Something for the weekend: Battle Hymn of the Republic. Doubtless many men who fought in the Civil War thought, and dreaded, that the War might go on forever. Now, however, it had ended with Union victory. Some European powers speculated that the United States would now use its vast armies to take foreign territory: perhaps French occupied Mexico, maybe settle old scores by taking Canada from Great Britain, Cuba, held by moribund Spain was certainly a tempting target. But no, the armies had been raised for the purpose of preserving the Union. Now the men in the ranks were eager to get home, and the nation was just as eager to enjoy peace.
One last duty remained however: an immense victory parade in Washington. On May 23, 1865, the 80,000 strong Army of the Potomac marched happily through the streets of Washington on a glorious spring day. For six hours they passed the reviewing stand, where President Johnson, the cabinet, General Grant and assorted civilian and military high brass, received the salutes of, and saluted, the men who had saved the Union. Most of the men had hated the Army, and were overjoyed to be going home, but for the rest of their lives they would remember this day and how all the death and suffering they had endured over the past four years had not been in vain after all. Almost all of them were very young men now, and many of them would live to old age, future generations then having a hard time picturing them as they were now: lean, battle-hardened and the victors of the bloodiest war in the history of their nation. When they died iron stars would be put by their graves, and each Decoration Day, eventually called Memorial Day, flags would be planted by their graves, as if to recall a huge banner draped over the Capitol on this day of days:
“The Only National Debt We Can Never Pay, Is The Debt We Owe To Our Victorious Soldiers.”
Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,
Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come! Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily–
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast.
And, after that, the chunky man from the West,
Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved
As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,
Takes you and uses you as you could be used,
Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.
You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,
But at the last you can trust him. He slaughters you
But he sees that you are fed. After sullen Cold Harbor
They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,
But you have had other butchers who did not win
And this man wins in the end.
You see him standing,
Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.
You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer
But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.
Ulysses is all right. He can finish the job.”
And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review
And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body