Review of “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” by Walt Whitman

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“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” is a Walt Whitman poem in the Drum Taps section of Leaves of Grass. Ironically, the section begins with a poem called “First O Songs for a Prelude” which deals with a different kind of march – the patriotic pep-talk inspiring and praising the quick response to take up arms and go to war. But as the reader traverses Whitman’s poetic fare in this section the ebullient flag waving gives way to the somber realities the author would experience or observe. Although Whitman was educated, older than many in uniform, and dealt with the wounded, his personality and writing style favored the common man. After all, he still aspired to be and maintain the position of America’s Poet.

While reading this poem I had no trouble imagining Whitman, while working with the wounded, observing a slew of platoon buddies seeking news of fallen friends, or seeing the newbies drawn to the carnage as if receiving a christening before their baptism under fire. And Whitman, always the writer, could not help but empathize and imagine himself in their shoes.

“A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and a Road Unknown” places the reader into the mind of an average soldier in the Civil War. Like most common troops this young man endures the drudgery, the forced marches from one unknown location to another. The body wearying travel is usually only broken-up with momentary rest periods, or battle preparation followed by skirmish after skirmish – until the brass, on one side or the other, decides they have had enough loss at this location and sends them to another before confronting the enemy again.

The soldier marches with the column in darkness. This time they are the ones in retreat: “Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating.” And retreats are often made under the cover of darkness, and usually throughout the night with only momentary stops. It is during one of those brief halts that this poem primarily focuses on. They draw toward, then rest beside a large church, dimly lit, that is now a makeshift field hospital.

The soldier knows it will be a brief stop, but he is drawn to the “impromptu hospital,” and he sees “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made.” It is one of those experiences no one ever thinks about during the rally ‘round the flag speeches when seeking volunteers to recruit. And I have no doubt that Whitman experienced the pride of patriotism shown in the beginning Drum Taps collection, just as he experienced a change after witnessing the savagery of war. Yet each individual deals with it in their own manner. Some, usually the newbies, have an innocent morbid curiosity. Others have an intense compassion for their fellow man. And still others will not be caught dead around a hospital (unless wounded). Whitman, however, always seems to portray a sense of compassion during these somber encounters:

“At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding

to death, (he is shot through the abdomen).

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the younster’s face is white as a lily).”

And instead of blocking out the scene this soldier wants to see it all: to remember it. And I cannot help but feel that a similar event evoked those feelings in Whitman during his war experience. The curiosity of the writer is so clear in the following passage:

“Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all.”

And the scene he describes is not eye-candy; it is human horror, a living nightmare. And this nightmare cannot be contained – not even within the church (such an iconic symbol used in the contrasting reality).

“The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d.

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the

death-spasm sweating.”

This soldier takes it all in. He does not shield his eyes or turn away.

Is Whitman merely recalling personal experience? Or is Whitman still keen on being the poetic voice of America? After all, how does a young country evoke change if it is not willing to confront its problems head-on, with eyes wide open?

The problems facing the Nation at this time were especially hard because they turned brother against brother. It was a solemn duty, a responsibility, to get America back on track. But the outcome was impossible to predict in the initial stages of the war. And Whitman shows us in the use of metaphor. After the soldier takes in the harsh reality, the rest period is over; it is time to resume the march:

“Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in;

But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.”

Like the soldier, the Nation was marching on an unknown road: it marched against itself, and even the best possible outcome would create a rift between the warring states that would require generations to heal.

