Saturday, April 26, 2008

Little Giffen

OUT of the focal and foremost fire,
Out of the hospital walls as dire;
Smitten of grape-shot and gangrene,
(Eighteenth battle, and he sixteen!)
Spectre! such as you seldom see,
Little Giffen, of Tennessee!

“Take him and welcome!” the surgeons said;
Little the doctor can help the dead!
So we took him; and brought him where
The balm was sweet in the summer air;
And we laid him down on a wholesome bed,—
Utter Lazarus, heel to head!

And we watched the war with abated breath,—
Skeleton Boy against skeleton Death.
Months of torture, how many such?
Weary weeks of the stick and crutch;
And still a glint of the steel-blue eye
Told of a spirit that would n’t die,

And didn’t. Nay, more! in death’s despite
The crippled skeleton “learned to write.”
“Dear mother,” at first, of course; and then
“Dear captain,” inquiring about the men.
Captain’s answer: “Of eighty-and-five,
Giffen and I are left alive.”

Word of gloom from the war, one day;
Johnson pressed at the front, they say.
Little Giffen was up and away;
A tear—his first—as he bade good-by,
Dimmed the glint of his steel-blue eye.
“I ’ll write, if spared!” There was news of the fight;
But none of Giffen.—He did not write.

I sometimes fancy that, were I king
Of the princely Knights of the Golden Ring,
With the song of the minstrel in mine ear,
And the tender legend that trembles here,
I ’d give the best on his bended knee,
The whitest soul of my chivalry,
For “Little Giffen,” of Tennessee.

by Francis Orray Ticknor
1822 - 1874
Georgia physican and poet

The character, Little Giffen, could easily have been my great-great grandfather, William Ferguson Smith (1845-1912) because he left home for battle as young as Giffen. Providentially spared, he returned to his native Butts County and became a well-respected citizen. In fact, he wrote a book, Rival Lovers: A Story of The War Between the States.

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