Running the Batteries

Herman Melville

As observed from the Anchorage above Vicksburgh.
(April, 1863.)

A moonless night--a friendly one;
  A haze dimmed the shadowy shore
As the first lampless boat slid silent on;
  Hist! and we spake no more;
We but pointed, and stilly, to what we saw.

We felt the dew, and seemed to feel
  The secret like a burden laid.
The first boat melts; and a second keel
  Is blent with the foliaged shade--
Their midnight rounds have the rebel officers made?

Unspied as yet. A third--a fourth--
  Gun-boat and transport in Indian file
Upon the war-path, smooth from the North;
  But the watch may they hope to beguile?
The manned river-batteries stretch for mile on mile.

A flame leaps out; they are seen;
  Another and another gun roars;
We tell the course of the boats through the screen
  By each further fort that pours,
And we guess how they jump from their beds on those shrouded shores.

Converging fires. We speak, though low:
  "That blastful furnace can they thread"
"Why, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego
  Came out all right, we read;
The Lord, be sure, he helps his people, Ned."

How we strain our gaze. On bluffs they shun
  A golden growing flame appears--
Confirms to a silvery steadfast one:
  "The town is afire!" crows Hugh: "three cheers"
Lot stops his mouth: "Nay, lad, better three tears."

A purposed light; it shows our fleet;
  Yet a little late in its searching ray,
So far and strong, that in phantom cheat
  Lank on the deck our shadows lay;
The shining flag-ship stings their guns to furious play.

How dread to mark her near the glare
  And glade of death the beacon throws
Athwart the racing waters there;
  One by one each plainer grows,
Then speeds a blazoned target to our gladdened foes.

The impartial cresset lights as well
  The fixed forts to the boats that run;
And, plunged from the ports, their answers swell
  Back to each fortress dun:
Ponderous words speaks every monster gun.

Fearless they flash through gates of flame,
  The salamanders hard to hit,
Though vivid shows each bulky frame;
  And never the batteries intermit,
Nor the boats huge guns; they fire and flit.

Anon a lull. The beacon dies:
  "Are they out of that strait accurst"
But other flames now dawning rise,
  Not mellowly brilliant like the first,
But rolled in smoke, whose whitish volumes burst.

A baleful brand, a hurrying torch
  Whereby anew the boats are seen--
A burning transport all alurch!
  Breathless we gaze; yet still we glean
Glimpses of beauty as we eager lean.

The effulgence takes an amber glow
  Which bathes the hill-side villas far;
Affrighted ladies mark the show
  Painting the pale magnolia--
The fair, false, Circe light of cruel War.

The barge drifts doomed, a plague-struck one.
  Shoreward in yawls the sailors fly.
But the gauntlet now is nearly run,
  The spleenful forts by fits reply,
And the burning boat dies down in morning's sky.

All out of range. Adieu, Messieurs!
  Jeers, as it speeds, our parting gun.
So burst we through their barriers
  And menaces every one:
So Porter proves himself a brave man's son.

In the American Civil War, Vicksburg was a heavily-fortified Confederate town dominating the Mississippi River. There were many engagements there between December 1862 and Grant's final capture of the city for the Union forces in the summer of 1863.