The Army of Northern Virginia

Furling the Flag

Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part, living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow-pea, the roots of the jessamine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion-chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old clan-fashion.
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a haircloth trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands,
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the campfire-glow, and a drawling mountaineer
Told dirty stories old as the bawdy world,
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge Battery
And two were cavalry generals.
                              Praying army,
Full of revivals, as full of salty jests,
Who debated on God and Darwin and Victor Hugo,
Decided that evolution might do for Yankees
But that Lee never came from anything with a tail,
And called yourselves “Lee’s miserables faintin'”
When the book came out that tickled your sense of romance,
Army of improvisators of peanut-coffee
Who baked your bread on a ramrod stuck through the dough,
Swore and laughed and despaired and sang “Lorena,”
Suffered, died, deserted, fought to the end.
Sentimental army, touched by “Lorena,”
Touched by all lace-paper-valentines of sentiment,
Who wept for the mocking-bird on Hallie’s grave
When you had better cause to weep for more private griefs,
Touched by women and your tradition-idea of them,
The old, book-fed, half-queen, half-servant idea,
False and true and expiring.
                            Starving army,
Who, after your best was spent and your Spring lay dead,
Yet held the intolerable lines of Petersburg
With deadly courage.
                    You too are a legend now
And the legend has made your fame and has dimmed that fame,
–The victor strikes and the beaten man goes down
But the years pass and the legend covers them both,
The beaten cause turns into the magic cause,
The victor has his victory for his pains–
So with you–and the legend has made a stainless host
Out of the dusty columns of footsore men
Who found life sweet and didn’t want to be killed,
Grumbled at officers, grumbled at Governments.
That stainless host you were not.  You had your cowards,
Your bullies, your fakers, your sneaks, your savages.
You got tired of marching.  You cursed the cold and the rain.
You cursed the war and the food–and went on till the end.
And yet, there was something in you that matched your fable.
What was it?  What do your dim, faint voices say?
“Will we ever get home?  Will we ever lick them for good?
We’ve got to go on and fight till we lick them for good.
They’ve got the guns and the money and lots more men
But we’ve got to lick them now.
                               We’re not fighting for slaves.
Most of us never owned slaves and never expect to,
It takes money to buy a slave and we’re most of us poor,
But we won’t lie down and let the North walk over us
About slaves or anything else.
                              We don’t know how it started
But they’ve invaded us now and we’re bound to fight
Till every last damn Yankee goes home and quits.
We used to think we could lick them in one hand’s turn.
We don’t think that any more.
                             They keep coming and coming.
We haven’t got guns that shoot as well as their guns,
We can’t get clothes that wear as well as their clothes,
But we’ve got to keep on till they’re licked and we’re independent,
It’s the only thing we can do.
                              Though some of us wonder–
Some of us try and puzzle the whole thing through,
Some of us hear about Richmond profiteers,
The bombproofs who get exempted and eat good dinners,
And the rest of it, and say, with a bitter tongue,
‘This is the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.’
And more of us, maybe, say that, after a while,
But most of us just keep on till we’re plumb worn out,
We just keep on.
                We’ve got the right men to lead us,
It doesn’t matter how many the Yankees are,
Marse Robert and Old Jack will take care of that,
We’ll have to march like Moses and fight like hell
But we’re bound to win unless the two of them die
And God wouldn’t be so mean as to take them both,
So we just keep on–and keep on–“
                                   To the Wilderness,
To Appomattox, to the end of the dream.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body



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