 

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Kate Bender and her felonious family: America’s first serial killers

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The “Bloody Benders” were a hell of a family

They spent part of their lives on a killing spree

Sister Kate the attraction

With victims a distraction

A cold-blooded flirting; but their death not a fantasy

 

Pa “Bill” was the head of this fiendish clan

By all accounts he was a mountain of a man

Fathered John, a dumb son

Yet both killed for fun

And a means to prosper in their adopted new land

 

Eleven travelers at their Kansas inn waylaid

Hammer to skulls and slit throats was how the corpses were made

Then stripped and robbed in the cellar

By accomplice kin of the killer

And buried in Ma’s garden where they finally stayed

 

A percentage who care for this sort of bloody history

Prefer to keep the Bender’s fates shrouded in mystery

Cuz’ justice wasn’t served by the courts

All we have are three reports

Of vigilante justice by the vengeful hands of a posse

 

Colonel York was the brother of the Bender’s last kill

He swore that he would see all Bender’s sent to hell

A much deserved fate

They even burned Kate

So say posse members who threw their bodies down a well

 

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Outlaw Dick Fellows has no horse sense

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They say “there’s no accountin’ fer’ taste.”

Perhaps it’s the same fer’ brains.

Like choosin’ a horse bearin’ criminal path

while unable ta’ control the reigns.

Dick Fellows was just such a fool,

though others would claim he was wiley.

Yet the mistakes he had made were of such a low grade

he would admit them quite rare, an’ then only shyly.

Assault an’ a robbery had bought him some time,

an’ the place he was sent was San Quentin.

Though the time that he got was cut rather short

on account of the faith he was hintin’.

He acted quiet pious, an’ bowed ta’ his knees,

then quoted a verse here an’ there.

A jailhouse conversion of the first magnitude,

with a personal testimony ta’ share.

Well, Governor Booth got wind of the change,

“let’s cut that poor Fellows some slack.”

So they unlocked the shackles an’ set Fellows free,

but the guards, they knew he’d be back.

He weren’t much of a worker, but wished ta’ be rich,

so to crime once more he did turn.

Yet ta’ rob a stagecoach he needed a horse,

but horses caused his innards ta’ churn.

Fellows went ta’ the livery ta’ rent a cayuse,

then sought a Wells Fargo stage he did fancy.

But on the way ta’ the hold-up, the ridden got wind of the rider,

an’ the spirited horse became antsy.

It bucked an’ it reared an’ threw Fellows down,

then ran off back ta’ the livery.

The timing now off, the first got away,

he switched targets fer’ the second delivery.

The Bakersfield stage he got ta’ hold-up,

then realized he forgot vital tools.

He could not break the locks so he carried the box.

How foolish ta’ forget all the rules.

The second horse then took off like the first,

leavin’ Fellows ta’ hump his own load.

But he’d gone this far, so carry he would,

just hopin’ he’d got him some gold.

So he shouldered the box, an’ walked in the dark,

then took a near twenty foot fall.

Down the number five tunnel of the Southern Pacific,

where he broke his leg an’ wanted ta’ bawl.

He drug himself ta’ a Chinaman’s tent,

an’ he found an axe ta’ steal.

Made himself a crutch, then chopped open the box,

“Eighteen-hundred, my God, what a deal!”

He then limped along ta’ the Fountain Ranch,

where he stole himself a new horse.

Then made his way ta’ an abandoned shack,

where he was arrested by detectives, of course.

Fer’ the crime he committed the verdict came down,

eight long years he must do.

Though the very next day Fellows could not be found,

a tunnel in the floor he went thru.

He stole one more horse, but had similar luck,

the law caught him before he could run.

Shipped him straight ta’ San Quentin, the guards had been right,

he was back there under the gun.

He was freed in five years, instead of the eight,

but quickly forewent honest means.

So he held-up a stage an’ got clean away,

but with only ten dollars in his jeans.

Well, he tried it again, but it was worse than before,

the cash box contained a mere letter.

Then the third attempt, after waitin’ some time,

had a similar outcome, not better.

Less than a year from the time of his release

back behind bars he did go.

He was sentenced ta’ life, at Folsom this time,

yet he escaped once more, don’t ya’ know:

though he hadn’t learned nothin’ in all his attempts,

as he mounted an’ grabbed up the reigns.

The horse bucked him off, the lawmen did scoff,

cuz’ once more the horse showed all the brains.

