rebel Soldier sung by Waylon Jennings.  Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, follows, in part of his poem, a Confederate Georia cavalry unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Black Horse Troop.  On the way to Appomattox they met their destiny guarding the rear of their expiring Army.  I have always thought this was a fitting tribute to the men of that Army who endured to the end.

Wingate wearily tried to goad
A bag of bones on a muddy road
Under the grey and April sky
While Bristol hummed in his irony
“If you want a good time, jine the cavalry!
Well, we jined it, and here we go,
The last event in the circus-show,
The bareback boys in the burnin’ hoop
Mounted on cases of chicken-croup,
The rovin’ remains of the Black Horse Troop!
Though the only horse you could call real black
Is the horsefly sittin’ on Shepley’s back,
But, women and children, do not fear,
They’ll feed the lions and us, next year.
And, women and children, dry your eyes,
The Southern gentleman never dies.
He just lives on by his strength of will
Like a damn ole rooster too tough to kill
Or a brand-new government dollar-bill
That you can use for a trousers-patch
Or lightin’ a fire, if you’ve got a match,
Or makin’ a bunny a paper collar,
Or anythin’ else–except a dollar.

Old folks, young folks, never you care,
The Yanks are here and the Yanks are there,
But no Southern gentleman knows despair.
He just goes on in his usual way,
Eatin’ a meal every fifteenth day
And showin’ such skill in his change of base
That he never gets time to wash his face
While he fights with a fury you’d seldom find
Except in a Home for the Crippled Blind,
And can whip five Yanks with a palmleaf hat,
Only the Yanks won’t fight like that.

Ladies and gentlemen, here we go!
The last event in the minstrel show!
Georgia’s genuine gamboliers,
(Ladies and gentlemen, dry those tears!)
See the sergeant, eatin’ the hay
Of his faithful horse, in a lifelike way!
See the general, out for blood,
And try to tell the man from the mud!
See the platoon in its savage lair,
A half-grown boy on a wheezy mare.
Ladies and gentlemen, pass the hat!
We’ve got one trick that you won’t forget,
‘The Vanishin’ Commissariat’
And nobody’s found the answer yet!
Here we go, here we go,
The last parade of the circus-show,
Longstreet’s orphans, Lee’s everlastin’s
Half cast-iron and half corn-pone,
And if gettin’ to heaven means prayer and fastin’s
We ought to get there on the fasts alone.

Here we go with our weddin’ bells,
Mr. Davis’s immortelles,
Mr. Lincoln’s Thanksgivin’ turkey,
Run right ragged but actin’ perky,
Chased right handsome, but still not carved,
–We had fleas, but the fleas all starved.
We had rations and new recruits,
Uniforms and cavalry-boots,
Must have mislaid, for we can’t find ’em.
They all went home with their tails behind ’em.
Here we are, like the old man’s mutton,
Pretty well sheared, but not past buttin’,
Lee’s last invalids, heart and hand,
All wropped up in a woolen band,
Oh, Dixie land . . . oh, Dixie land! . . .”
He tossed his hat and caught it again
And Wingate recalled, without grief or pain
Or any quietus but memory
Lucy, under another sky,
White and gold as a lily bed,
Giving toy ribbons to all her dead.
She had been pretty and she was gone,
But the dead were here–and the dead rode on,
Over a road of mud and stones,
Each one horsed on a bag of bones.

Lucy, you carried a golden head,
But I am free of you, being dead.
Father’s back in that cluttered hall
Where the beds are solid from wall to wall
And the scrubbed old floor has a rusty stain.
He’ll never ride with the dogs again,
Call Bathsheba or Planter’s Child
In the old, high quaver that drives them wild
–Rocketing hounds on a red-hot scent–
After such wounds, men do not ride.
I think that his heart was innocent.
I know he rode by the riverside,
Calling Blue Ruin or Georgia Lad
With the huntsman’s crotchet that sets them mad.
His face was ruddy–his face is white–
I wonder if Father died last night?
That cloud in the sky is a thunderhead.
The world I knew is a long time dead.

Shepley looks like a knife on guard,
Reckon he’s taking it mighty hard,
Reckon he loved her and no mistake,
Glad it isn’t my wedding cake,
Wainscott oughtn’t to plague him so,
Means all right but he doesn’t know.
“Here we go, here we go,
The last events of the minstrel-show!”

Shepley suddenly turned his head.
“Mr. Bristol’s funny,” he said.
The voice was flat with an injury.
Bristol stared at him, puzzledly.
“What’s the matter with you, Huger?
Lost your dog or your rosy cheeks?
Haven’t been human for weeks and weeks.
I’ll sing you a hymn, if you’re so inclined,
But the rest of the boys don’t seem to mind.
Are you feelin’ poorly or just unkind?”

Shepley looked at him with the blind
Eyes of a man too long at war
And too long nursing a secret sore.
“Mr. Bristol’s funny,” said he,
In a level voice of enmity.
Bristol laughed, but his face grew red.
“Well, if you take it like that–” he said.

