[Editor: This poem by Joseph Furphy was published in The Poems of Joseph Furphy (1916).]
The Death of President Lincoln.
December 11th, 1867.
The fleecy clouds had passed away
Before the bright approach of day,
And now the morning’s radiance shines
Upon an Army’s order’d lines,
And light the glancing sunbeams play’d
On bayonet point and sabre-blade.
Slow rolled the ponderous mass along —
A hundred thousand bayonets strong,
And thirty thousand horses prance
Impatient of the slow advance,
While o’er those glittering groves of steel
The striped and coloured spangles reel
And Hail! Columbia! lofty notes
Peel from the trumpets’ brazen throats.
From post to post the generals ride,
The army’s steady march to guide,
And aides fly swiftly o’er the plain
With bloody spur and slacken’d rein;
And far and wide on every side
The hollow trembling earth replied
To those grim legions’ measured stride
On dark Virginia’s shore —
And many a heart bounds high with pride
That soon shall beat no more.
The foe, of far inferior force,
Scarce sixty thousand foot and horse,
Stand watching with undaunted glance
The Federal foeman’s grim advance;
And turn again their hopeful eyes
To where their own loved banner flies —
That flag of tesselated bars,
That on its checks bore seven white stars
Which waved on many a field before
But now, alas! is seen no more:
Its short and bright career is o’er,
Its light was quenched in streams of gore.
Far on the left, where rank on rank,
Kentucky’s footmen held the flank,
A youthful warrior rode alone,
To every Southern soldier known,
For that long falchion by his side
Had turn’d the battle’s doubtful tide
In many a dark and desperate fight
When right still triumphed over might.
His simple dress, undeck’d with lace,
Bore no brigade’s distinctive trace —
’Twas Booth, who long had vow’d to stand
The Champion of his Fatherland;
Unflinching, faithful, firm and fast,
And strike for freedom to the last.
He rode a horse of spotless white,
With ample chest, and limbs of might —
That fiercely strains upon the reins
As, slow advancing o’er the plains,
He marks the Union ranks of grey
And greets them with a furious neigh —
He lists the hollow thundering drum
Which tells him that the time is come
To charge these hostile columns home,
And flashing flakes of feathery foam
Fly from his chafing mouth.
First in the charge’s wild career,
And in retreat the last in rear,
And, first or last, unknowing fear,
That noble beast had not his peer
In all the spacious South.
At once, on centre, left and right,
The loud artillery woke the fight
With round-shot, grape and shell —
And loud the cry of conflict rose
As fiercely now the armies close
And vain it were to tell
How, charging on the cannon’s mouth,
The fiery soldiers of the South
Were midway met in deadly strife,
Where each man fought for death or life
And thousands bled and fell.
Before the Federals charged — ere yet
The heavy armed battalions met
In conflict fierce and dire.
While skirmishers in scatter’d rank,
Extended far on front and flank,
Maintained a dropping fire —
While every ear was bent to hear
Their proud Commander’s word.
To bid them charge at full career
With bayonet and sword.
Booth calmly watched their threatening course
And sternly reined his furious horse.
But when the opening cannon rung
And bugles blew and charged aloud,
His weapon from the scabbard sprung
Like lightning from the thunder-cloud —
And where the bayonets reddest shine
Along the Federals’ charging line —
Where wounded horses wildly leap
Through pools of life-blood fetlock deep —
There his gigantic battle-horse
Swept onward in resistless course.
Round his invulnerable head
His reeking crescent blade,
Still scattering drops of crimson red,
In lightning circles played.
Through fire and smoke the war horse dash’d
Unharm’d by shot or shell,
And where that falling weapon flash’d
A Federal soldier fell.
But Lee, who mark’d with eagle glance
The Federals’ last reserve advance,
Call’d up his veterans grim and grey,
The flower of Southern infantry —
Down where the dark palmettos wave
Ten thousand Carolinians brave
Their double column shows —
Each moment fringed their ranks with flame,
And fast the withering volleys came
Against their flinching foes,
And through the batteries of the North
Their fatal welcome thunder’d forth
In showers of iron rain.
