1861 Ball's Bluff Flag








Poems Inspired by "The Harvard Regiment"



BALL'S BLUFF, A REVERIE, OCTOBER 1861 by Herman Melville

BALL'S BLUFF by General Frederick Lander





SOLDIER BURIED ON THE BATTLEFIELD --a favorite poem of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

For more poetry, be sure to visit Kathie Fraser's superb site, "Poetry and Music of the War Between the States"



Troops crossing the river under fire on Dec. 11, 1862

Inspired by the crossing of the Rappahannock River on Dec. 11, 1862 by three Union regiments while under fire from Confederates in Fredericksburg, Va. Written by George Henry Bokker, a poet, dramatist, and later United States Minister to Russia and Turkey. The poem was inspired in part by an interview by Bokker with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Holmes himself did not participate in the battle.) The dramatic crossing was called by one soldier "the forlorn hope; they said the country would never forget us". This web page developer's great- great uncle Cpl. Anton Steffens was killed in this street fighting.

They leaped on the rocking shallops,

Ten offered where one could go,

The breeze was alive with laughter

Till the boatmen began to row.

"How many? I judge four hundred;"

"Who are they? I know to a man;"

Our own Nineteenth and Twentieth,

And the Seventh Michigan.

Then the shore where the rebels harbored

Was fringed with a gush of flame,

And buzzing like bees o'er water

The swarms of their bullets came.

In silence, how dread and solemn!

With courage, how grand and true!

Steadily, steadily onward

The line of shallops drew.

Not a whisper! Each man was conscious

He stood in sight of death!

So he bowed to the awful presence,

And treasured his living breath,

'Twixt death in the air above them

And death in the waves below,

Through balls and grape and shrapnell

They neared-my God! how slow!

And many a brave stout fellow,

Who sprang in the boats with mirth,

Ere they made that fateful crossing

Was a load of lifeless earth.

And many a brave stout fellow,

Whose limbs with strength with rife,

Was torn and crushed and shattered--

A helpless wreck for life.

Cheer after cheer we sent them,

As only armies can,

Cheer for old Massachusetts!

Cheers for young Michigan!

They formed a line of battle,

Not a man was out of place!

Then with level steel they hurled them,

Straight in the rebel's face.

And thus they crossed the river,

Hear me, man, from rear to van;

Three cheers for old Massachusetts!

And three more for young Michigan.

--Source: Miller and Mooney, "The Civil War-The Nantucket Experience" (Wesco Publishing Co., 1994)

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"BALL'S BLUFF- A Reverie (October 1861)" by Herman Melville

Author Herman Melville-- -Rescuing the body of Gen. Baker at Ball's Bluff


One noonday, at the window in the town,

I saw a sight--saddest that eyes can see--

Young soldiers marching lustily

Unto the wars,

With fifes, and flags in mottoed pagentry;

While all the porches, walks, and doors

Were rich with ladies cheering royally.

They moved like Juny morning on the wave,

Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime

(It was the breezy summer time),

Life throbbed so strong,

How should they dream that Death in a rosy


Would come to thin their shining throng?

Youth feels immortal, like the Gods sublime.

Weeks passed; and at the window, leaving bed,

By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,

On those brave boys (Ah War! Thy theft);

Some marching feet

Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;

Wakeful I mused, while in the street

Far footfalls died away till none were left.


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"BALL'S BLUFF"   by Brigadier General Frederick Lander

Written after the battle, on hearing a Confederate officer's quote that "fewer of the Massachusetts officers would have been killed [at Ball's Bluff], had they not been too proud to surrender". This poem specifically is about the 20th Mass., naming officers such as Revere and Holmes.
This composition by Brigadier General Frederick Lander really seems to capture and portray the emotion felt by those who fought at Ball's Bluff. The poem flows almost like a mournful ballad and reads very lyrically, almost as if one was listening to a Keith Sweat song.
The last stanza's question, "Has Sparta more?" was answered by the end of the Civil War, almost four years later; the 20th Massachusetts suffered the most casualties of any Massachusetts regiment.

Aye, deem us proud, for we are more

Than proud of all our mighty dead;

Proud of the bleak and rock-bound shore,

A crowned oppressor cannot tread.

Proud of each rock, and wood, and glen;

Of every river, lake and plain;

Proud of the calm and earnest men

Who claim the right and the will to reign.

Proud of the men who gave us birth,

Who battled with the stormy wave

To sweep the red man from the earth,

And build their homes upon their grave.

Proud of the holy summer morn

They traced in blood upon its sod;

The rights of freemen yet unborn;

Proud of their language and their God.