“Here we go, here we go,
The old Confederate minstrel-show!”
His mouth was merry, he tossed his hat,
“Belles skedaddled and left us flat–“

Shepley leaned from his swaying hips
And flicked him over the singing lips.
“Will you take it?” he said, “or let it go?”
You never could sing for shucks, you know.”

The color drained out of Bristol’s face.
He bowed with an odd, old-fashioned grace.
“Name your people and choose your land,
I don’t take a slap from God’s own hand.
Mr. Shepley, your servant, sir.”

They stared at each other across a blur.
The troop stared with them, halted and still.

A rider lunged from the top of the hill,
Dusty man with a bandaged hand
Spilling his orders.
“Who’s in command?
Well, it doesn’t signify, more or less.
You can hold the Yanks for a while, I guess.
Make ’em think you’re the whole rear guard
If you can do it–they’re pressin’ hard
And somebody’s got to lose some hair.
Keep ’em away from that bend down there
As long as a horse or a man can stand.
You might give ’em a charge, if you think you can,
And we’ll meet sometime in the Promised Land,
For I can’t spare you another man.”

Bristol whistled, a shrill, sweet slur.
“Beg to acknowledge the orders, sir.
Boys, we’re booked for the shivaree.
Give our regards to the infantry
And tell Marse Robert, with fortitude,
We stacked up pretty as hickory-wood.
While might I ask, while bein’ polite,
How many Yank armies we aim to fight?”

“Well,” said the other, “about a corps.
Roughly speakin’–there may be more.”

“Thank you,” said Bristol, “that’s mighty sweet.
You will not remain at the mourner’s seat?
No sir?  Well, I imagined not,
For from this time hence it will be right hot.
He turned to Shepley with his punctilious
Air of the devil turned supercilious
When the damned display a vulgar nettlement.
“Sir, I regret that our little settlement
Must be postponed for a fitter season,
But war and necessity know no reason,
And should we survive in this comin’ fracas
I’ll do you the honors–you damned old jackass!”

Shepley grinned at his sometime friend.
They took the cover they must defend.

Wingate, fighting from tree to tree,
Felt a red-hot skewer surgeon his knee
And felt his shoulder hitting the ground.
He rolled on his side and made a sound,
Dimly seeing through failing sight
The last brief passion of his last fight.
One Cotter dying, the other dead
With the brains run out of his shattered head.
Stuart Cazenove trying to squirm
His way to the road like a scythe-cut worm,
Weakly humming “Cadet Rousselle”,
Shot through the belly and half in hell,
While Shepley croaked through a bloody spray,
“Come on, you bastards, and get your pay.
We’ve fought you mounted and fought you standin’
And I got a hole I could put my hand in–
And they’re comin’, Wayne–and it hurts my head–”
Bristol looked at him, lying dead.
“Got the start of me, Shep,” he said.
“Dirty welchers, killin’ Huger
Before we could settle up properly.”
He stooped to the body and took its pistol
And Wingate saw, through a rising mist,
The last, cold madness of Wainscott Bristol,
Walking out like a duellist
With his torn coat buttoned up at the throat
As if it were still the broadcloth coat
Duellists button to show no fleck
Of telltale white at the wrists or neck.

He stepped from his cover and dropped his hat.
“Yanks, come get it!” he said and spat
While his pistols cracked with a single crack,
“Here we go on the red dog’s back!
High, low, jack and the goddam game.”
And then the answering volley came.

Wingate waked from a bloodshot dream.
They were touching his leg and he heard his scream.
A blue-chinned man said a word or two.
“Well now, Johnny, you ought to do
Till the sawbones comes with his movin’-van,
And you’re lucky you’re livin’, little man.
But why the hell did you act so strict,
Fightin’ like that when you know you’re licked,
And where’s the rest of your damn brigade?”
The voice died out as the ripples fade
Into the flow of the running stream,
And Wingate sank to the bloodshot dream.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. And with these things, bury the purple dream
    Of the America we have not been,
    The tropic empire, seeking the warm sea,
    The last foray of aristocracy
    Based not on dollars or initiative
    Or any blood for what that blood was worth
    But on a certain code, a manner of birth,
    A certain manner of knowing how to live,
    The pastoral rebellion of the earth
    Against machines, against the Age of Steam,
    The Hamiltonian extremes against the Franklin mean,
    The genius of the land
    Against the metal hand,
    The great, slave-driven bark,
    Full-oared upon the dark,
    With gilded figurehead,
    With fetters for the crew
    And spices for the few,
    The passion that is dead,
    The pomp we never knew,
    Bury this, too.

  2. Don, I am greatly indebted to you.

    I had no idea of who Stephen Vincent Benet was until you posted this here. I found the entire poem online here (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700461.txt) and read about half of it – I will read it in its entirety later. I did some more research on him and found he had written By the Waters of Babylon. I was stunned! I had read that short story when I was nine or ten, and while it made an immense impression on me I did not recall the title or the author. I now have it on my kindle – thanks to you.

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