Weekly Whitman: “A March in the Ranks Hard-prest, and the Road Unknown”

This particular poem—“A March in the Ranks Hard-prest, and the Road Unknown”—resonates with me because of the work I have done on First Bull Run and the old Sudley Church. Descriptions given by Arthur O’Neil Alcock, of the 11th New York, mirror Whitman’s words almost exactly. The scenes were repeated again and again throughout the war, in every makeshift “hospital” on the battlefields. Somehow, I suspect they have been a part of war since before the Trojans and up to (and beyond) Afghanistan. Whitman is timeless.

A March in the Ranks Hard-prest, and the Road Unknown

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, 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 stanch 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, 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.


2 Responses to Weekly Whitman: “A March in the Ranks Hard-prest, and the Road Unknown”

  1. From the bullet or bayonet that wounds them to the metal scalpel that tries to heal them, the flesh of soldiers does not hold up well. Everything is dark…the woods, the dimly-lit room, the slow flowing movement of the dying soldier to the darkness of death. No one to help, no one to care, nothing but pain and the gray room. For the living, only the marching on in the darkness of the unknown road, soldiers wondering if they, too will be in that dimly-lit room wounded…dying someday.
    I feel that I am there with them….in the room, with the dying soldier, and finally on the dark wooded road.
    Are wars really worth the cost of what they are fought for? Can’t there be another way?
    Judy Scarlata

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