Still fiercer rose their music’s swell
And wilder pealed their battle-yell,
While fast and faster still they fell
As whistling shot and shrieking shell
Clove many a ghastly lane —
And thicker still their bullets came,
And closer deadlier grew their aim,
The Federal lines were heaped with dead
And fast the rising panic spread
Along their wavering force,
Till passing round their left-ward flank
Their own reserve came rank by rank —
New England’s hardy horse
Forth to the front each troop advanced,
Each ready sabre naked glanced,
And every horse’s flank was lanced
And slacken’d every rein —
In charging column firm and deep,
At racing gallop on they sweep
Who seldom charge in vain.
That swift advancing avalanche
Boasts the same spirit stern and stanch
That tamed a haughty tyrant’s pride
And crushed his servile train
On Glorious Marston’s swarthy side
And Naseby’s bloody plain —
The Puritan and Cavalier
Of other days are pitted here.
But well the rifles played their part
For many a steed, shot through the heart
Came headlong to the plain.
And many another kept the ranks
With empty stirrups smote his flanks
Whose rider reeling from his seat,
And trampled neath the horses’ feet,
Might never mount again.
Till, like a sea that bursts its banks
They dash against the bristling ranks
And now through whirling clouds of dust
And surging wreaths of smoke
Is seen the bayonet’s furious thrust
The sabre’s dazzling stroke.
With fearful slaughter backward driven
Their shatter’d columns rent and riven
The cavalry recoil —
A shout of triumph rose to heaven,
And to the Southern ranks is given
Brief respite from their toil.
Again the madden’d horses wheel,
Obedient to the armed heel,
And charging to the bugle’s peal
They rush against the serried steel
With tenfold rage and force —
But as the wave breaks on the rock
That seems its futile rage to mock,
Still stagger’d backward from the shock
The baffled Northern horse.
Five times with spirit unsubdued,
They charged in reckless hardihood
And still the foe his squares made good,
And still the stubborn bayonets stood
With more than spartan fortitude.
And thicker still the ground was strew’d
With many a quivering corse.
Though firmly stood the fearless few,
And proudly still their banner flew
Full well each brave Confederate knew
Another charge would pierce them through
For hollow was the war-like show —
No strength was left to meet the foe,
Their rifles clogg’d, their bayonet bent
And well nigh every cartridge spent.
But Booth has marked their flagging fire
And his fierce frown of battle-ire
Is changing to a look more dire
Like lion turned to bay —
For that fell smile proves one desire,
To slay, and slay, and slay.
Woe to the foe who now presumes
To face his savage wrath
When gallant zouaves and tall dragoons
Lie bleeding in his path;
Whose cloven heads and bosoms gored
Bear witness of his vengeful sword.
Where bristling ranks unbroken frown’d
Like dark grey rocks with breakers crown’d.
What though his sword no havoc made,
His course was but a moment stay’d
For where the riven columns reel
In hopeless dis-array
That slender blade of pliant steel
Cleaves deep its murderous way.
Once more the charging Federals sped
Across the rampart of the dead
To where upon the self-same spot
Where they had fired their deadliest shot
The doomed Confederates calmly wait
The charge which is to seal their fate.
Why need I tell how patriots die?
The tale has often met our eye
Of those with Leonidas
Braved Xerxes’ millions in the pass —
Of Ghebers that disdained to yield
Upon Kadessa’s well fought field —
Of Hasting’s, Saxons, brave and true,
Of the Old Guard at Waterloo.
Despite their valour true and tried
The Southern ranks were scattered wide
The Federals’ shout of victory rose,
While faster rain’d their sabre-blows,
And vain the single bayonet’s force
To check a charger’s rushing course,
And weak the fence of rifle butt
Against the sabre’s sweeping cut —
The after-carnage has begun
And Gettysburg is lost and won.
A few unbroken ranks of war
Still formed around the sevenfold star,
And there regardless of the shot
That played against them fast and hot
And, meeting with the bayonet’s stroke
The charging squadrons’ whirlwind shock
Linked in close phalanx side by side
They fiercely fought and firmly died.
