April 14, 2012

Tell me which in nobler fashion

The Modoc War took place in Oregon and California, with the United States Army facing off against the Native American Modoc tribe. The tribe had been relocated but needed to be moved again. Conflict arose between other tribes, as well as with white settlers, and peace talks led to the assassination of a federal officer. The American Army fought back (allied with a rival tribe), beginning at midnight on the evening of April 14, 1873, in what became known as the Second Battle of the Stronghold, which spread out over three days.

John Luckey McCreery wrote a passionate response to the fighting in a poem titled "Before the Lava Beds", dated Monday Night, April 14, 1873 (and later published in his Songs of Toil and Triumph):

Midnight reigns, and darkness hovers
O'er a martial garrison
Which our nation's ensign covers
In the wilds of Oregon;
But the foe, that flag defying—
Savage Modocs, now at bay—
In the Lava-beds are lying,
Waiting for the dawn of day.

Near the white men, camped beside them,
Are their native red allies,
Come to fight for them, or guide them,
Or to guard them from surprise.
White and red are brave and daring,
And amid the starless gloom
White and red are both preparing
For the fray that is to come.

Well they know that of their number
Some must soon confront their God—
This to be their final slumber
Till they sleep beneath the sod!
Yet in what a varied manner
Those who wait the coming fight,
Sheltered by that starry banner,

Spend this dark and awful night!
Hark! the sound of many voices
From the white men's camping ground,
And the wild, discordant noises
As the festive cup goes round;
Voices maudlin and unsteady
Raise the Bacchanalian cry:
"Here is to the dead already,
And to him who next shall die!"

There are other echoes floating
On the midnight breeze afar—
Vague, familiar sounds denoting
Where the Warm Spring Indians are;
'Tis the voice of prayer ascending
From their camp upon the knoll,
With the simple music blending:
"Jesus, lover of my soul!"

Hear the whites, in drunken revels,
Frenzy-fired and reckless men:
"Death to yonder savage devils!"
"Fill the flowing bowl again!"
See the Indian warriors kneeling,
Listen to their humble plea,
And their hymn to Heaven appealing:
"Rock of Ages, cleft for me!"

On the morrow came the battle;
Slaughtered in the Modoc snare,
White and red men fell like cattle,
Leaving half their number there.
O self-righteous, proud Caucasian,
Look upon them, side by side—
Tell me which in nobler fashion,
White or red man, lived and died!

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