My war hero … and a classic poem

Frederick Nathaniel Ball
My great grandfather was wounded at the Battle Cedar Creek. If he had not survived, I wouldn’t be here.

Through accidents of timing and draft lotteries, the last person in my direct line to fight in a war was my paternal great grandfather, Frederick Nathaniel Ball.

His last battle happened to be memorialized in a famous poem. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.

Frederick was a Yankee. He was just a young man from Connecticut, who found himself serving in Colonel Phillip Sheridan’s Union Army during some of the most decisive action of the Civil War.

Sheridan’s orders were to take Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in order to stop the Confederates from using it as a base for attacks into the North. He was further ordered to render it useless as a source of provision for the Southern army.

This meant commandeering livestock, destroying railroads, burning barns, mills, and crops. Sheridan executed his orders so thoroughly the campaign was called “The Burning” by Southerners.

The scorched earth tactics used by Sheridan foreshadowed the more extensive March to the Sea through Georgia by Gen. William T. Sherman.

The turning point in the Shenandoah Campaign came at the battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864.

The battle started out as a complete rout by the Southern troops. The Yankees had been surprised at dawn by Jubal Early’s Confederate veterans.

Sheridan was returning from Washington and had spent the night in Winchester, several miles away from the front. When his troops were attacked, he heard the artillery, and raced on his horse to get to the fight.

Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek
Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek

Legend has it that Sheridan arrived just in time to rally his soldiers and turn the tide. This legend was amplified in a heroic poem by Thomas Buchanan Read called “Sheridan’s Ride.” The poem helped made Sheridan a hero in the North, and is even said to have helped Lincoln win re-election.

My great grandfather was right in the thick of this battle, and his experience has served as both a point of pride — and a cautionary tale — in my family down through the decades.

As the story has been handed down, Frederick was shot through his side. He stuffed a rag in the bullet hole to staunch the bleeding and managed to crawl back to safety. In this time before antibiotics, the odds of surviving a serious war wound was not great.

Frederick was one of the lucky ones.

In a few months the war would be over. He would head west to seek better prospects and cheaper farmland in Iowa. He married, raised a big family, which included my grandfather. Eventually the tribe drifted down into Missouri.

I can still remember my parents taking the book “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” down from the shelf and reading classics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley, and Eugene Field.

And whenever we came to Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem, my father would repeat the story about our ancestor who was on the scene, and who survived. As he said, “if that Rebel soldier had been an better shot, none of us would be here.”

My taste in poetry has changed a bit since those days when I sat enthralled listening my father read Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem. But it’s a good example of a panegyric ode and it tells a rip-roaring good tale.

Here, for your edification, is the complete text of “Sheridan’s Ride.” They just don’t write poems like this anymore!

Sheridan’s Ride
by Thomas Buchanan Read

Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.

Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart’s desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.

The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?-a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, ‘mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’

Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
‘Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester-twenty miles away!’

Advertisements

More Haiku from Hawaii

Maui  sunset
“Don’t you wish it could be like this always?”

My recent Hawaii trip sent me back to the files digging through old poems.  As I mentioned yesterday, being in Hawaii puts me in a haiku state of mind.  Here are a few from previous trips to Hawaii.

More Hawaii Haiku

Sometimes don’t you wish
It could be like this always?
Mai tais at sunset!

Odor of mildew,
Shelves too full and disheveled.
Bookstore in Hilo.

Excited by blurs,
Amateur astronomers.
Cold night on Kea.

One night we visited a cousin of our friends on the Big Island. Our friend’s cousin had married a woman from Polynesia. His mother-in-law was the first to greet us, coming out of her garden. I was struck by the similarities of simple country folk, wherever they come from.

Hands full of basil,
The woman greets visitors,
So like my mother.

While we were at Hilo, a strong storm blew in from the northeast, with wonderfully big waves.  At first we watched the waves from a home safely atop a high cliff overlooking the sea.

Orion rising
To merry clinking glasses.
The night of big waves!

We drove down to a seaside park for a closer look. Then, an especially large wave came …

When you dared the wave,
It came, all right, making us
Climb trees like monkeys.

One adventure involved a very long hike through the Kilauea volcano park. It was like another world.

Lava and cinder,
Much more than I’d imagined,
Lava and cinder.

Japanese women
Warming themselves by steam vents
Of Kilauea.

Something about Hawaii and haiku

I tried to buy poems at the Haiku Marketplace, but none were for sale.
No haiku for sale here

Whenever I go to Hawaii, I fall into a haiku mood.

Not sure if it is the Japanese influences there, or if it’s all in my head, but I start thinking in short bursts.

Frankly, between the sun and the water and the tropical drinks, it’s a wonder I write anything at all. Maybe 5-7-5 is all I can muster in such taxing conditions.

Here are a few from my recent trip to Maui:

Hawaii Haiku

At Haiku Marketplace, Maui
Tried to buy poems
But they weren’t selling any.
False advertising.

Torpid Maui days
Lazy, languorous, and slow.
Kiss writing good-bye.

Give Maui credit
As for my wife, I must say,
She looks younger here.

Kapu is kaput,
The old gods are long banished.
You wonder who lurks.

So long Hawaii
Sure hate to leave your warm sun.
I have things to do.

