The Phantom Army

HERE is a thing our eyes beheld:
One day in later spring,
When birds were blithest on the wing,
And buds of rose and lily swelled,
And apple orchards, from a million vents,
Along the roadside poured their sweetest scents,
Through all our land
There passed a phantom band.
It was no vision seen by dreamer and by sage,
But hid from other men ;
Nor legend’s tale, by some forgotten pen,
Which tells in quaint, black-letter phrase
The marvel of a far-off age.
Nay, o’er our dusty, common ways
There passed the ghost
Of a great battle host.
A scanty troop of warriors gray and weird,
Hoary of hair and beard,
With banners marred by rent and stain,
And fifes that played and drums that beat
The tune of some old ballad’s fierce refrain,
In wavering line, with faded coats of blue,
Down some long, willow-shaded avenue,
Or country road or village street,
With measured footfall marched and disappeared.
And still, with each returning May,
Again that warlike vision passed this way,
As though the drumbeat of some mystic reveillé,
From all the hillsides of the North,
Summoned that band of veterans forth.
At dawn, the muster: over paths that wound
Through budding woods, amid the shadows dense
Of pine and hemlock, or through meadows fair,
Or o’er the peak of some still eminence,
Hastening to the appointed rendezvous,
Stray passers clad in uniform of blue.
And then, at noon, the march :
Down some great city’s thundering avenue,
That hushed awhile its traffic-roar of sound,
Or underneath some gleaming, flowery arch,
Erected o’er some village square.
Then the dispersal, the departure, through
The starlight and the evening dew.
For thirty springs the cannon had not boomed
Our hills and vales among,
Nor the wild bugle sung
Its clarion war note in the settler’s ear.
Upon the slope the cornel bloomed,
And leafy tops rung loud and long
With robin’s glee and thrush’s song.
But over all things hung,
Like a sea haze,
The memory of a bygone year
Of unobliterable battle days.
Beholding that array,
A sudden shadow o’er our senses sank,
And o’er our eyes a blur,
Until we saw no more the things that were,
But other scenes, strange, strange, and far away.
Lo, once again the dark Potomac’s bank
With watch fires blazed beneath the evening sky ;
And o’er the Chattahooche’s ford,
And by the Roanoke’s mouth,
The blue-clad lines of battle poured.
Again the steed of Sheridan flashed by,
Bound for the faltering fight at Winchester;
Again the guns of Meade and Reynolds roared,
Stemming at Gettysburg the charging South.
That day, the ploughman on some Western plain,
Beside the Wabash or the Illinois,
Pacing behind his team, with lifted glance
Beheld before his dreaming eyes his son,
Returning from the battlefield, — the boy
Dead now these thirty years, killed at Bull Run.
The youth beheld his sire, at Shiloh slain.
The wife, upon some bare New England hill,
With blurred eyes gazing, saw as in a trance
Her long-lost soldier entering ’cross the sill.
At twilight, in some lighted shop or store,
Or by the lonely farmhouse door,
To little knots of neighbors drawing near,
Some scarred and wrinkled veteran
Would tell, with kindling eyes, of Shiloh’s fight,
Or of the Wilderness and Seven Pines,
Or how he saw the President at Washington;
Or how, one night,
Marching a weary march beside the Rapidan,
As sunset fell, Grant rode along the lines, —
His staff around him, hat drawn low upon
A brow of care, — and seeing that grave, silent man,
From all the ranks broke forth a mighty cheer.
Swift is man’s life, and like a roily stream,
Beneath the surface of the waters hoarse
Lie hid the things that bend and shape its course.
The hue and fashion of great days
Pass and are gone like voices in a dream.
Soon down some lengthening vista, borne before
A shouting city’s gaze,
Will pass the last of them who wore
The good, blue uniform in the brave days of yore, —
The phantom army will be seen no more.
William Prescott Foster.