July 30, 2011

English: Give them the roll of the drum!

When Thomas Dunn English published The Boy's Book of Battle-Lyrics, he intended it to be a collection of "metrical narratives" (he refused to call them "poems") showing the military history of the United States. He realized, however, that the book would be far too long and, instead, settled for a representative rather than complete history. According to his preface, dated from Newark, New Jersey on July 30, 1885, he hoped to give the reader "a notion of the nature of the struggle by which these States emerged from a dependent condition to take high rank among the peoples of the world."

By the time of its publication, English was a published novelist, poet, editor, and politician. Each poem is different metrically, most are tediously long. English did, however, avoid references to the recent "sectional war" (i.e. the Civil War), with the exception of two selections (which he claimed were personal, not likely to offend anyone). One was titled "The Charge at the Ford," and English noted, "The story may be correct, or not. I do not vouch for its accuracy."

Eighty and nine with their captain
Rode on the enemy's track,
Rode in the grey of the morning:
Nine of the ninety came back.

Slow rose the mist from the river,
Lighter each moment the way;
Careless and tearless and fearless
Galloped they on to the fray.

Singing in tune, how the scabbard
Loud on the stirrup-irons rang
Clinked as the men rose in saddle,
Fell as they sank with a clang!

What is it moves by the river,
Faded and weary and weak?
Grey-backs—a cross on their banner—
Yonder the foe whom they seek.

Silence! They see not, they hear not,
Tarrying there by the marge;
Forward! Draw sabre! Trot! Gallop!
Charge like a hurricane! Charge!

Ah! 'twas a man-trap infernal;
Fire like the deep pit of hell!
Volley on volley to meet them,
Mixed with the grey rebels' yell.

Ninety had ridden to battle,
Tracing the enemy's track;
Ninety had ridden to battle,
Nine of the ninety came back.

Honor the nine of the ninety,
Honor the heroes who came
Scathless from nine hundred muskets,
Safe from the lead-bearing flame.

Eighty and one of the troopers
Lie on the field of the slain—
Lie on the red field of honor:
Honor the nine who remain.

Cold are the dead there, and gory,
There where their life-blood was spilt;
Back come the living, each sabre
Red from the point to the hilt.

Give them three cheers and a tiger!
Let the flags wave as they come!
Give them the blare of the trumpet!
Give them the roll of the drum!


  1. Thanks for posting this. Thomas Wolfe has his father quote the first four lines in "Look Homeward, Angel."

  2. However, Wolfe wrote "Ninety and nine...", at least that's in my 1972 New English Library (Signet Modern Classics) edition (p.55).

    1. Your book is wrong. From chapter 6: “Eighty and nine with their captain, Rode on their enemy’s track, Rode I’m the gray of the morning, Nine of the ninety came back.”

    2. You are responding to a comment from half a decade ago, fyi.

    3. Haha! My Kindle version says “Ninety and nine” also. Strange.