A Veteran Cavalryman's Tale Poem by Edward William Thomson

A Veteran Cavalryman's Tale

Rating: 2.7

LOW in the fertile vale by Tunstall’s Run
A rainy rifle skirmish closed the day.

Beyond the April-swollen, narrow stream,
Lee’s stubborn rearguard veteran raggedies
Lay prone amid last year’s tobacco stalks,

Shooting hot Enfields straight from red-mud pools,
While from their rear four angry howitzers,
High set on Armistead’s Plantation Hill,
Flamed shrieking shell o’erhead across the bridge
That Custer raged to seize before black night

Should close his daylong toil in mud and rain.

Thrice did we gallop vainly at the planks,
Then vainly strove on foot the pass to win,
Till through the drizzling dark but flashes showed
The points where sullen rifles opposite rang,

And back we straggled, stumbling up the slope
Where Union buglers shrilled the bivouac.

Ninety unanswering voices told our loss,
While silence ruled so deep we heard the rain’s
Small rataplan on ponchos and on hats,

Until the crackling rail-fence Company fires
Lighted the piney length of Custer’s Ridge.

That night John Woolston served as orderly,
The John who strokes to-day his white old beard
And sees himself, scarce downy of the lips,

Eyeing young long-haired Custer through the smoke
Across a flaming pyre, that steaming slaves
Of Tunstall fed afresh with Tunstall rails.

Down in the shrouded vale about the Run
Three score of boys John Woolston knew in life

Lay scattered round an old-hoed, red-mud field,
Peaceful with scores of veteran boys in gray,
Whose bodily particles were resurrect
As corn for bread, and leaf for smokers’ pipes,
Before the Americans of now were born

To share, through common-soldier sacrifice,
The comrade Union of the States to-day.

A rail-heap seated Custer with his aide,
Their drowsing bugler opposite leaned on John,
While overhead the swaying boughs of pine

Creaked in an upward-rushing draught of warmth,
And from our solitary surgeons’ tent
Came smothered ecstasies of mortal pain,
And in the outer darkness horses stamped
And bit and squealed and enviously eyed

The huddling regiments about the fires,
Pipes lit, hats slouched to fend the rain and glare.

As Woolston watched lean Custer’s martial face,
It seemed the hero heard not flame nor bough,
Nor marked the groans, nor knew at what he stared,

So deep intent his mind ranged o’er the Run
And up the opposite-sloping Arm’stead hill,
As questioning if the murderous howitzers
Would hold the bridge at dawn, or march by night,
And so, perchance, next eve, afar repeat

The dusky fight, and cost him ninety more
He would fain range about the field of fields
Where lion Lee, enringed, must stand at bay,
Choosing to greatly die, or greatlier yield.

At last he shook his aide. “Get up! Go bring

A prisoner here.” And when the head-hurt man
In butternut stood boldly to his eyes,
He asked one word alone: “Your general’s name?”

“My general’s name!” stared Butternut, then proud,
As ’t were a cubit added to his height,

He spoke,—“My general’s name is R. E. Lee!”

“I mean who fights Lee’s rearguard?” Custer said,
“Who held the bridge to-night? His name alone.”

And then the bitter man in butternut
Smiled ghastly grim, and smacked as tasting blood;

“It’s General Henry Tunstall, his own self,
And if you find our ‘Fighting Tunce’ alive
When daylight comes, there’ll be red hell to pay
For every plank that spans that trifling bridge.”

“Good man!” said Custer. “Spoke right soldierly!

Here—take this cloak—to save your wound from rain”:
And gave the brave the poncho that he wore.

Then up flamed Butternut: “Say, General,
You’re Yank, and yet, by God, you’re white clean through.
And so I kind of feel to tell you why

Them planks will cost you so almighty dear.
You’re camped to-night on ‘Fighting Tunce’s’ land;
Cross yonder, on the hill his guns defend,
Is where his lady lives, his promised wife,—
God bless her heart!—Miss Mary Armistead.

She’s there herself to-night—she’d never run.
Her widowed father fell at Fredericksburg,
Three brothers died in arms, one limps with Lee.
Herself has worked their darkies right along
Four years, to raise our army pork and pone,

And she herself not twenty-four to-day!

Will Tunstall fight for her? Say, General,
Your heart can guess what hell you’ll face at day.”

“You’re right, my man,” said Custer. “That will do.”
And off they marched the ponchoed prisoner.

“By heaven!” spoke Custer then, and faced his aide,
“I know why Tunstall’s gunners spared the bridge.
It’s ten to one he means to swarm across,
After his hungry Johnnies get some rest,
To strike us here and hard before the dawn.