Proud that beneath our proudest dome

And round the cottage-cradled hearth

There is a welcome and a home

For every stricken race on earth.

Proud that yon slowly sinking sun

Saw drowning lips grow white in prayer,

O'er such brief acts of duty done,

As honor gathers from despair.

Pride, 't is our watchword; "clear the boats"

"Holmes, Putnam, Bartlett, Peirson-Here"

And while this crazy wherry floats

"Let's save our wounded", cries Revere.

Old State-some souls are rudely sped-

This record for thy Twentieth Corps-

Imprisoned, wounded, dying, dead,

It only asks, "Has Sparta more?"

Source: ----Bruce, "The Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry" (1906)

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by Rev. R.T.S. Lowell

Still first, as long and long ago,

Let Massachusetts muster;

Give her the post right next to the foe;

Be sure that you may trust her.

She was the first to give her blood

For freedom and for honor;

She trod her soul to crimson mud;

God' s Blessing be Upon her!

She never faltered for the right,

Nor ever will hereafter:

Fling up her name with all your might;

Shake roof-tree and shake rafter.

But of old deeds she need not brag,---

How she broke sword and fetter:

Fling out again the old striped flag;

She'll do yet more and better.

In peace, her sails fleck all the seas;

Her mills shake every river;

And where are scenes so fair as these

God and her true hand give her?

In war, her claim who seek to rob;

All others come in later;

It is hers first to front the Mob,

The Tyrant, and the Traitor.

God Bless, God Bless, the glorious State!

Let her have way to battle!

She'll go where batteries clash with fate,

Or where thick rifles rattle.

Give her the Right, and let her try;

And then who can may press her;

She'll go straight on, or she will die;

God Bless her, and God Bless her!

The legendary street fighting of the 20th Mass. occurred Dec. 11, 1862 in Fredericksburg. Two days later, the Regiment suffered more horrendous casualties in the famous charge up Marye's Heights.   Leander F. Alley, a Nantucket native and close friend of Henry Abbott, was killed instantly Dec. 13 by a bullet through his left eye. A short poem in his honor was written by Phebe Hanaford, a Nantucket minister, the first female minister in New England.

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Brave and true-hearted; in his country's cause,
His life he hath lain down;
Noble the deed, and History's page shall tell,
He wore a martyr's crown.

Aye, woven with the amaranthine flowers.
Which bloom where angels dwell,
While patriot's hearts beside his grave may plant,
In love the asphodel.

God comfort those who mourn his early loss,
And wipe their tears away,
With thoughts of meeting him again at last.
Where beams th' eternal day.

Where warlike deeds, for aye are known no more,
And peace rules in each heart,
And sainted heroes loving friends shall greet
No more-oh, joy!-to part.

Beneath the green sods of his native isle,
His honored dust shall rest-
His memory livest, as a patriot true,
In many a grateful breast.

Write now the name of Alley on thy list,
Oh Fame!and write it high:-
Nantucket's brave, heroic sons may fall,
Their names shall never die.

---Source: Miller and Mooney, The Civil War: The Nantucket Experience

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Nantucket native Josiah Fitch Murphey "caught the fever" and volunteered in August 1862. In his memoirs he noted that when arriving in Boston by steamer, "we were marched to headquarters to the tune of the Raw Recruit which ran thus":

I'm a raw recruit with a bran[d] new suit,

One hundred dollars bounty,

I'm going down to Washington,

To fight for Nantucket County.


--Source: Miller and Mooney, The Civil War: The Nantucket Experience

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A poem quoted by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in a Memorial Day speech at Harvard in 1895 entitled "The Soldier's Faith". (Theodore Roosevelt admired that 1895 speech so much that as President he nominated Holmes for the US Supreme Court.) Holmes in the 1895 speech spoke of "part of the soldier's faith: Having known great things, to be content with silence." He cited this poem as "a little song sung by a warlike people on the Danube, which seemed to me fit for a soldier's last word...a song of the sword in its scabbard, a song of oblivion and peace. A Soldier has been buried on the battlefield." (A portion of this poem was recited in the 1950 Hollywood movie about Holmes, "The Magnificent Yankee.")

And when the wind in the tree-tops roared,

The soldier asked from the deep dark grave:

"Did the banner flutter then?"

"Not so, my hero," the wind replied.

"The fight is done, but the banner won,

Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,

Have borne it in triumph hence."

Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:

"I am content"

Then he heareth the lovers laughing pass,

and the soldier asks once more:

"Are these not the voices of them that love,

That love--and remember me?"

"Not so, my hero," the lovers say,

"We are those that remember not;

For the spring has come and the earth has smiled,

And the dead must be forgot."

Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:

"I am content."


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