GIVE me your hand, old Revolutionary; The hill-top is nighâ€”but a few steps, (make room, gentlemen;) Up the path you have followâ€™d me well, spite of your hundred and extra years; You can walk, old man, though your eyes are almost done; Your faculties serve you, and presently I must have them serve me.
Rest, while I tell what the crowd around us means; On the plain below, recruits are drilling and exercising; There is the campâ€”one regiment departs to-morrow; Do you hear the officers giving the orders? Do you hear the clank of the muskets?
Why, what comes over you now, old man? Why do you tremble, and clutch my hand so convulsively? The troops are but drillingâ€”they are yet surrounded with smiles; Around them, at hand, the well-drest friends, and the women; While splendid and warm the afternoon sun shines down; Green the midsummer verdure, and fresh blows the dallying breeze, Oâ€™er proud and peaceful cities, and arm of the sea between. But drill and parade are overâ€”they march back to quarters; Only hear that approval of hands! hear what a clapping!
As wending, the crowds now part and disperseâ€”but we, old man, Not for nothing have I brought you hitherâ€”we must remain; You to speak in your turn, and I to listen and tell.
THE CENTENARIAN. When I clutchâ€™d your hand, it was not with terror; But suddenly, pouring about me here, on every side, And below there where the boys were drilling, and up the slopes they ran, And where tents are pitchâ€™d, and wherever you see, south and south-east and south-west, Over hills, across lowlands, and in the skirts of woods, And along the shores, in mire (now fillâ€™d over), came again, and suddenly raged, As eighty-five years agone, no mere parade receivâ€™d with applause of friends, But a battle, which I took part in myselfâ€”aye, long ago as it is, I took part in it, Walking then this hill-top, this same ground.
Aye, this is the ground; My blind eyes, even as I speak, behold it re-peopled from graves; The years recede, pavements and stately houses disappear; Rude forts appear again, the old hoopâ€™d guns are mounted; I see the lines of raisâ€™d earth stretching from river to bay; I mark the vista of waters, I mark the uplands and slopes: Here we lay encampâ€™dâ€”it was this time in summer also.
As I talk, I remember allâ€”I remember the Declaration; It was read hereâ€”the whole army paradedâ€”it was read to us here; By his staff surrounded, the General stood in the middleâ€”he held up his unsheathâ€™d sword, It glitterâ€™d in the sun in full sight of the army.
â€™Twas a bold act then; The English war-ships had just arrivedâ€”the king had sent them from over the sea; We could watch down the lower bay where they lay at anchor, And the transports, swarming with soldiers.
A few days more, and they landedâ€”and then the battle.
Twenty thousand were brought against us, A veteran force, furnishâ€™d with good artillery.
I tell not now the whole of the battle; But one brigade, early in the forenoon, orderâ€™d forward to engage the red-coats; Of that brigade I tell, and how steadily it marchâ€™d, And how long and how well it stood, confronting death.
Who do you think that was, marching steadily, sternly confronting death? It was the brigade of the youngest men, two thousand strong, Raisâ€™d in Virginia and Maryland, and many of them known personally to the General.
Jauntily forward they went with quick step toward Gowanusâ€™ waters; Till of a sudden, unlookâ€™d for, by defiles through the woods, gainâ€™d at night, The British advancing, wedging in from the east, fiercely playing their guns, That brigade of the youngest was cut off, and at the enemyâ€™s mercy.
The General watchâ€™d them from this hill; They made repeated desperate attempts to burst their environment; Then drew close together, very compact, their flag flying in the middle; But O from the hills how the cannon were thinning and thinning them!
It sickens me yet, that slaughter! I saw the moisture gather in drops on the face of the General; I saw how he wrung his hands in anguish.
Meanwhile the British maneuverâ€™d to draw us out for a pitchâ€™d battle; But we dared not trust the chances of a pitchâ€™d battle.
We fought the fight in detachments; Sallying forth, we fought at several pointsâ€”but in each the luck was against us; Our foe advancing, steadily getting the best of it, pushâ€™d us back to the works on this hill; Till we turnâ€™d, menacing, here, and then he left us.
That was the going out of the brigade of the youngest men, two thousand strong; Few returnâ€™dâ€”nearly all remain in Brooklyn.
That, and here, my Generalâ€™s first battle; No women looking on, nor sunshine to bask inâ€”it did not conclude with applause; Nobody clappâ€™d hands here then.
But in darkness, in mist, on the ground, under a chill rain, Wearied that night we lay, foilâ€™d and sullen; While scornfully laughâ€™d many an arrogant lord, off against us encampâ€™d, Quite within hearing, feasting, klinking wine-glasses together over their victory.
So, dull and damp, and another day; But the night of that, mist lifting, rain ceasing, Silent as a ghost, while they thought they were sure of him, my General retreated.
I saw him at the river-side, Down by the ferry, lit by torches, hastening the embarcation; My General waited till the soldiers and wounded were all passâ€™d over; And then, (it was just ere sunrise,) these eyes rested on him for the last time.
Every one else seemâ€™d fillâ€™d with gloom; Many no doubt thought of capitulation.
But when my General passâ€™d me, As he stood in his boat, and lookâ€™d toward the coming sun, I saw something different from capitulation.
TERMINUS. Enoughâ€”the Centenarianâ€™s story ends; The two, the past and present, have interchanged; I myself, as connecter, as chansonnier of a great future, am now speaking.
And is this the ground Washington trod? And these waters I listlessly daily cross, are these the waters he crossâ€™d, As resolute in defeat, as other generals in their proudest triumphs?
It is wellâ€”a lesson like that, always comes good; I must copy the story, and send it eastward and westward; I must preserve that look, as it beamâ€™d on you, rivers of Brooklyn.
See! as the annual round returns, the phantoms return; It is the 27th of August, and the British have landed; The battle begins, and goes against usâ€”behold! through the smoke, Washingtonâ€™s face; The brigade of Virginia and Maryland have marchâ€™d forth to intercept the enemy; They are cut offâ€”murderous artillery from the hills plays upon them; Rank after rank falls, while over them silently droops the flag, Baptized that day in many a young manâ€™s bloody wounds, In death, defeat, and sistersâ€™, mothersâ€™ tears.
Ah, hills and slopes of Brooklyn! I perceive you are more valuable than your owners supposed; Ah, river! henceforth you will be illuminâ€™d to me at sunrise with something besides the sun.
Encampments new! in the midst of you stands an encampment very old; Stands forever the camp of the dead brigade.