April 24, 2012

Who has not heard of the deeds she has done?

"Who has not heard of the dauntless Varuna?" asks Philadelphia writer George Henry Boker in one of his many poems chronicling the American Civil War. For those that have not heard of it, the Varuna was a merchant-class steamship that was appropriated for use as a Union Navy gunboat at the outbreak of the war. In April 1862, she was one of the vessels involved with a blockade of the Confederate-controlled city of New Orleans. The commanding officer, David G. Farragut, ordered the Varuna and others in a nighttime dash against the port leading to the Mississippi River on April 24, 1862. During the battle that followed, the Varuna took heavy damage, but stayed in the fight until it finally sank. Boker sung the ship's praise in "The Varuna":

Who has not heard of the dauntless Varuna?
Who has not heard of the deeds she has done?
Who shall not hear, while the brown Mississippi
Rushes along from the snow to the sun?

Crippled and leaking she entered the battle,
Sinking and burning she fought through the fray,
Crushed were her sides, and the waves ran across her,
Ere, like a death-wounded lion at bay,
Sternly she closed in the last fatal grapple,
Then in her triumph sank grandly away.

Five of the rebels, like satellites round her,
Burned in her orbit of splendor and fear;
One, like the Pleiad of mystical story,
Shot, terror-stricken, beyond her dread sphere.

We who are waiting with crowns for the victors,
Though we should offer the wealth of our store,
Load the Varuna from deck down to kelson,
Still would be niggard, such tribute to pour
On courage so boundless. It beggars possession,
It knocks for just payment at heaven's bright door.

Cherish the heroes who fought the Varuna;
Treat them as kings if they honor your way;
Succor and comfort the sick and the wounded;
Oh! for the dead, let us all kneel to pray!

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