Off Tour South of Sharpsburg

I spoke. My words
stumbled on the uneven ground.

They thudded into the grassy dirt
dinged their smooth lines and broke a few serifs.

Just below the surface
a lost and forgotten bronze plaque slept.

Carolina wrens broadcast its discovery.
Curiosity instituted mission creep.

My walk stalled.
I cleared sleep from the plaque’s I’s.

Most of the letters were gone.
My fallen words began to refill the bronze surface.

But I did not recognize speaking them.
So they were now unknown to me.

They noted a bitter end.
They named a stranger from far away.

To the north stood the inverted cannon
where Isaac Peace Rodman fell.

Though I was closer to Lawrence O’Brien Branch
and where his brigade fought.

When I reread the plaque
a drawl grabbed my tongue and mouth.

Thirty-seven is a prime number
which I always believed brought luck.

But not that long ago September
for the Gaston Blues.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

The Gaston Blues were company H of the 37th North Carolina Infantry, part of Lawrence O’Brien Branch’s brigade.

The town of Sharpsburg, MD is surrounded on three sides by the Antietam National Battlefield. I have spent over 100 days exploring that battlefield.

Hours After Sumter

The great wrong, our original sin,
the wound that discolors our freedom claimed—

we will pay now with the stony gaze
of men who blankly stare at the sky above

all to wield the axe that slices the fetters,
the bonds and shackles that hold a million men

unable to collect the reward for their long labor
in fields far from their continent without cold.

Alas, the dead we will tally, with numbers
far greater than those spouted by the glory seekers.

And how our hearts will tremble
when some once quiet town’s name is uttered,

where the trenches dug demand long rows of supine men
whose names remain unmarked on any wood or stone.

Oh, how I fear the widows’ tears; how they may flood
the land now hardened with patriotic fervor.

copyright © 2021 Kenneth P. Gurney

Documentary

Last night I watched
a documentary
on Gettysburg
and I was surprised
how they dumbed it down
and left out large portions
of the battlefield conflict
to focus on individuals’
experiences.

Although these accounts
were interesting
and brought a human element
to the history,
no viewer could understand
the information
and misinformation
commanders made
their decisions by
or the battle as a whole.

Then I thought
maybe that was the point.
There is no understanding war
only the monotony
that precedes the maelstrom
and the constant heave
of the knife’s edge
that separates
courage from terror.

copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney

Autumn Stroll

Paul and I walked
Antietam’s sunken road
away from
the observation tower
with me as guide
telling him about John Gordon’s
Alabama troops’ courage
and how the soil
turned a reddish brown.

A bus pulled into
the parking area
and released
fifty Chinese students
to read signs
and view the plowed fields
and split-rail fences.

Paul wondered aloud
what this place
meant to them
and how the fight
to free the slaves
and preserve the Union
reflected in China’s history.

We turned down
the road to the Roulette Farm
and a few students followed
mistaking my
recently re-read
The Gleam of Bayonets history
for the lecture
of an official battlefield guide.


copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

Antietam was a battle in the American Civil war. Link to the National Park Service webpage about the battle.

Clover Leaf

With a finger pressed
in chiseled white letters,
Delphi rubs silence
from the stones lining Arlington,
washes once bellicose soldiers
with an old prayer recited,
hears the long roll of drums.
Her bare feet press the echo
of church bells into the ground
beyond the bent green grass
grown about the singular flower
of the old Second Corp.


Copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

This is another poem from my past as I regroup from a week of spare creativity. Tomorrow will have a new poem, recent poem.

If There Was A God Above

In the autumn of eighteen sixty-four
Paul’s great grandfather
combed his long, dusty hair
removed the strands
and dropped them without thought
in the Arkansas river.

He leaned his shotgun against a tree.
He tied his horse’s reins to another.
His uniform, once grey,
faded, now, to a dusty butternut,
and had more patches
than original material.

He thought the careless Pins
foolish for letting him scout
to within sight of the Fort Gibson’s walls
bristling with cannon.

He thought how foolish
to let political blood lines split the five tribes
in a war of divided institutions
and headstrong ideas of right and wrong.

Paul’s great grandfather
thought of his abandoned Tahlequah home
where his brother’s tightly curled locks
were attached to a black silhouette
behind a glass and frame
if there was a god above.


copyright © 2020 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

“Pins” is a reference to Pin Indians. This was a derogatory term for Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles of the Indian territories (modern Oklahoma) who sided with the Union forces during the civil war. Click for Oklahoma State Historical Society entry.

Bound

In the American Civil War
during battle
a soldier fired his musket into the air
far above the enemy line.
Thou shalt not kill,
he quoted,
when his captain
ordered him
to lower his aim.

After the battle,
his captain
summoned him,
asked him why
he volunteered
at the first call.
Because my brother
signed the muster sheet
and I could not
let him go to war
alone.


copyright © 2019 Kenneth P. Gurney

postscript

In the early years of the American Civil War this scene took place more often than most people realize. There were many men on both sides trying to resolve their sense of duty to country with their sense of duty to God. This resolution was influenced by each man’s sense of duty to family. These our three sets of powerful feelings / emotions / oaths that each man had to prioritize and resolve how he was going to act during combat.

Imagine the inner conflict during a fire fight, when you feel you must fire your rifle and stand by your brother, but feel more strongly that killing, even in war, is murder and against God’s will. It takes a type of courage not usually discussed in books to stand in the line of battle and receive fire from an enemy trying to kill you, while you are doing your best not to kill them. At the same time you are trying to fulfill all the other obligations of manhood and duty so not to be thought a coward by your company.

Two interesting books are For Cause And Comrade, by McPherson. This book explores the motives for fighting in the civil war by the soldiers who volunteered 1861 to the end of 1862. Fighting Means Killing, Steplyk is a study of the effect of the war on the men who prosecuted it and how they reacted to the extreme stress of battle.

Albuquerque’s balloon fiesta starts its second week today. Once the sun rises a bit, the sky will be dotted with up to 250 balloons. That assumes the weather allows. High winds cancel lift off.

Love & Light

Kenneth