But vainly, one by one, they fell
Around the flag they loved so well
For dark with dust and torn with shot
And stained with many a crimson spot,
The haughty conquerors bear it home
To Washington’s imperial dome.
When Booth had seen the battle lost
And every hope of freedom cross’d
His comrades dead and wounded lie
Or fiercely fighting but to die
He turned his panting horse’s rein
And urged him from that fatal plain;
Nor does that charger flinch or fail
Though fast behind his streaming tail,
The shower of bullets thick as hail
Upon the winter’s piercing gale,
In whizzing tempests came —
But came in vain — the rider’s hand
Still waves the broken battle-brand
And mocks their surest aim.
* * *
Far different sights now meet the eye
Where triumph reigns supreme
Where captured colours hung on high
In shot rent fragments stream
And for the cannon’s boom of fear
And rifles ringing sharp and clear
And soldiers’ dying groans.
Voluptuous music greets the ear
In soft and melting tones,
And for the blinding solar rays
Shed through the battle’s sulphurous haze
The chastened light falls soft and clear
From many a sparkling chandelier
The dreadful civil war is past
America has peace at last,
Her fertile fields shall now no more
With brothers’ blood be stained;
The long and hard fought war is o’er
The dear-bought victory’s gain’d.
The theatre is filled to-night
With soldiers brave and ladies bright
And Lincoln sat in chair of state
And gaily laughed and spoke elate
Surrounded by the wise and great
How could he fear the stroke of fate?
Or dread the final call
Invested with despotic power
By these his courtiers of the hour
He glanced around well pleased to shower
His smiles upon them all.
But forth the young avenger sprung
And loud the death shot rung
Throughout the lofty hall
A thousand eyes have seen the smoke
That from the pistol’s muzzle broke
But Lincoln felt the ball.
And Booth with one triumphant cry
Leapt down upon the stage
And brandishing his weapon high
With thundering voice and flashing cry
He dared the audience rage
“So perish tyrants — there he lies
Who drenched the land with kindred gore
Look on him Minions, trust your eyes;
So perish tyrants evermore.”
Then wildly did the tumult swell
And women shrieked and fainting fell
Who saw that desperate deed:
Sprung many a soldier from his seat
All Lincoln’s friends leapt to their feet
But Booth had reached the open street
Where stood his trusty steed.
But moon and stars now reel and swim
Before his vision, faint and dim
And scarce his saddle could he keep
For not till then he knew his limb
Was shatter’d in his reckless leap.
The courser flew with wings of wind,
But oft the rider looked behind
It seemed as while his flight he held
Dark demons still pursue
Ten thousand fiends triumphant yell’d
Behind him as he flew.
They told him how his dreadful deed
Would never serve his country’s need
But make her bondage worse;
And how his hated victim’s name
Would shine upon the scroll of fame
When his would be a curse.
As through the night he wildly ranged
Those maddening words were hurl’d
“The assassin’s deed has never changed
The history of the world.”
And still before his aching eye
He saw those fatal words on high
Emblazon’d on the starry sky;
And on the darken’d earth they shone
Wherever he might gaze upon,
In characters of red —
That message passed o’er land and sea
Transmitting faith and courage free,
But thrilling him with dread:
And lofty England’s wise’st peer
Has caught it with prophetic ear
And recognized its truth —
And Booth fled on o’er dale and hill
Those thundering words pursuing still
The mad and desperate youth.
And now till welcome death shall bring
Release from pain and fear
Shall that Sybilline sentence ring
For ever in his ear,
Still on he races — onward yet —
His hands are clench’d, his teeth are set,
And, faint with agonizing pain
He sinks upon his horse’s mane
Till the brave beast that bore him well
On many a battle plain,
Spent with his fearful gallop fell
No more to rise again.
The moon hung high upon the sky
And ruled the silent night;
The midnight hour was calm and still
And river, forest, plain and hill
Were bathed in ivory light,
When suddenly a sombre cloud
Eclipsed the moon’s pale face —
The rising tempest moan’d aloud
And blacker grew the inky shroud
That overhung the place.
And Booth lay sleepless on the floor
And sadly thought that never more
He might behold the Southern shore
Before his life would close —
Wrapp’d though he was in mournful thought
Upon the burdened night-wind brought
A coming sound with danger fraught
To him whose life was fiercely sought
By his relentless foes.
