Marthy Virginia's Hand

A poem by George Parsons Lathrop

"There, on the left!" said the colonel: the battle had shuddered and faded away,
Wraith of a fiery enchantment that left only ashes and blood-sprinkled clay -
"Ride to the left and examine that ridge, where the enemy's sharpshooters stood.
Lord, how they picked off our men, from the treacherous vantage-ground of the wood!
But for their bullets, I'll bet, my batteries sent them something as good.
Go and explore, and report to me then, and tell me how many we killed.
Never a wink shall I sleep till I know our vengeance was duly fulfilled."

Fiercely the orderly rode down the slope of the corn-field - scarred and forlorn,
Rutted by violent wheels, and scathed by the shot that had plowed it in scorn;
Fiercely, and burning with wrath for the sight of his comrades crushed at a blow,
Flung in broken shapes on the ground like ruined memorials of woe:
These were the men whom at daybreak he knew, but never again could know.
Thence to the ridge, where roots outthrust, and twisted branches of trees
Clutched the hill like clawing lions, firm their prey to seize.

"What's your report?" - and the grim colonel smiled when the orderly came back at last.
Strangely the soldier paused: "Well, they were punished." And strange his face, aghast.
"Yes, our fire told on them; knocked over fifty - laid out in line of parade.
Brave fellows, colonel, to stay as they did! But one I 'most wish had n't stayed.
Mortally wounded, he'd torn off his knapsack; and then at the end he prayed -
Easy to see, by his hands that were clasped; and the dull, dead fingers yet held
This little letter - his wife's - from the knapsack.
A pity those woods were shelled!"

Silent the orderly, watching with tears in his eyes as his officer scanned
Four short pages of writing. "What's this, about 'Marthy Virginia's hand'?"
Swift from his honeymoon he, the dead soldier, had gone from his bride to the strife;
Never they met again, but she had written him, telling of that new life,
Born in the daughter, that bound her still closer and closer to him as his wife.
Laying her baby's hand down on the letter, around it she traced a rude line;
"If you would kiss the baby," she wrote, "you must kiss this outline of mine."

There was the shape of the hand on the page, with the small, chubby fingers outspread.
"Marthy Virginia's hand, for her pa," - so the words on the little palm said.
Never a wink slept the colonel that night, for the vengeance so blindly fulfilled;
Never again woke the old battle-glow when the bullets their death-note shrilled.
Long ago ended the struggle, in union of brotherhood happily stilled;
Yet from that field of Antietam, in warning and token of love's command,
See! there is lifted the hand of a baby - Marthy Virginia's hand!

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