A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands, They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun—hark to the musical clank, Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink. Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles, Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just 5 entering the ford—while, Scarlet and blue and snowy white, The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.
Cavalry Crossing a Ford eText - eText
Cavalry troops during the Civil War often put a dent in their scabbards to keep the swords from rattling, but the rest of their equipment still made a lot of noise.
Whitman's source for this poem has been identified as a dispatch from a New York Herald correspondent who was watching cavalry from General Lovell Rousseau's command crossing the Coosa River at Ten Islands Ford in Alabama in July, 1864.
This poem is remarkable for its precise and colorful imagery. The poet seems to be standing at some distance from the scene, able to take it all in and recount every detail of the sounds and sights as the troops move across the ford. Aside from Whitman's colorful imagery, his choice of verbs suggests constant movement.
A common theme of Whitman's Civil War poems is the contrast between beauty--like the guidons described here--and the realities of war. In this case, "the negligent rest on their saddles" points to their exhaustion.
A detail that lends credibility to the poem--cavalry troops, because they rode in the sun all day, were truly "brown-faced," a detail that only an observer would catch.