First South

The First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment, organized in August 1862

Of course, they were first—under that palmetto flag
whose palm fronds crossed into the stars
and bars, how could they not throw down
the hooked hoes, the baskets they shook to fan 
the rice? Who remembers
which man said yes first, remembers which twig

catches first when the forest lights?
Prince Rivers. Robert Sutton.
Caesar Johnson. Poll McKee. 
William Bronson. Bristow Eddy. 
Henry McIntyre. Robert Freeman.  
London Bailey. Cato Wright.

A partial roster. Defying naysayers at the north, 
daily reducing slavery’s prophecies
to history, no nibbling away at guns
in the Battle of the Hundred Pines
but infantry picking off Rebel cavalry, 
threshing blood from blood thirty miles above the mouth 

of the St. Marys River. Florida, late January. 
Their first skirmish. Smell of horses, smell of resin.
A minor battle, according to those who believe war
measured best by biggest massacre—
as if being first killed is the chief reason 
in being first. A partial memory: 

their colonel, deep in his notebooks, 
recording their grit—first shots, first dead—
for his report, rushing words across the pages
before he loses the sounds, the images
(the pines the men the moon the guns the blood),
before the mind forgets, as a sentinel forgets last week’s

countersign. Then paperwork for supplies. A partial
inventory—canteen, gun-sling, haversack, 
cartridge-box, cap-pouch, shoe-strings, 
bayonet—their discarded things, 
their molasses-and-water, their hardtack.
What they kept—regimental, personal.

Called a regiment marching into the future
needing no Proclamation to resist, they were 
piloting gunboats, requisitioning lumber;
first to push past anyone who said wait
they were loading their muskets with a will that means fight, 
they were marching into a country first to forget.

Copyright © 2024 by Melissa Range. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 29, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.