At last he started from the ground,
And reached his rifle with a bound;
Full well he knew the fatal sound
For, as it came more near,
The clattering beat of horses’ feet
Rose plainly in his ear
No time for flight, though dark the night
For, closing round on left and right
The dusky figures met his sight —
He raised his rifle then
Full levelled at the leader’s breast,
But ere his hand the trigger press’d
The muzzle sank again —
“Why should another life be shed
In such a fruitless strife,” he said.
But as he spoke six jets of flame
Flash’d redly forth — six bullets came;
Two struck the splintering wall, the rest
Were buried in his dauntless breast.
A lightning’s flash shone broad and bright,
And, by its angry, lurid light,
The troopers gathering round the wall
Their hapless victim saw
His rifle drop, and backward fall
Upon his couch of straw.
Just then the threatening tempest woke,
And loud the rolling thunder broke,
As if the voice of Nature spoke
Against the cruel wrong,
While from the stable’s roof the smoke
Came issuing thick and strong.
Too prisoned in volume pent
The crackling thatch at length gave vent,
And, fierce as bloodhounds on the scent,
To seize their prey the soldiers went,
So vainly had the hero spent
The efforts of his dying hour
To save his body from their power.
With maledictions deep and dire
They dragged him from his bed of fire
His suffering spirit had not pass’d,
Though each pulsation seemed his last;
The scorching fire had left its trace
On his burnt hair and ghastly face,
And paler grew his livid cheek
The while he gathered strength to speak:—
“I ask no mercy at your hands —
I know the law my life demands —
But were existence yours to give
I would not wish one hour to live;
My bleeding country’s race is run
And my avenging work is done —
And when my spirit strays afar
Where Bothwellhaugh and Brutus are
’Twill find, I trust, more mercy there
Than men shall grant my memory here.
But tell my mother how I died —
As I have lived — on Freedom’s side.”
Then steel blue chains of lightning flash’d
And deafening thunder roar’d and crash’d
And rushing raindrops swept and dash’d
Unheeded by them all.
And thus the gallant patriot dies —
And thus he breathes his latest sighs
As on the bloodstained grass he lies
Without a friend to close his eyes
Or sorrow for his fall;
But when a trooper rais’d his foot
And spurned him with his arm’d boot,
The dying warrior changed his place
And drew his mantle o’er his face.
Now let the howling tempest roar
For Booth can feel its force no more;
Now let the captors bend their steel
Against the form that cannot feel
Their tyranny has spent its hour
And Booth is far beyond their power.
* * * * * * *
Above the spot where Lincoln lies
The tall funereal sculptures rise —
And awful is the solemn gloom
That lingers round his stately tomb,
For well the artist’s efforts show
A grateful nation’s pride and woe;
But nobler is the burial place
Where human art has left no trace
And simple wildflowers gently wave
Above the hapless hero’s grave —
Who with devoted heart and hand
Still strove to save his native land,
And failing in his generous aim
Died to avenge her wrongs and shame.
So may his spirit rest in peace
Even while his country’s woes increase;
While pale Columbia mourns her lord,
And poets thus his praise record.
K. B. [Kate Baker] (editor), The Poems of Joseph Furphy, Melbourne: Lothian Book Publishing Co., 1916, page
[Editor: Inserted an apostrophe in “bayonet’s force”, “brothers’ blood”, “Federals’ shout”, “legions’ measured”, “soldiers’ dying”, “squadrons’ whirlwind”, and “trumpets’ brazen”; inserted a comma in “clench’d, his”; removed an apostrophe from “captors’ bend”.]
1) “Peel from” probably should be “Peal from”, although it could be argued that the trumpet’s notes “peeled away” from the trumpet; however, Furphy’s usage of “peal” in two other places in the same poem strongly indicate that the word should be “peal”.
