By Will M. Carleton.
“MEMPHIS, TENN., April 23d, 1865. — The steamer Sultana, from New Orleans the 21st, took on board at Vicksburg, upward of 1,900 Federal soldiers, principally parolled prisoners from Cahawba and Andersonville. — When seven miles above this city, her boiler exploded and she burned to the water’s edge. Of all on board, not more than six hundred were saved.”
Down at Vicksburg, grim and smoking, on a cloudy April’s day,
Her gaudy colors flying fast, the old Sultana lay,
Waiting for the welcome signal that should order her away.
On her decks, all bright and smiling, stood a band of haggard men,
Who had smarted, prayed, and fasted, in a rebel prison-pen;
Who had faced the imps and goblins of a Southern devils’ den.
There were nineteen hundred heroes, who a prisoner’s trials knew;
From the fiery Southern furnace, nineteen hundred tried and true,
Who had doffed their faded tatters, for the legendary blue.
Pale and wasted were their features; pinched with want and prison fare;
Trampled by the hoofs of hatred, wrinkled by the hand of care;
Seamed and scarred with ruthless clawings from the tatoos of Despair.
But they waved their hands and shouted, as they g?ded from the shore,
And they cried, “Thank God’s great mercy, we are bound for home once more!”
And such lusty cheers of gladness never rent the air before!
But when last the Mississippi drank the echoes of their cry,
From the West, a roll of thunder sent an ominous reply,
And the wind swept down the river, with a sad foreboding sigh,
But they heeded not the omen; and the merry laugh went round;
In the brightness of the future all the fearful past was drowned;
And among the nineteen hundred ran the glad cry “homeward bound.”
There was one among that number, whom the past to me endears;
True as steel and firm as marble was that lad of sixteen years,
With a soul of highest honor, and a heart devoid of fears.
With a mind all clear and active, and with powers that mind to wield,
With a faith that could not falter, and a will it would not yield,
He buckled on his armor, and went forth into the field.
And at last, with hapless comrades, he the breath of prison drew,
And the pains of want and famine with the rest of them he knew;
But he clenched his teeth and muttered, “I mean to see it through!”
And he wrote unto his mother, when he lay in sickness low,
“IF they ask you ‘Is he sorry that he made his mind to go?
Does he wish he might recall it?’ Mother, proudly tell them No!”
And to-day he stood in calmness mid that fated steamer’s crew,
And he uttered words of gladness, which, alas! were but too true,
As between his teeth he muttered, “I have almost seen it thro’!”
And he thought him of a father, who for once would be unmanned,
As he welcomed him in language he could hardly understand,
But repaid the lack of speaking in the pressure of his hand.
And he thought him of a mother, with a kind and gentle face,
Who would kiss him as she used to, with a warm and close embrace,
Who would love him with affection that no absence could erase.
Of a manly little brother, who would climb upon his knee,
Who would throw his arms around him, in his glad and boyish glee,
And would think that of all soldiers there was none so brave as he.
And he thought him of a maiden, whom at twilight a hour he’d seek,
Who would meet him at the threshold, with a blush upon her cheek,
And from out her eyes would tell him all the love she would not speak.
And he stood, and all these blessings in his gladdened mind he weighed,
And within the golden future, many a glorious plan he laid;
And he murmured, “I am happy; all my sufferings are repaid.”
O, my God! that dull explosion! not a warning, not a prayer,
Ere it hurls full many a victim in the black and smoking air,
With a river for a death bed, and a moment to prepare!
With that hissing, steaming boiler, shatters many a hope that’s dear!
And a thousand shrieks and curses throw their echoes far and near,
With a thousand prayers for succor, that can reach no pitying ear.
And that youth whose cup of gladness danced so lately to the brim,
May the God of love and mercy hold a helping hand to him,
As he falls into the water, with a broken arm and limb!
But he rises to the surface, with a look of pain and dread,
With a face all white as marble, like the faces of the dead,
And the crimson blood fast flowing from a death-wound on his head.
But a flash of manly courage fires his sinking heart anew,
And he grasps a floating timber, with the arm that still is true,
And between his teeth he mutters, “I mean to see it though.”
And he clung unto the fragment for a painful hour or more,
Vainly striving in his weakness, for the distant, gloomy shore.
For that heart of truest courage would not let the boy give o’er.
For a mortal hour he battled with the restless, flowing tide,
But the darkness gathered round him, and he stream was cold and wide,
And his pale lips murmuring, “Mother,” he relaxed his hold and died.
And with but the flowing waters to repeat his funeral lay,
Neath the turbid Mississippi lies the martyred boy to day,
His noble frame all mangled, and fast going to decay.
But if ever God reached downward, for a soul without alloy,
And if ever God had mercy on a dying soldier boy,
Rests to-day that youthful hero, in a home of peace and joy.
A later, revised version of the poem ran in the Roman Citizen (Rome, New York) on June 11, 1886: