Stephen Vincent Benet

(1898 - 1943 / Pennsylvania / United States)

The Congressmen Came Out To See Bull Run - Poem by Stephen Vincent Benet

The congressmen came out to see Bull Run,
The congressmen who like free shows and spectacles.
They brought their wives and carriages along,
They brought their speeches and their picnic-lunch,
Their black constituent-hats and their devotion:
Some even brought a little whiskey, too.
(A little whiskey is a comforting thing
For congressmen in the sun, in the heat of the sun.)
The bearded congressmen with orator's mouths,
The fine, clean-shaved, Websterian congressmen,
Come out to see the gladiator's show
Like Iliad gods, wrapped in the sacred cloud
Of Florida-water, wisdom and bay-rum,
Of free cigars, democracy and votes,
That lends such portliness to congressmen.
(The gates fly wide, the bronze troop marches out
Into the stripped and deadly circus-ring,
'Ave, Caesar!' the cry goes up, and shakes
The purple awning over Caesar's seat.)
'Ave, Caesar! Ave, O congressmen,
We who are about to die
Salute you, congressmen!'
Eleven States,
New York, Rhode Island, Maine,
Connecticut, Michigan, and the gathered West,
Salute you, congressmen!
The red-fezzed Fire-Zouaves, flamingo-bright,
Salute you, congressmen!
The raw boys still in their civilian clothes,
Salute you, congressmen!
The Second Wisconsin in its homespun grey,
Salute you, congressmen!
The Garibaldi Guards in cocksfeather hats,
Salute you, congressmen!
The Second Ohio with their Bedouin-caps,
Salute you, congressmen!
Sherman's brigade, grey-headed Heintzelman,
Ricketts' and Griffin's doomed and valiant guns,
The tough, hard-bitten regulars of Sykes
Who covered the retreat with the Marines,
Burnside and Porter, Wilcox and McDowell,
All the vast, unprepared, militia-mass
Of boys in red and yellow Zouave pants,
Who carried peach-preserves inside their kits
And dreamt of being generals overnight;
The straggling companies where every man
Was a sovereign and a voter-the slack regiments
Where every company marched a different step;
The clumsy and unwieldy-new brigades
Not yet distempered into battle-worms;
The whole, huge, innocent army, ready to fight
But only half-taught in the tricks of fighting,
Ready to die like picture-postcard boys
While fighting still had banners and a sword
And just as ready to run in blind mob-panic,
Salutes you with a vast and thunderous cry,
Ave, Caesar, Ave, O congressmen,
Ave, O Iliad gods who forced the fight!
You bring your carriages and your picnic-lunch
To cheer us in our need.
You come with speeches,
Your togas smell of heroism and bay-rum.
You are the people and the voice of the people
And, when the fight is done, your carriages
Will bear you safely, through the streaming rout
Of broken troops, throwing their guns away.
You come to see the gladiator's show,
But from a high place, as befits the wise:
You will not see the long windrows of men
Strewn like dead pears before the Henry House
Or the stone-wall of Jackson breathe its parched
Devouring breath upon the failing charge,
Ave, Caesar, ave, O congressmen,
Cigar-smoke wraps you in a godlike cloud,
And if you are not to depart from us
As easily and divinely as you came,
It hardly matters.
Fighting Joe Hooker once
Said with that tart, unbridled tongue of his
That made so many needless enemies,
'Who ever saw a dead cavalryman?'
The phrase
Stings with a needle sharpness, just or not,
But even he was never heard to say,
'Who ever saw a dead congressman?'
And yet, he was a man with a sharp tongue.


Comments about The Congressmen Came Out To See Bull Run by Stephen Vincent Benet

  • (5/25/2015 1:00:00 AM)


    People who write and talk about glorious battles and such are usually the ignorant fools who have never worn a uniform or, if they did, were what we called REMS. Some who served know what this term means. There are these same congressmen today, no different than the ones described in this wonderful poem, who will vote to start a war in which they will not fight or assume any risk. Bottom feeders and scum, the lot of them! I am a veteran of the US Navy Hospital Corps. (Report) Reply

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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, March 30, 2010



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