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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

123. A March in the Ranks, Hard-prest

A MARCH in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown;

A route through a heavy wood, with muffled steps in the darkness;

Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating;

Till after midnight glimmer upon us, the lights of a dim-lighted building;

We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building;

’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads—’tis now an impromptu hospital;

—Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;

By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down;

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily;)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all;

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers—the yard outside also fill’d;

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches;

These I resume as I chant—I see again the forms, I smell the odor;

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.