Text of the Poem

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank,
Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink.
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just     5
entering the ford—while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.


  1. A detail that lends credibility to the poem--cavalry troops, because they rode in the sun all day, were truly "brown-faced," a detail that only an observer would catch. 

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. This poem exhibits precise and colorful imagery, like the "musical clank" of the soldiers' arms and the "silvery river."  The speaker seems to be standing at some distance from the scene, able to take in and recount every detail of the sounds and sights as the troops move across the ford.  A common theme of Whitman's Civil War poems is the contrast between beauty--like the guidons described here--and the realities of war.  In this case, "the negligent rest on their saddles" points to the soldiers' exhaustion.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Whitman's source for this poem has been identified as a dispatch from a* New York Herald* correspondent who was watching cavalry from General Lovell Rousseau's command crossing the Coosa River at Ten Islands Ford in Alabama in July, 1864.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Cavalry troops during the Civil War often put a dent in their scabbards to keep the swords from rattling, but the rest of their equipment still made a lot of noise.

    — Stephen Holliday