Invite a poet to give your next commencement speech

Poet Mary Karr stands a delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University
Poet Mary Karr stands and delivers an awesome graduation address at Syracuse University

Poet Mary Karr recently delivered the most awesome commencement speech ever.

Not that this is a category with a lot of tough competition. I cannot say I can remember anything from any commencement address I’ve ever heard.

One exception: Sen. Thomas Eagleton spoke at my high school graduation and told us impatient about-to-be-hippies-and-rebels to “work for change, but work within the system.” Advice we promptly went out and ignored.

Likely the only reason I remembered this: a couple of years later George McGovern picked Eagleton to be his vice presidential running mate in the 1972 election.

When the press dredged up records that Eagleton had been treated for depression McGovern declared he stood behind his running mate “1000 percent.” But a couple of days later Democrat party leaders got to McGovern and convinced him that Eagleton was a big liability, the idealistic McGovern dropped him.

Working within the system didn’t really wok out for Eagleton all that well. Or for McGovern. He went on to get trounced by Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history.

Commencement speeches are notorious for bland bomfoggery and inane clichés.

I can’t even remember who spoke at my college commencement. Likewise for any other graduations I’ve attended as a guest.

But I’ll wager that the Syracuse class of 2015 and their loved ones will long remember Mary’s little talk.

She ends her speech with a tribute to her mentor and benefactor from her own undergraduate days, Professor Walter Mink, of Macalester College. She says he inspired her to teach college. But he did much more. A generous and wise man, Mink could see into the souls of his students and give them what they needed.

Professor Walter Mink
Professor Walter Mink

In Mary’s case, Mink and his wife gave her understanding and encouragement until she began to find her way.  (In Mary’s third installment of her memoir series, Lit, she details the many remarkable kindnesses lavished on her by the Minks, ranging from outfitting this poor Texas girl with warm clothes to withstand the bitter Minnesota winters to persuading her to get counseling.)

In the speech, Mary tells an interesting anecdote about a physiological psychology class taught by Mink. During my time at Mac, which overlapped with Mary’s I took that same class. Professor Mink was a wonderful teacher and a compassionate man.

(He was so beloved that three of his students formed a punk rock band and named their group “Walt Mink.”  He was that inspiring.)

One of our major lab assignments that semester was to implant electrodes in the brain of a lab rat. The plan was to stimulate various parts of the brain with electric current and record the behavior.

Each team of students was given a rat. I named mine Sparky. We had to do all of the prep on the rat ourselves, which meant giving the rat a shot to anesthetize it. (I’m deathly afraid of needles.) When the rat was safely numb and groggy, we were to secure its head in a device that closely resembled a toy vise grip.

Then came the fun part.

We were to use a scalpel to slice open the rat’s scalp, pry back the skin, and then drill tiny holes through the skull to create access points for the electrodes. I didn’t realize that the skull of a rat is only about as thick as an egg shell.

So, as I was drilling away, the bit broke through the skull and sank deep into the poor creature’s brain. Poor Sparky. His brain certainly got stimulated!

As his little arms and legs were jerking back and forth in a seizure, Dr. Mink rushed over assuring me that the rat could not feel a thing and that he would be okay. He extracted the drill and helped me patch up Sparky and get the electrodes properly implanted, the mounting glued to the skull, and the scalp sewn up around the mount.

But poor Sparky never was quite right. Our brain experiments on him produced some very strange results that semester.

Let’s just say I quickly discovered I was not created to do anything remotely medical, or anything requiring fine motor skills.

But I want to make it very clear: I was NOT Mary Karr’s lab partner. If you read her speech, you’ll understand why I emphasize this point.

I’m sure you’ll agree that when it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, this speech makes a strong argument for considering hiring a poet to do the job.

A real downer

Thomas Hardy wrote
Thomas Hardy

I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions about poems and poets to feature in this blog. Thank you all. I’ve discovered some great poetry and rediscovered some that I had failed to appreciate earlier.

The latest is “Neutral Tones” by Thomas Hardy. This recommendation comes from someone who seems to be somewhat of a Hardy fan.  You know who you are.

“Neutral Tones” is definitely well crafted, but is it ever a sad and depressing poem!

Hardy is writing about a remembered meeting of lovers that spelled the imminent end of their relationship.  As the couple stands by a pond in winter, it becomes increasingly certain that the love is dead.  It is as if the whole world, the pond, the trees, the fallen leaves, and even the sun confirm that it’s over.

The leaves “had fallen from an ash, and were grey.”

The woman looks at the writer of the poem, but he feels her eyes on him are “as eyes that rove over tedious riddles of years ago.

Even the woman’s smile is described as “the deadest thing,” and compared to an “ominous bird a-wing” passing by.

All pretty grim, dismal stuff.  No color.  No warmth.  No sign of hope, and no relief.

The only comfort — and it is cold comfort — is that the man has gained the knowledge that “loves deceives.”

Hardy wrote “Neutral Tones” in 1867, when he was 27.   One theory is that this poem was written about his cousin, Tryphena Sparks, with whom he had a tempestuous love affair.  Not long afterwards, he fell in love with Emma Gifford, whom he later married.

Others have written extensively about how Hardy uses the poet’s craft to establish the heartbreaking atmosphere of the poem.  So I won’t go into detail here.

But Hardy knows what he is doing and uses language, meter and metaphor to create an aching sense of loneliness and despair.