Excerpts from Stephen Vincent Benet’s
Epic Poem of the Civil War:
John Brown’s Body
The crows fly over the Henry House, through the red sky of
Judith Henry, bedridden, watches them through the clouded
glass of old sight.
(July is hot in Virginia – a parched, sun-leathered farmer sawing
Dry sticks with a cicada-saw that creaks all the lukewarm night.)
But Judith Henry’s hands are cool in spite of all midsummer’s
Cool, muted and
frail with age like the smoothness of old yellow
Her years go past her in bed like falling waters and the waters
of a millwheel turning,
And she is not ill
content to lie there, dozing and calm, remembering
She has known Time like the cock of red dawn and Time like a
tired clock slowing;
She has seen so many
faces and bodies, young and then old, so
She knows that she must leave them soon. She is not afraid to
flow with that river’s flowing.
But the wrinkled earth still hangs at her sufficed breast like a
weary child, she is unwilling to go while she still has milk for
She will go in her sleep, most likely, she has the sunk death-sleep
of the old already,
(War-bugles by the Potomac, you cannot reach her ears with
your brass lyric, piercing the crowded dark.)
It does not matter, the farm will go on, the farm and the children
bury her in her best dress, the plow cut its furrow, steady,
(War-horses of the Shenandoah, why should you hurry so fast
to tramp the last ashy fire from so feeble and retired a spark?)
There is nothing here but a creek and a house called the Henry
House, a farm and a bedridden woman and people with coun-
There is nothing for you here. And La Haye Sainte was a quiet
farm and the mile by it a quiet mile.
And Lexington was a place to work in like any one of a dozen
dull, little places.
And they raised good crops at Blenheim till the soldiers came
and spoiled the crops for a while.
The red evening
fades into twilight, the crows have gone to
It is cooler now on the hill – and in the camps it is cooler, where
the untried soldiers find their bivouac hard.
Where, from North
and South, the blind wrestlers of armies
And Johnston hurries his tired brigades from the Valley, to
bring them up in time before McDowell can fall on Beauregard.
Judith Henry wakened with the first light,
She had the short sleep of age, and the long patience.
She waited for breakfast in vague, half-drowsy wonderment
At various things. Yesterday some men had gone by
And stopped for a drink of water. She’d heard they were soldiers.
She couldn’t be sure. It had seemed to worry the folks
But it took more than soldiers and such to worry her now.
Young people always worried a lot too much.
No soldiers that had any sense would fight around here.
She’d had a good night. Today would be a good day.
The hands of the scuffed brown clock in the kitchen of the
Henry House point to nine-forty-five.
Judith Henry does not hear the clock, she hears in the sky a
vast dim roar like piles of heavy lumber crashingly falling
They are carrying her in her bed to a ravine below the Sudley
Road, maybe she will be safe there, maybe the battle will go
by and leave her alive.
The crows have been scared from their nests by the strange
crashing, they circle in the sky like a flight of blackened leaves,
wheeling and calling.
Judith Henry, Judith
Henry, they have moved you back at last, in
It is not safe, but now there is no place safe, you are between the
the artillery, and the incessant noise comes to your
The walls of the house are riddled, the brown clock in the kitchen
gouged by a
bullet, a jar leaks red preserves on the cupboard
The casual guns do
not look for you, Judith Henry, they find you in
Judith Henry, Judith
Henry, your body has born its ghost at last,
Terrified ghost, so rudely dishoused by such casual violence, be
at rest; there are others dishoused in this falling night, the
falling night is a sack of darkness, indifferent as Saturn to
wars or generals, indifferent to shame or victory.
War is a while but peace is a while and soon enough the earth-
colored hands of the earth-workers will scoop the last buried
shells and the
last clotted bullet-slag from the racked
And the rustling visitors drive out fair Sundays to look at the
monument near the rebuilt house, buy picture postcards and
wonder dimly what you were like when you lived and what
you thought when you knew you were going to die.