Maurice Thompson

An Incident Of War

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Our new flagbearer, pale and slim,
A beardless youth of quiet mien,
Much chaffed at by old soldiers grim
(Before in battle he had been),
Hid the heroic fire in him.

He sang old hymns and prayed at night;
"A bad sign," quoth the sergeant bold,
"Camp-meeting tunes before a fight
Loosen a soldier's moral hold,
And pluck beats prayer a mighty sight."

The boy blushed red, but tenderly
He to the sergeant turned and said:
"That God should mind me what am I?
And yet by Him my soul is fed--
Send this to mother if I die."

The sergeant, with a knowing look,
And winking at the rest, replied:
"Yes, son, I'll give your ma the book"--
Just then a volley rattled wide
And one great gun the valley shook.

The pale flagbearer disappeared.
"Gone to the rear," the sergeant said;
"Praying would make a Turk afeared;
Those lonesome tunes have turned his head"--
And then the tide of battle neared.

We formed in haste and dashed away,
Across the field, our place to fill;
At first a skirmish, then a spray
Of cannon smoke upon a hill
Flanked by long lines in close array.

Down charged the foe; we rushed to meet,
We filled the valley like a sea,
The cannons flashed a level sheet
Of blinding flame, the musketry
Cut men as sickles cut the wheat!

Oh, then we shouted! More and more
The fervor of our courage rose,
As through our solid columns tore
The death hail's crashing, gusty blows,
And louder leaped the cannon roar!

But how could human courage meet
That icy flood? All, all in vain
Our counter charge; in slow retreat
We crossed the tumbled heaps of slain,
With grave-pits yawning at our feet!

"Rally! For shame!" rang out a cry
Forth from the thundering vortex cast;
A voice so steady, clear, and high,
It sounded like a bugle-blast
Blown from the lips of victory.

We paused, took hope, yelled loud, and so
Renewed the charge, all as one man,
Leaped where Death's waves had thickest flow,
And felt the breath of horror fan
Our naked souls as cold as snow!

The volleys quickened, coalesced,
Rolled deep, rocked earth and jarred the sky,
When lo! our banner bearer pressed
His standard forward, held it high
And rode upon the battle's crest.

We saw him, wave it over all;
Caught in the battle trough and dashed
From side to side, it would not fall;
But like a meteor danced and flashed
And reveled in the sulphurous pall!

We swept the field and won the hill;
Our flag flared out upon the crest,
Where wavering, gasping, pale and chill,
A dozen bullets through his breast,
The slender hero held it still!

We leaped to lift his drooping head,
The sergeant clasped him to his breast;
"I bore the flag," the low voice said,
"And God bore me, now let me rest,"
And so we laid him with the dead.

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Maurice Thompson