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Walt Whitman and the Civil War’s human toll
In an excerpt of From Battlefields Rising published in this month’s Humanities, Randall Fuller examines the role that the Civil War played in transforming Walt Whitman’s poetry. Whitman made his first attempt to capture the realities of war after the battle of Bull Run. He would later refer to the battle as a “crucifixion” that would haunt his work for the rest of his career, but in 1861 he was still reflecting much of the patriotic and martial characteristics of his era’s war poetry. As Randall describes it, the “poem not only celebrates the drums and bugles of war but attempts to become those drums and bugles.” Though not considered one of his great poems, there was something different in his perspective on the war than that of his contemporaries, even if the form and bombast were similar.
Yet anxiety permeates every line of Whitman’s first significant war poem. Behind the call to abolish daily life is a keen nostalgia for all that will soon be destroyed. The sound of war bursts “like a ruthless force, / Into the solemn church,” but instead of uniting the worshippers, it merely “scatter[s] the congregation.” The sacrifice of the bridegroom, enacted throughout the nation, erodes the most basic unit of social life: “no happiness must he now have with his bride.” Faith and domesticity, Whitman suggested, are the first casualties of the war.
By the time of his first war poem’s release, Randall sensed that Whitman was already becoming critical of his own optimism in Leaves of Grass originally published in 1855, “with its confident assertions of national destiny and personal freedom.” Whitman would continue to make additions and revisions to it over the next forty years, including adding his collection Drum-Taps to the book.
In the early days of the conflict, Whitman had rather blithely announced that the war could not be conveyed by “dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses.” The clash of a mighty nation was too massive, too epic, too freighted with masculine heroics to be entrusted to just any “pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas piano.”
The war, he wrote, awaited “a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing, carrying a rifle on [his] shoulder,” to sing its bold meanings. Early in the war, he had aspired, however vicariously, to be that “strong man.” After “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” he would no longer hope for that. The poem is light-years ahead of the simplistic boosterism of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and it is different in tone and intention from the earlier poetry of Leaves of Grass. Gone are the expansive catalogs, the imperious persona, the unbounded optimism, and the overbearing insistence on union and harmony. The speaker of “A Sight in Camp” is more concerned with the human toll of a disastrous battle. When its narrator lifts “with light fingers” the coarse blankets draping the dead, he has no idea who or what he will find. No longer can he assume that the reality of his situation will coincide with his wishes. Only after studying the “gaunt and grim” face of a stranger does the speaker recognize the common humanity shared by dead and living alike. “Who are you, my dear comrade?”