© JW Thomas

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A Man is a Man by His Actions

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I’m a boy from the slums where livin’ is rough

Fought daily for survival, you’ve got to be tough

One on one is expected, but one against many is too

Arise and keep swingin’ or they’ll walk all over you

 

If you can’t take a fall and quickly bounce back

You’ll never earn respect, and they’ll never cut you slack

You learn to be ruthless, when ruthless is called for

But don’t let it change you, not deep in your core

 

Being ruthless is not the same as being mean

It’s taking others down, but keepin’ it clean

Purely for self-defense or in defense of others

Continue to respect life: fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers

 

From slums to foreign soil when fightin’ for “Uncle Sam”

For freedom and G.I. brothers… fuck the political flim-flam

Busted and bloody, but I returned standing tall

But don’t give me no praise, give it to those who gave all

 

Dad said, “A man is a man by his actions

not from his years on Earth;

he sweats courage and bleeds honor

and guards integrity for all it’s worth”

Dad in Navy

The Curse

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Our kids are outside, the snowballs are flying

Next to the woods where someone is dying

Then rushing of leaves

And thunderous heaves

Before a grizzly growl sent them scurrying and crying

 

The wind, rather chilly, was rustling through trees

But the howling they heard left the kids with knock-knees

A horror to behold

With a heart that’s stone cold

Comes a werewolf so mean it even repels fleas

 

Out of the tree-line and into the clearing

With eyes that are soulless, hate-filled, and leering

Fur covered in crud

And fangs dripping blood

Driven with bloodlust that’s painful and searing

 

The fear is bone-chillin’ for daughter and son

With but one thought between them, get home on the run

Then our son and our daughter

Let go of their water

While yelling for Daddy to bring out the big gun

 

The gun is Old Betsy; I’ve had her for years

A masculine heirloom that was blood bought with tears

When Granny Bigbooty

Was doing her duty

And saw her death coming in the reflection of mirrors

 

She’d been warned of a curse in our family tree

She gave it no thought—just an old fantasy

A human-type wolf

Conjecture—no proof

Till feasting on her flesh like a delicacy

 

I grabbed up Old Betsy and chambered a shell

I had but one thought, send the creature to hell

I took careful aim

At our family’s shame

And then pulled the trigger, intent on the kill

 

Old Betsy erupted with buckshot through fire

Saw blood from the beast, its condition is dire

The pellets were Sterling

Hit the beast while still twirling

Next to me it falls down in the muck and the mire

 

The crisis is over, our children are saved

With a tale to tell, and boy how they raved

So I hid the fear

That the curse was still here

I was nicked by the fangs; and blood I now craved

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Alferd Packer the cannibal tracker

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Alferd Packer, aka Alfred,

alias John Schwartze,

earned his claim ta’ infamy

as a mountain guide ta’ greenhorns.

Born in Colorado,

with only a smidge of education,

he grew up rude an’ crude,

an’ all humanity he did scorn.

At first he tried prospectin’,

he survived by eatin’ game,

but skills fer’ findin’ precious metal

had never lived within his brain.

He was good at drinkin’ courage,

he could talk down tenderfeet,

but when push came ta’ shove

he would crack under the strain.

In the early eighteen-seventies,

a miner struck it rich,

which brought a heap a’ dreamers

ta’ the mountains of Utah.

Yet most who came ta’ prospect

were as poor as Packer at it,

they all dreamed of bein’ Big Chiefs,

but they labored like a squaw.

In the Fall of seventy-three

Packer changed his way of thinkin’,

instead of scratchin’ dirt

he would snatch from those who would.

He conned nineteen Eastern lillies

into acceptin’ him as guide,

an’ they set out in a Winter,

at a time when no one should.

It was record breakin’ cold,

an’ the game it went ta’ ground,

so all these would-be miners had

was carried on their backs.

The days turned into weeks,

an’ the weeks they took their toll,

an’ Packer could not perform

like the lies he told in shacks.

When the food ran out the party barked,

an’ Packer acted squirrely;

he was lost, an’ he knew it,

but he wanted his commission.

A stroke of luck while trekking long,

to a friendly tribe they came;

so with a full belly Packer thought

he’d go back ta’ his ambition.

