The Picket-Guard

Ethelinda Beers 1827–1879
“All quiet along the Potomac,” they say,
      “Except, now and then, a stray picket
Is shot as he walks on his beat to and fro,
      By a rifleman hid in the thicket.
’Tis nothing—a private or two, now and then,
      Will not count in the news of the battle;
Not an officer lost—only one of the men
      Moaning out, all alone, his death-rattle.”
 
                        *    *    *    *    *    *
 
All quiet along the Potomac to-night,
      Where the soldiers lie peacefully dreaming;
Their tents, in the rays of the clear autumn moon
      Or the light of the watch-fire, are gleaming.
A tremulous sigh, as the gentle night-wind
      Through the forest-leaves softly is creeping;
While stars up above, with their glittering eyes,
      Keep guard—for the army is sleeping.
 
There’s only the sound of the lone sentry’s tread,
      As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,
And thinks of the two in the low trundle-bed
      Far away in the cot on the mountain.
His musket falls slack—his face, dark and grim,
      Grows gentle with memories tender,
As he mutters a prayer for the children asleep—
      For their mother—may Heaven defend her!
 
The moon seems to shine just as brightly as then,
      That night, when the love yet unspoken
Leaped up to his lips—when low-murmured vows
      Were pledged to be ever unbroken.
Then drawing his sleeve roughly over his eyes,
      He dashes off tears that are welling,
And gathers his gun closer up to its place,
      As if to keep down the heart-swelling.
 
He passes the fountain, the blasted pine-tree,
      The footstep is lagging and weary;
Yet onward he goes, through the broad belt of light,
      Toward the shade of the forest so dreary.
Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?
      Was it moonlight so suddenly flashing?
It looked life a rifle—“Ha! Mary, good-by!”
      And the life-blood is ebbing and plashing.
 
All quiet along the Potomac to-night,
      No sound save the rush of the river;
While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead—
      The picket’s off duty forever!

Source: “Words for the Hour”: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry, edited by Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005)

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Poet Ethelinda Beers 1827–1879

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Nature, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

Biography

Ethel Lynn Beers was born Ethelinda Eliot in 1827 in Goshen, New York. A poet and short-story writer, Beers is best known for her Civil War poem “The Picket Guard,” later known as “All Quiet Along the Potomac,” which was first published in Harper’s in 1861. Her book, All Quiet Along the Potomac and Other Poems, appeared in 1879.
 
Ethel Lynn Beers died in Orange, New Jersey in 1879.

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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