Fitz-James O’Brien – A Soldier’s Letter

A Soldier’s Letter

January 20, 1862

With the head of a drum for my desk, I sit on a southern slope,
While the sunlight streaks the apples that hang in the orchard hard by,
And puzzle my brains over verses and many a marvelous trope,
And vainly seek inspiration from out the sky.
What can I tell you now that you have not known before!
How dearly I love you, Mary, and how hard the parting was,
And how bravely you kissed my lips when we stood at the open door,
And blessed me for going with heart and hand in the cause!
O, sweet as a lily flushed with the red of the roses near
When beat by the hot, implacable sun above,
Was the hue of your angel face, as tear after tear
Rose to your ivory eyelids and welled with love!

War is not quite so hard as your poor townspeople think;
We have plenty of food to eat, and a good, warm blanket at night,
And now and then, you know, a quiet, moderate drink;
Which doesn’t hurt us, dearest, and makes things right.
But the greatest blessing of all is the total want of care;
The happy, complete reliance of the carefully-guardianed child
Who has no thought for his dinner, and is given good clothes to wear,
And whose leisure moments are with innocent sports beguiled.
The drill of the soldier is pleasant, if one works with a willing heart,
It is only the worthless fellow that grumbles at double-quick;
I like the ingenious manoeuvres that constitute was an art,
And not even the cleaning of arms can make me sick.

One of the comrades five that sleep in the tent with me
Is a handsome, fair-faced boy, with curling, sun-burned hair;
Like me, he has left a sweetheart on the shore of the northern sea,
And, like her I love, he says she also is good and fair.
So we talk of our girls at night when the other chaps are asleep, –
Talk in the sacred whispers that are low with the choke of love, –
And often when we are silent I think I can hear him weep,
And murmur her name in accents that croon like the nesting dove.
Then, when we are out on picket, and the nights are calm and still,
When our beats lie close together, we pause and chatter the same;
And the weary hours pass swiftly, till over distant hill
The sun comes up unclouded and fierce with flame.

The scene that I took is lovely! The cotton-fields smooth and white,
With the bending negroes shelling the flocculent, bursting pods,
And the quiet sentinels slowly pacing the neighboring height,
And now and the hidden by groups of the golden-rods.
Beautiful are the isles that mottle the slumberous bay;
Beautiful are the azure veins of the creeks;
Beautiful is the crimson that, far away,
Burns on the woods like the paint on an Indian’s cheeks!
Beautiful are the thoughts of time when – Hist!
What sound is that I hear? ‘T is the rifle’s continuous crack!
The long-roll beats to arms! I must not – cannot be missed.
Dear love, I’ll finish this letter when I come back.