His heart was forged in fire and enterprise!
His bully-boys will back his wildest dare!
Lieutenant—pick me out two first-rate men—
Morton for one, if ‘Praying Mort’ ’s alive—
Tell them I go myself to post vedettes.

Now—mind—I want a pair of wideawakes.—
You, Orderly, go saddle up my bay.”

“I want to go with Morton,” blurted John.

“You! Call yourself a wideawake, my lad?”

“Yes, sir,” said Woolston.—
“But you’re just a boy.”

“Well, General, Uncle Sam enlisted me
For man, all right.” Then Custer smiled, and mused.
“Farm boy?” he asked.—
“Exactly what I am.”
“All right,” he said. “If once I see he’s keen,
A likely farm boy’s just the man for me.

When back his aide returned the General spoke:
“It’s barely possible we march to-night.
You’ll see that every man about the fires
Splits torch stuff plenty from the pitchy rails.”
And with the words he reined toward Arm’stead’s Hill.

Down hill, beyond the flares, beyond the pines,
Beyond his foothill pickets, through the rain,
He led as if his eyes beheld the way;
Yet they, who followed close his bay’s fast walk
By sound alone, saw not their horses’ heads,

Saw not the hand held up to blotch the gloom.
No breath of wind. The ear heard only hoofs
Splashing and squattering in the puddle field,
Or heard the saddle-leathers scarcely creak,
Or little clanks of curbing bit and chain.

Scattered about whatever way they trod
Must be the clay that marched but yesterday,
And nervously John listened, lest some soul
Faint lingering in the dark immensity
Might call its longing not to die alone.

Sudden a crash, a plunge, a kicking horse,
Then “Praying Morton” whispering cautiously:
“A post-hole, General! My horse is done.
His off fore-leg is broke, as sure as faith!
Oh, what a dispensation of the Lord—”

“Hish-sh. Save the rest!” said Custer. “Broke is broke!
Get back to camp whatever way you can.”

“Me, General! What use to post the boy?
You, Woolston, you get back. I’ll take your horse.”

“Not much, you won’t,” said Woolston angrily.

And Custer chuckled crisply in the dark.
“Enough,” he ordered. “Morton, get you back!
Be cautious when you near my picket post,
Or else they’ll whang to hit your pious voice,
And I may lose a first-rate soldier man.”

Then Morton, prayerful, mild, and mollified:
“The merciful man would end a beast in pain—
One shot.”
“No, too much noise. You get right back!
Horses, like men, must bear the luck of war.”


Again the plashing hoofs through endless drip,

Until the solid footing of their beasts
Bespoke them trampling in a turnpike road,
And Custer reined with: “Hish-sh, my man—come here.
Now listen.” Then John’s ears became aware
Of small articulations in the dark,

Queer laughters, as of countless impish glee,
And one pervasive, low, incessant hum,
All strange till Custer spoke: “You hear the Run?
All right! Now, mind exactly what I say.
But no. First hold my horse. I’ll feel the bridge.

Maybe I’ll draw their fire; but stay right here.”

On foot he went, and came, so stealthily
John could not hear the steps ten feet away.
“All right!” He mounted. “Not one plank removed.”
Then, communing rather with himself than John:

“No picket there! It’s strange! But surely Tunce
Would smash the bridge unless he meant to cross
And rip right back at me in dark or dawn.
Now, private—mind exactly what I say;
You’ll listen here for trampers on the bridge,

And if you hear them reach the mud this side,
With others following on the planks behind,
You’ll get right back—stick to the turnpike, mind—
And tell my challenging road-guard picket post
They’re coming strong. That’s all you’ve got to do

Unless—” he paused—“unless some negro comes
Bringing the news they’re falling back on Lee;
Then—if he’s sure—you’ll fire four carbine shots
Right quick—and stay until you see me come.
You understand?”
“I do. I’m not to shoot

In case they’re coming on. But if they’re off,
I’ll fire four shots as fast as I can pull.”

“That’s right. Be sure you keep your wits awake.
Listen for prowlers—both your ears well skinned.”

John heard the spattering bay’s fast-walking hoofs

Fainter and fainter through the steady pour,
And then no sound, except the beating rain’s
Small pit-a-pat on poncho, and the Run
Drifting its babbling through the blinding mirk.

How long he sat, no guessing in the slow

Monotony of night, that never changed
Save when the burdened horse replaced his hoofs,
Or seemed to raise or droop his weary head,
Or when some shiver shook the weary boy,
Though sheltered dry from aching neck to spurs:

A shiver at the dream of dead men nigh,
Beaten with rain, and merging with the mud,
And staring up with open, sightless eyes
That served as little cups for tiny pools
That trickled in and out incessantly;

A shiver at the thought of home and bed,
And mother tucking in her boy at night,
And how she’d shiver could she see him there—
Longing more sore than John to wrap him warm;

A shiver from the tense expectancy

Of warning sounds, while yet no sound he heard
Save springtime water lapping on the pier,
Or tumbling often from the clayey banks
Lumps that splashed lifelike in the turbid flood.

