Verse > Anthologies > Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. > An American Anthology, 1787–1900
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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908).  An American Anthology, 1787–1900.  1900.
 
407. From “The River-Fight”
 
By Henry Howard Brownell
 
 
WOULD you hear of the River-Fight?
It was two of a soft spring night;—
  God’s stars looked down on all,
And all was clear and bright
But the low fog’s chilling breath—        5
Up the River of Death
  Sailed the Great Admiral.
 
On our high poop-deck he stood,
  And round him ranged the men
Who have made their birthright good        10
  Of manhood, once and again,—
Lords of helm and of sail,
Tried in tempest and gale,
  Bronzed in battle and wreck:
Bell and Bailey grandly led        15
Each his Line of the Blue and Red,
Wainwright stood by our starboard rail,
  Thornton fought the deck.
 
And I mind me of more than they,
  Of the youthful, steadfast ones,        20
  That have shown them worthy sons
Of the Seamen passed away—
Tyson conned our helm that day,
  Watson stood by his guns.
 
What thought our Admiral then,        25
Looking down on his men?
  Since the terrible day,(Day of renown and tears!)
  When at anchor the Essex lay,
  Holding her foes at bay,
When, a boy, by Porter’s side he stood        30
Till deck and plank-sheer were dyed with blood,
    ’T is half a hundred years—
  Half a hundred years to-day!
 
Who could fail with him?
Who reckon of life or limb?        35
  Not a pulse but beat the higher!
There had you seen, by the starlight dim,
Five hundred faces strong and grim—
  The Flag is going under fire!
Right up by the fort, with her helm hard-a-port,        40
  The Hartford is going under fire!
 
The way to our work was plain,
Caldwell had broken the chain
(Two hulks swung down amain, Soon as ’t was sundered).
Under the night’s dark blue,        45
Steering steady and true,
Ship after ship went through,
Till, as we hove in view,
  Jackson out-thundered.
 
Back echoed Philip! ah, then        50
Could you have seen our men,
  How they sprung, in the dim night haze,
To their work of toil and of clamor!
How the loaders, with sponge and rammer,
And their captains, with cord and hammer,        55
  Kept every muscle ablaze!
How the guns, as with cheer and shout
Our tackle-men hurled them out,
  Brought up on the water-ways!
 
First, as we fired at their flash,        60
  ’T was lightning and black eclipse,
With a bellowing roll and crash;
But soon, upon either bow,
  What with forts, and fire-rafts, and ships,
(The whole fleet was hard at it now,        65
All pounding away!) and Porter
Still thundering with shell and morter,
  ’T was the mighty sound and form
  Of an equatorial storm!
 
Such you see in the Far South,        70
After long heat and drouth,
  As day draws nigh to even:
Arching from North to South,
    Blinding the tropic sun,
    The great black bow comes on,        75
  Till the thunder-veil is riven,
  When all is crash and levin,
  And the cannonade of heaven
    Rolls down the Amazon!
 
But, as we worked along higher,        80
  Just where the river enlarges,
Down came a pyramid of fire—
  It was one of your long coal barges
  (We had often had the like before).
’T was coming down on us to larboard,        85
  Well in with the eastern shore,
  And our pilot, to let it pass round,
  (You may guess we never stopped to sound)
Giving us a rank sheer to starboard,
  Ran the Flag hard and fast aground!        90
 
’T was nigh abreast of the Upper Fort,
  And straightway a rascal Ram
  (She was shaped like the devil’s dam)
Puffed away for us with a snort,
  And shoved it with spiteful strength        95
Right alongside of us, to port.
  (It was all of our ship’s length,
A huge crackling Cradle of the Pit,
  Pitch-pine knots to the brim,
  Belching flame red and grim)        100
What a roar came up from it!
 
Well, for a little it looked bad;
    But these things are, somehow, shorter
  In the acting than the telling.
  There was no singing-out nor yelling,        105
  Nor any fussing and fretting,
    No stampede, in short;
But there we were, my lad,
    All afire on our port quarter,
  Hammocks ablaze in the netting,        110
    Flames spouting in at every port,
  Our Fourth Cutter burning at the davit,
  No chance to lower away and save it.
 
In a twinkling the flames had risen
Halfway to maintop and mizzen,        115
  Darting up the shrouds like snakes.
  Ah, how we clanked at the brakes!
    And the deep steam-pumps throbbed under,
    Sending a ceaseless flow.
Our topmen, a dauntless crowd,        120
Swarmed in rigging and shroud—
  There, (’t was a wonder!)
The burning ratlines and strands
They quenched with their bare hard hands;
    But the great guns below        125
  Never silenced their thunder!
 
At last, by backing and sounding,
When we were clear of grounding,
  And under headway once more,
The whole rebel fleet came rounding        130
  The point. If we had it hot before,
  ’T was now, from shore to shore,
  One long, loud thundering roar—
Such crashing, splintering, and pounding,
  And smashing as you never heard before!        135
 
But that we fought foul wrong to wreck,
  And to save the Land we loved so well,
You might have deemed our long gun deck
  Two hundred feet of hell!
 
For all above was battle,        140
Broadside, and blaze, and rattle,
  Smoke and thunder alone;
But, down in the sick-bay,
Where our wounded and dying lay,
  There was scarce a sob or a moan.        145
 
And at last, when the dim day broke,
And the sullen sun awoke,
  Drearily blinking
O’er the haze and the cannon-smoke,
That ever such morning dulls,        150
There were thirteen traitor hulls
  On fire and sinking!
 

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