by Thomas Ward (“Flaccus”)
When on the field of battle the soldier sinks to death,
And to his suffering country’s cause devotes his latest breath,
His country, ever grateful, rewards him with a name
On everlasting marble carved, and hands him down to fame.
But in our early struggle, o’errun by cruel foes,
Full many a nameless martyr sank, weighed down by bitter woes:
Who suffers like the soldier, should reap renown as well—
Oh! sure he should not be forgot, whose trials now I tell.
‘T was night in deep mid-winter, when fields were choked with snow,
And widest streams were bridged with ice, and keenest blasts did blow;
A heavy muffled tramp through the village streets went by:
All shuddered in their beds, for they knew the foe was nigh.
Soon from that fearful silence alarming clamors peal,
And rising gleams along the snow the dreadful truth reveal;
‘Rouse! rouse ye all! the town is fired!’—cries friend to friend—’and lo!
The triple ranks! the flashing steel!—we’re mastered by the foe!’
Wide flames, with showers of dropping stars, that quench the stars on high,
Now flapping loud their mighty wings, rush flying up the sky:
Now mothers clasp their children, and wail aloud their woes,
And gathering, hide their little store from savage plundering foes.
For oft the rude marauders had plied their cruel trade,
And HEDDEN, with a few bold hearts, had oft the robbers stayed:
But now with stealthy step, at the hour of midnight dead,
They come!—they burst the doors—they drag the old man from his bed.
‘Renounce thy faith! yield up thy mates! or, by King George, we’ll cast
Thy rebel limbs on yonder snows to stiffen in the blast!’
‘My limbs are little worth.’ he cried; ‘their strength is nearly gone;
My tongue shall ne’er belie my heart, nor shame my cause: lead on!’
Then furious all, they throttled him; when ‘Hold!’ their leader cries,
‘Despatch him not! we’ll try his pith, before the rebel dies:
Let him with us unclad return! and though unmoved by steel,
Perchance a march along the snows will cool his patriot zeal!’
Loud yells applaud the sentence!—then, frantic with despair,
Wife, children kneel for mercy, but they find no mercy there:
For they rudely thrust them by, and they drag the old man forth,
And crouching quake his bare limbs, as they feel the cutting North.
Then rings the shouldered musket, then taps the rattling drum,
And with rapid step they tramp, for the freezing winds benumb:
By the savage light of flames on their dreary march they go,
That shoot their shadows far before, along the glaring snow.
No pity for their victim would move their hearts of stone,
But still his bare feet tread the snows that chill him to the bone:
And many an icy splinter would gash them with its blade—
The blood that stains his every step their brutal march betrayed.
And when his stiffened limbs would lag, by age and sickness lamed,
With bayonet-thrust they urge him on, till cruelty is shamed:
God bless the soldier’s heart! who cried, ‘This sight I cannot see!’
And round him threw his blanket warm, that clothed him to the knee.
Now hard as marble pavement, black Passaic stops the way:
Like serpent stiff in winter sleep, her torpid volume lay;
And in the midnight hush not a sound she gave the ear,
Save the long peal of parting ice, like thunder crackling near.
But still the word is ‘March!’ and they tramp the icy floor:
But the old man’s feet are numb, and they feel the cold no more.
Full many a weary mile he drags, but ere the break of morn,
In prison thrust, he drops at once, exhausted and forlorn.
Why linger in my story? His heavy trials past
Broke down the feeble strength of age—he drooped and sank at last:
But GOD the martyr’s cruel death has well avenged, for see!
His murderers beaten from the soil—his land, his children free!
In Newark the Revolutionary War was a civil conflict, driving a wedge between neighbors and dividing families. A stalwart of the American side, Joseph Hedden Jr. oversaw confiscation of property belonging to “persons gone over to the enemy.” His zeal in ferreting out Loyalists and their possessions made him an obvious target for retaliation in the nighttime raid of January 25, 1780. The forced march to New York in unbearable cold and subsequent confinement in Provost prison hastened his death at the age of 51.
“The Martyr” appeared in the September 1841 number of The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine, as part of a cycle entitled Passaic: A Group of Poems Touching That River.