National Commentary

The Ranks Hard-Prest, The Road Unknown

On this July 4, we celebrate the birth of our nation as humanity’s greatest experiment at democracy and self-determination. It warrants reflection on how we got to this point and how we will continue its legacy, especially in the context of a current White House and treasonous Republican sycophant leadership that is pressing to rip it all to shreds.

It was in the midst of the Civil War that America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman waxed most eloquent about the importance that America represented for humanity on this planet.

In the work of Whitman, there is no equivocation about right and wrong. The Confederacy was sheer evil; “the foulest crime in history known in any man or age,” willing to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Americans to defend the exploitation of an entire class of persons against the core values of democracy.

America had no greater champion and advocate than Whitman. He transitioned from being a journalist to focusing his creative effort on poetry to exercise that which the Greek philosopher Plato claimed, that “poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

In honor of the brave struggle for democracy in that horribly necessary war and the role that my home’s historic Falls Church Episcopal played, as an armory and a hospital, on this July 4 permit me to present this poem of Whitman, written in 1863 about a church somewhere in Northern Virginia that is not named:

“A March In the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown:”

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,

A route through a heavy wood, with muffled steps in the darkness,

Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating,

Till after midnight glimmer upon us, the lights of a dim-lighted building,

‘Tis a large old church, at the crossing roads — ‘tis now an impromptu hospital

— Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke,

By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down,

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen,)

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily,)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all,

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead,

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood,

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers — the yard
outside also fill’d,

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in
the death-spasm sweating,

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls,

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches,

These I resume as I chant — I see again the form, I smell the odor,

Then I hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, Fall in,

But first I bend to the dying lad — his eyes open — a half-smile gives he me,

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Resuming, marching, as ever in the darkness marching on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.

Nicholas Benton may be emailed at