His aching ears were strained for other sounds,

And still toward Arm’stead’s Hill they ached and strained,
While, in the evening fight of memory,
Again he saw the broad Plantation House
Whene’er a brassy howitzer spouted flame,
Suddenly lighting up its firing men,

Who vanished dim again in streaking rain;
And then, once more, the Enfields in the vale
Thrust cores of fire, until some lightning piece
Again lit all the Arm’stead buildings clear.

From visioning swift that wide Plantation House

John’s mind went peering through its fancied rooms.
And who were there? And did they sleep, or wake?
Until he found Miss Mary Armistead
And General Henry Tunstall in the dream.

It seemed those lovers could not, could not part,

But murmured low of parting in the dawn,
Since he must march and fight, and she must stay
To hold the home, whatever war might send—
And they might never, never meet again.

So good she looked, described by Butternut’s

“God bless her heart,” and he so soldier bold
In “fire and enterprise,” by Custer’s words,—
So true and sorrowful they talked in dream,
Of Love and Life that walk the ways of Death,—
The dreamer’s under lip went quivering.

Until the startled horse put up his head
And stood, John knew, stark stiff with listening
To that kalatta-klank beyond the Run,
As if some cowbell clattered far away
Once, twice, and thrice, to cease as suddenly.

Then John, once more keen Yankee soldier boy,
Gathered his rein, half threw his carbine breech,
Made sure again of cartridge ready there,
Felt for the flap of holster at his thigh,
Listened alert for that most dubious bell,—

Thinking of bushwhackers in campfire tales
Impressively related to recruits;

How, in deep night, some lone vedette might hear
An innocent-seeming klatta-klatta-klank,
And never dream but that some roaming cow

Ranged through the covering woodland nigh his post,—
Till—suddenly—a bullet laid him low!
Or, perhaps, guerillas crept before the bell,
Their footsteps deadened by its klatta-klank,
Till, rushing in, they clubbed the youngster down,

So “gobbling” him unheard, a prisoner,
Then, sneaking through the gap, on sleeping posts,
They killed, and killed, and killed—so horridly
That green recruities’ hairs would stand on end.

John, shrewdly discounting the veteran yarns,

Yet knew full well that klatta-klatta-klank,
Which came again, might mean the enemy
Intent on stratagem to search the dark,
Tempting some shot or challenge to reveal
If any Union picket held the bridge.

Or else the steady-coming, clanging knell
Might signify some party far advanced,
Creeping all noiselessly, and listening keen
For any sound of Custer, horse or man.

Even it might be that the ridgy road

Ten yards, or five, or three from where he sat,
Concealed some foeman hungry for a move
That might betray precisely where their rush
Should be, to seize his tightened bridle-rein,
Or grasp the poncho’s skirt to pull him down.

John half inclined to lift the neck-yoke off
And lay the armless cloak on saddle-bow,
Lest it encumber him in sudden fight,
Or give the foremost foe a strangling hold.
Yet sat he motionless, since such a sound

As slicking glaze might guide an enemy.
And still the klatta-klatta-klank came on.

It surely neared the bridge! Yet John sat still,
With Custer’s orders clearly in his brain,
Waiting to learn the meaning of the thing.

It trod the planks. It moved with solid hoofs,
Hoofs that declared to farm-bred Woolston’s ear
Most unmistakably an actual cow!
But then! Oh, mystery! For rolling wheels
Rumbled upon the planking of the Run!

As up went Woolston’s horse’s head asnort,
Upon the bridge the other beast stood still.
The clanking ceased. Again no mortal sound
Blent with the tittering tumult of the stream.
Until a clear young voice of lady tone

Inquired in startled accents,—“Who goes there?”
Yet John, in utter wonder, spoke no word.
“If there’s a Yankee cavalry picket there,”
The voice proclaimed, “I wish to pass the line.”
And still the Yankee knew not what to say,

Since Custer’s orders covered not the case,
And since, alas, the wondrous lady voice
Might possibly denote some stratagem.
And yet—suppose ’t was only just a girl!
John sickened with a sense of foolishness.

“Go on,” she cried, and seemed to slap her beast,
Which moved some doubtful steps, and stopped again.
Then calmly scornful came the lady tones:—
“Oh, Mister Yankee picket, have no fear
To speak right up. No dangerous man am I.