2) “Union ranks of grey” would appear to be a mistake, as, generally speaking, it was the Confederate armies who had grey uniforms, whilst the Union armies had blue uniforms
ball = a ball of lead (i.e. a bullet, as used with old firearms)
Booth = John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865), an American actor who was the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, President of the USA, shooting him at Ford’s Theatre (in Washington, D.C.) on 14 April 1865 (Lincoln died on the following day)
Bothwellhaugh = a reference to James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh (ca.1540-1581), a Scottish rebel, who was the assassin of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, Regent of Scotland, shooting him at Linlithgow (West Lothian, Scotland) on 23 January 1570; Bothwellhaugh was a supporter of Queen Mary, having fought for her in the Marian Civil War (the Scottish civil war fought over the right to the throne of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been imprisoned and forced to abdicate)
Brutus = Marcus Junius Brutus (85 BC-42 BC), a Roman senator, who was an assassin (along with several dozen others) of Julius Caesar, emperor of Rome, stabbing him to death at the Theatre of Pompey complex (Rome) on 15 March 44 BC
career = to move, run, or charge swiftly, especially at full speed (can also mean to rush in an uncontrolled manner)
Cavalier = a supporter of the English monarchy at the time of the English Civil War (1642-1651), in opposition to the Roundheads (supporters of the English Parliament)
cleave = to split, part, or divide, such as by a cutting blow by an axe or sword, especially along a natural line of division, such as along a grain line in a piece of wood; to cut off or sever; to forcefully pass through or penetrate, such as through air, forest, or water (may also mean to adhere, attach, cling, or stick, to someone or something; to be emotionally devoted to someone; to adhere, or follow loyally and unwaveringly, to a person or cause)
clove = past tense of “cleave”
Columbia = the United States of America (derived from Christopher Columbus, the explorer); the United States of America personified as a woman
Confederate = in the context of the American Civil War, a reference to the Confederate States of America (the Southern states)
corse = (archaic) corpse
courser = a swift horse; a charger
dragoon = a heavily armed cavalryman (originally a mounted infantryman)
ere = before (from the Middle English “er”, itself from the Old English “aer”, meaning early or soon)
Federal = in the context of the American Civil War, a reference to the United States of America (the Northern states)
fell = bad, cruel, destructive, fierce, or sinister (as used in the phrase “one fell swoop”)
Lee = Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), a general in the army of the Confederate States of America, who figured prominently during the American Civil War
Leonidas = Leonidas I (ca. 540 B.C. – 480 B.C.), king of Sparta (ca. 490 B.C. – 480 B.C.), famous for being the leader of a small force (of about 300 Spartans, along with several thousand men from other Greek city-states) who fought at the Battle of Thermopylae, in 480 B.C., against the massive invading Persian army of Xerxes I during the Second Persian War
list = (archaic) listen (used in the context of noise or sound)
neath = beneath
oft = often
Puritan = a member of a Protestant movement within the Church of England, in the late 1500s and 1600s, who sought to reform and purify the Church, seeking simplified and more austere forms of worship, with less emphasis on religious iconography and ornate trappings, and with a greater emphasis on religious discipline; during the English Civil War (1642-1651), the Puritans were largely on the side of the Roundheads, i.e. they were supporters of the English Parliament, in opposition to the Cavaliers (supporters of the English monarchy)
shot = lead balls used in antique rifles; pellets of lead contained within a shotgun cartridge; iron or lead projectiles fired from cannons, whether as a single large cannon ball (round shot), or as multiple small pieces, such as canister shot, spherical case shot (shrapnel), or grapeshot (may also refer to: the act of shooting (discharging) of a firearm, crossbow, bow, etc.; the act of being hit with a bullet)
South = in the context of the American Civil War, a reference to the Confederate States of America (may also refer to the Southern states of America in general)
Waterloo = the Battle of Waterloo, a major battle fought on 18 June 1815, near Waterloo, Belgium, between the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and the allied forces of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and several German states, including Prussia; Napoleon was decisively defeated, he abdicated on 22 June 1815
Xerxes = Xerxes I (519 B.C. – 465 B.C.), king of Persia (486 B.C. – 465 B.C.), who mounted a campaign against the Greeks in 480 B.C.
zouaves = light infantry units; during the American Civil War, zouaves used open-order skirmishing tactics rather use the standard closed-order (close-rank) formations
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