Posting atop the hill beyond the field
in rain so thick he barely saw the bodies,
the General tilted back his hat and sat,
shaking his head. His horse shifted a foot
and whinnied, a grazing wound across its haunch
still oozing blood, an equine service stripe
its tail would whip to chase away the flies.

The cannon silent, Lee’s army now withdrawn,
the residue of those three days now lay,
their arms, if still attached, askew, their legs
apart or vanished, their uniforms wet gray
with stains across the chest or back or thighs,
their heads thrown back, their mouths in some surprise,
more rows and heaps of tangled dead than Meade
had ever seen. Twenty-five thousand sprawled
below and all around the Round Tops’ heights,
most of them Lee’s, but many of his own.
A crowd of privates walked among these dead,
searching every body for a trace
of names to register their bloody passing.

Beside Meade’s mount, a splintered oak stood stripped
by bullets of its leaves, its roots exposed
by craters opened up by mortars or
by cannon balls. He’d heard a few whiz by
his ears that afternoon before the end,
but comforted by knowing that just one
would separate his body into shreds
as if a god with tiger claws had ripped
apart his skin and bones, he hadn’t moved
except to cross behind the crouching men
then decimating Pickett’s line of charge.
He knew the reasons why, but hadn’t time
to offer philosophical resolve
to badly bloodied troops, nor for the mother
of one dead boy from Boston, a neighbor’s son,
for whom he’d have to write a dreaded letter
when decision had been reached for hot pursuit.

A Colonel in the cavalry rode up,
his right arm splinted and his left eye patched.

“We did it, sir!”
________________And Meade nodded his head,
taking the simple words as cue to wheel,
salute the man, and canter off the hill.
But met on this great battlefield of war,
would words satisfy the mothers, wives
and children they had done in? Doubting that,
he frowned, knowing he had poor power to add
or detract from what the Civil War had brought
to make the little town of Gettysburg
a final resting place for those brave men
who thought they brought the best of life
to battle for a cause already lost.

Of course the world would long remember,
and hold the dead responsible for acts
of politicians, as heroes of the North,
or villains of the South, but who had sent them,
commanding to death these fragile, boyish lives?
What policy commanded life and death?
But Meade didn’t want to dwell on that;
what wailing would he miss he hadn’t heard
in this grim victory that chased the Grays
back south toward homes that Blues would soon be burning?

A battered march of wounded crossed his path,
all rebel boys under a careless guard
who shouted “your eyes right” as Meade went by,
snapping a quick salute to all of them,
but staring down at mangled teenage boys
whose beards were mostly powder burns and mud,
whose uniforms were torn and matted brown,
and in whose hollow, haunting eyes he saw
exhaustion, grief and most of all deep fear.
How many bragged before the battle started
of all the Yankees they would kill, recruits
in boyish shouts, the veterans in rage
at what they must have known would soon occur?
All soldiers’ stories have the same hard ring
that sounds above the empty well of death;
he knew they whispered them as he rode by.
And, though he couldn’t hear a word, he felt
a tear welling, and wanted to step down
and speak to each of them as to his own,
speak of a future won, the unfinished work
that someone, pointing to this hallowed ground,
could dedicate to memories of the dead.

But he held back, taking a breath instead,
and spurred his horse onward until he reached
the headquarters tent, where Lincoln stood outside
under a stovepipe hat, waiting to hear
of victory, but sober as a preacher
who’d found the other side of marriage vows
was that dark space where spouses lay in peace.

 

Arthur Mortensen has been published in Sparrow, Poetry Nottingham, Blue Unicorn; American Arts Quarterly; Ekphrasis; The Lyric; Trinacria; Orbis; Pennsylvania Review, and others, with poems forthcoming in The Dark Horse, Pennsylvania Review and Chronicles. He has published three books: A Disciple After the Fact; A Life in The Theater; Why Hamlet Waited So Long. A chapbook from the 90s, Relics of the Cold War, was performed as a play by the Medicine Show Ensemble in New York

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3 Responses

  1. David Hollywood

    A wonderful epic poem requiring of being delivered and enacted and emphasised!

    Reply
  2. Wilbur Dee Case

    You are at the edge of great, narrative, dramatic power. I enjoy the occasional pictoral [sic] detail, “still oozing blood, an equine service stripe/ its tail would whip to chase away the flies…” and rhetorical gambits, “Beside Meade’s mount, a splintered oak stood stripped/ by bullets of its leaves, its roots exposed/ by craters opened up by mortars or/ by cannon balls.”

    Reply

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