Benjamin Bickerstaff: bad to the bone

 

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Benjamin F. Bickerstaff,

better known as “Ben,”

got his start in Sulphur Springs in the Lone Star State.

When the Civil War commenced,

Ben’s kind were incensed

ta’ find out killin’ was their fate.

With well-trained guerrillas

Ben killed the blue-coat fella’s,

an’ found he didn’t mind at all.

So come the end of the war,

with a chance ta’ be poor,

he chose instead ta’ be an outlaw.

He went back ta’ Sulphur Springs

ta’ do his dirty things,

cuz’ he reckoned local folk would protect him.

They were rebel sympathizers,

blue-belly despisers,

an’ would never back a Yankee on a whim.

When Ben met a freed slave

he sent him ta’ the grave,

an’ cared not a bit who knew the fact.

He rounded up near twenty men

ta’ raid supply depots of the Union:

no wish ta’ defend… he chose ta’ attack.

In fair weather or muck an’ mud

they’d steal the wares an’ spill the blood:

they were an itch the Yankees couldn’t scratch.

Losses put the Yanks out of sorts,

so they built-up several forts,

with three full companies ta’ help with the catch.

The local folk stayed mum,

or simply acted dumb,

many were convinced Ben was a hero.

They thought he fought a cause,

an’ gave him their applause,

until they found out Ben was just a zero.

When Yankee pickin’s got harder

he considered himself smarter,

an’ took his gang ta’ the town of Alvarado.

He figured that the bounty

taken from a different county

would not cause local favoritism ta’ go.

He didn’t take into account

when they charged in on their mounts

that the folks in Alvarado had a say.

The citizens were warned,

an’ they came out fully armed,

an’ several rebels bit the dust that day.

He had conned the local folk,

since his “cause” was just a joke,

he had always been in it strictly for the money.

But the locals came out smilin’

when Bickerstaff’s riff-raff were dyin’:

somethin’ they were told sounded funny.

Ben’s criminal prank

was met point-blank,

the blast nearly took off his head.

Double-ought buck ta’ the face

ended Ben’s life in disgrace,

an’ the locals were glad he was dead.

 

© JW Thomas

 

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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.

 

Jack Helm: a lawless lawman

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Jack Helm was a racist S.O.B.

Who wore the grey and favored slavery.

He even did wrong

Over a Yankee song

That a black man whistled with bravery.

 

And when there was no Civil War,

You could find him with a star that he bore

In the great state of Texas

Where he hated the Mex’s,

And everyone else that’s for sure.

 

Helm got caught-up in the Sutton-Taylor feud;

The type of duty that befit his evil mood.

A prime instigator,

He was head regulator,

And the days he didn’t kill he’d sulk and brood.

 

His body count raised his reputation.

The Governor even gave him a new station.

But when deeds come to light

Causing citizen’s fright,

He’s sent back to DeWitt for the duration.

 

John Wesley Hardin was one of Helm’s foes:

A kin to the Taylor’s, or so the story goes.

Several times they met,

Their back-ups vented and wet,

Yet Hardin and Helm escaped the death throes.

 

But in eighteen-seventy-three, in the month of July,

The two evil rivals would have one more try.

Helm came from the rear,

Hardin turned with a sneer,

To blast Helm with buckshot: his day to die.

 

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