“All Quiet Along the Potomac:” the Lonely Duty of a Picket

by Alison Arnold

“The Picket Guard” by N.C. Wyeth, painted in 1922, was inspired by the Civil War poem of the same name by Ethel Lynn Beers (below).

Cold today with rain.  Very uncomfortable.  Nothing to do but fix up our tents what we can to keep warm.  Picket detail today.

Private David Meechan, 18th Massachusetts Infantry
October 11, 1862

The journal of Duxbury soldier David Meechan tells of frequent deployments as “pickets.” In military terminology, a picket refers to soldiers placed on a line forward of a camp or the main body of troops to guard against an enemy advance. It was often tedious and unpopular duty requiring soldiers to remain awake through much of the night. In this particular instance, the 18th Massachusetts, with the Army of the Potomac, was serving picket duty near Sharpsburg, Maryland during the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. “Real time” daily posts of Private Meechan’s journal can be found here.

The sad story of a picket was depicted by poet Ethel Lynn Beers of New York in her melancholy, “The Picket Guard,” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1861. Two years later, it was set to music and re-named “All Quiet along the Potomac.” The haunting tune and lyrics, evoking the experiences of so many soldiers, became tremendously popular and is one of the better known songs of the Civil War era.

The Picket Guard
by Ethel Lynn Beers

“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.
‘T is 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, the 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-fires, 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 he 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 wondrously flashing?
It looked like 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.

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