Chief Ouray, with wisdom wrought

from survivin’ many winters,

told the men ta’ turn back now,

or you’ll not survive til Spring.

The prospectin’ party had a parlay,

an’ ten did see the wisdom;

what good is silver, or of gold,

if ta’ life they couldn’t cling?

A loud-mouthed braggert, Packer was,

he mocked the ten fer’ quittin’,

but all he really cared about

was the money he would lose.

Salt Lake City was not an option,

Packer knew he could not go back;

back there his debts were high an’ wide,

an’ this grubstake was all he could use.

So off they tredged within the storm,

ta’ find within a few weeks,

the very same dire consequence

that had made them desparate before.

Then bickerin’ became the norm,

the party it split again,

to the Los Pinos Indian Agency:

the number ta’ go would be four.

The weather was bad,

the directions not good,

only two men ended up where they should:

an’ that’s after days in the blizzard.

They were gaunt, they were stringy,

they looked like Death come a walkin’,

an’ both were so hungry

 they’d be happy ta’ eat a lizzard.

Though as bad as it was

it coulda’ been worse,

they coulda’ remained with Packer,

like Swan, Humphreys, Noon, Miller, an’ Bell.

Off in the frozen beyond,

in an’ abandoned trapper’s cabin,

they ate their last meal

an’ laid down ta’ fight the chill.

From nineteen men ta’ five,

Packer saw his profit dwindlin’,

so he swore it was the end,

an’ took action ta’ see it thru.

Single-shots ta’ the heads

of all but Miller,

who awoke from the sounds

an’ arose fer’ a fight.

But alas, he was weak

an’ disoriented,

an’ Packer caved in his skull:

a ghastly sight.

Then thru the pockets

an’ packs he did go,

no food did they have,

just thousands in cash.

Yet that wouldn’t do,

he quickly surmised,

an’ the obvious

came in a flash.

With knife in hand

he cut an’ he sliced,

an’ filled his pack

with meat from the men.

A matter of taste,

man breast was his liking;

he judged it quite good,

as he swallowed his sin.

Though at civilization’s door

he would toss the remainder away,

an’ play the last survivor role

fer’ at least a country minute.

He then spent freely

from what he stole,

an’ the wise began ta’ wonder,

an’ Packer knew he stuck his foot in it.

But the biggest ‘damn’ was yet ta’ come,

indians found them on the way in:

the human jerky he tossed away

this time came ta’ bite him.

The jig was up,

his lies unfold,

he would show the law

where the story turned grim.

Yet even then he tried ta’ lie,

ta’ claim it was self-defense;

but with four in bed, with shots ta’ head,

it easily broke that spell.

We’ll take ya’ back an’ do it right

the law dogs quoted sternly,

but these five souls will never rest

til yer’ shit deep in hell.

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© JW Thomas

Hang the Archer Gang

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The Archer Gang was a set of four brothers,

Who took after the Reno’s and a slew of others.

Their reign of crime

Spanned decades of time

And they share the blame with moral-less fathers and mothers.

 

The Archers robbed stagecoaches, travelers, and trains.

Then they hid among kin like wheat among grains.

The Dalton’s and James,

The Fords and other lames,

Had similar families with outlaw-like brains.

 

They played the “good neighbor” until money ran low,

Then they grabbed pistols and shotguns and got up to go.

They roamed far and wide

To fleece others then hide,

But their years of success just darkened each soul.

 

After years on the run a mad posse came callin’.

And when their women-folk heard they all started bawlin’.

Tom, John, and Mort,

Vigilantes did abort

With nooses ’round necks that sparked caterwaulin’.

 

The youngest brother Sam made it to trial,

And was quickly convicted and lost his smug smile.

A noose was soon fetched

And Sam’s neck was stretched,

And the townsfolk commenced to party awhile.

 

History shows the Archer Gang had one of the longest crime waves.

But the end was the same: it sent them to their graves,

Where the outlaw soul

Has one place to go,

To Hell’s deepest hole with the volcanic caves.

 

© JW Thomas