Only a woman. And she’s got no gun,
No pistol, bayonet, knife, or anything.
And all she asks is just to pass your line,
A prisoner if you like.” But there she broke,
Or choked, and wailed, “O God, it’s life or death!

Oh, soldier, soldier, let me pass the line.”

So John, half desperate, called, “Young lady, come.
I don’t care what the orders are. Come on.”

“Get up,” she slapped again. But then she called:—
“My cow won’t move! She sees you, I suppose,

All armed and threatening in the middle road.
Please go away. Or ride a bit aside;
Perhaps then she’ll come. Yes, now she moves along.
You’ll pass me through?—But are there surgeons there
Where, hours ago, I saw your campfires glow?

If not, I may as well turn back again.”

“No need,” said John. “We’ve got a surgeon there.
But what’s the trouble, Miss? Yourself been hurt?”

“The trouble is I’ve got a soldier here
With desperate wounds—if still alive he be.

Oh, help me save him.” And she broke again.

“Why, Miss,” said Woolston, melting at the heart,
“Was there no surgeon on the Arm’stead Hill
To help your wounded live?”
“No, none,” she said,
“No man remained. At eve the negroes fled,

Or followed close behind the wagon train
He urged, with every soldier, back toward Lee.
We two were left alone. I thought you’d come.
For hours and hours I waited, all in vain.
His life was flowing fast. One chance remained.

We women placed him in our best barouche,
The only vehicle our rearguard spared.
Alone I hitched this cow, the only beast
I kept from rations for our starving men.
I led her here. Oh, soldier, help me soon

To pass your lines, and reach a surgeon’s care.”

Then Custer’s orders flashed again to John;—
“Hold hard one moment, Miss, I’ve got to shoot.”
The carbine rang. “Thank God, that’s done,” said John.
“We’ll wait right here. A surgeon’s sure to come

With Custer’s march, for march I guess he will.
He’ll turn you round, I think, and see you home.
I s’pose your name’s Miss Mary Armistead?
I hope that’s not your General wounded there.”
She could but choke, or weep, and spoke no word.

It seemed long hours they waited silently,
Save once John heard the hidden carriage creak,
And guessed she rose beside the dying man
Beneath the drumlike pattering, sheltering hood.

At last, the bugles blared on Custer’s Ridge.

Then, far away, a lengthening stream of flare
Came round the distant, curtaining screen of pines,
And down the hill the torches, borne on high
By fifteen hundred horsemen, formed a slope
Of flame that moved behind the bugles’ call,

Till on the level road a fiery front
Tossing, yet solid-seeming, walked along.
And in the van rode Custer, beardless, tall,
His long hair dabbled in the streaming rain.

John rode to meet him. There he called the halt,

And came, with twenty torches, round the chaise.

Then first they saw Miss Mary Armistead,
Her honorable, fearless, lifted eyes
Gazing on Custer’s bare and bended head,
While General Henry Tunstall’s countenance,

Supported close within her sheltering arm,
Leaned unto hers in pallid soldier death.
“Madam,” said Custer, “would that I had known
The bravest of the brave lay needing aid.
Lady, the great heroic name he won

Held me from marching onward to your hill,
Held me expecting from him night attack,
Till now in vain we bring a surgeon’s help,—
And words are useless. Yet again I say—
Because a soldier’s heart compels the due—

He lived the bravest of the bravest brave
That ever faced the odds of mighty war.
May God sustain yourself for years and years
The living shrine of Tunstall’s memory.”

She bowed her noble head, but answered naught.

Then past the chariot streamed our wondering men
Behind tall Custer in the foremost front,
Trampling as thunder on the bridging planks,
Their torches gleaming on the swirling Run;
A tossing, swaying column o’er the flat,

A fiery slope of fours abreast the hill,
And on, unresting on, through night and rain,
Remorseless, urgent, yet most merciful,
Because the Nation’s life demanded war,
Relentless, hurrying swift to force an end,

And banish night, and bring a peaceful dawn.

But old John Woolston sees across the years,
Beneath the black, cavernous carriage hood,
Flaring in torchlight, Tunstall’s face of death
Beside a lovely, living, haloed face,

Heroic, calm, ineffably composed
With pride unconquerable in valiant deeds,
With trust in God our Lord unspeakable—
The sainted Woman of the Perished Cause,
The chastened soul of that Confederacy

Which marches on, no less than John Brown’s soul,
Inspiring, calling on the Nation’s heart,
Urging it dauntlessly to front stark death
For what ideals the Nation’s heart holds true.

Straight rain streaks downward through the torches’ flare,

And solemn through the ancient darkness sound
The small, bewildered, lingering, million tones
Of atoms streaming to the eternal sea.

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