By Walt Whitman
90 pages
New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1995
ISBN # 0-486-28507-3 (pbk)

Comments of Bob Corbett
December 2010

This small book of poetry and prose contains most of Whitman’s writings about The Civil War. The first section, his poetry, presents everyday details with power, visually a world beyond my experience. I was quite moved by his description of the immediate response to the war, and how men just dropped everything and fled off to the war. I have always heard stories from my father and grandfather’s generations of a quite similar response to both WWI and WWII, but I’ve never experience anything like it in my own time. His poem “First O Songs For A Prelude” contains good examples:

To the drum-taps prompt,
The young men falling in and arming,
The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the blacksmiths’ hammer, tost aside with
The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court,
The driver deserting his wagon in the street, jumping down throwing the reins abruptly down on
   the horses’ backs,
The salesman leaving the store, the boss, book-keeper, porter, all leaving . . .

In the poem Cavalry Crossing a Ford he paints a vivid picture of less romantic aspects of war in the simple verbal portrait of the riders crossing a stream.

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 entering the ford- while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white,
The guidon flags flutter gaily in the wind.

The same reality and insight is captured in An Army Corps on the March

With its cloud of skirmishes in advance,
With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and the now as irregular volley,
The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on, glittering dimply, toiling under the sun – the dust-cover’d men, In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,
With artillery interspers’d – the wheels rumble, the horses sweat,
As the army corps advances.

In the magnificent short poem “Come Up From The Fields Father” Whitman captures the terror and excitement when a letter arrives from a son in the war, and a young boy is calling his father, mother and others to hurry to read the mail. I was reading it with baited breath wondering the outcome. But Whitman was less interested in the content of the letter than in the feelings shown by the family who have been called.

Whitman left me with a sense that this war was much more like wars we hear about today in third world countries, fought with unimagined cruelty and brutality. He captures the feeling tone of that horror.

The most stunning poem of the volume is one with which I have long been familiar, his famous ode to Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And though of him I love.

. . .

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden birds is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements’
Sings by himself a song.

And then the powerful last lines:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Venus is this star, the lilacs are spring and return and the bird in seclusion, the hermit thrush is, of course, Whitman himself.

In the later prose section of this book he writes of the day of Lincoln’s death, some years later. In one place he says:

“So the day, as I say, was propitious. Early herbage, early flowers, were out. (I remember where I was stopping at the time, the season being advanced, there were many lilacs in full bloom. By one of those caprices that enter and give tinge to events without being at all a part of them, I find myself always reminded of the great tragedy of that day by the sight and odor of these blossoms. It never fails.)”

The prose section is less exciting for its aesthetics than for the content. These are letters and other prose writings on the war. Whitman worked in hospitals, both in the field and in Washington, DC for most of the war. He expresses a deep satisfaction in tending soldiers, not with medical skills, but with love and care and patience, giving his time to them and trying to raise the spirits of these wounded, sick and dying.

Even throughout those prose writings Lincoln is never far away, but it is revealing in our age of the immediacy of the news, that often Lincoln would be watching soldiers march by him in Washington and the soldiers themselves not even know he was there. In one such march Whitman notes:

“However, there was a great many more than half the army passed without noticing Mr. Lincoln and the others, for there was a great crowd all through the streets, especially here, and the place where the President stood was not conspicuous from the rest."

I love how he documented these little talked-about scenes. He had a sensitive eye for what was going on around him.

However, I did have a couple laughs on Whitman as well. He did not like the young women nurses and volunteers around the soldiers and much more trusted the older matrons as caregivers.

“Then it remains to be distinctly said that few or no young ladies, under the irresistible conventions of society, answer the practical requirements of nurses for soldiers. Middle-aged or healthy and good condition’d elderly women, mothers of children, are always the best. Many of the wounded must be handled. A hundred things which cannot be gainsay’d, must occur and must be done. The presence of a good middle-aged or elderly woman, the magnetic touch of hands, the expressive features of the mother, the silent soothing of her presence, her words, her knowledge and privileges arrived at only through having had children, are precious and final qualifications.”

However, the prose section is primarily devoted to letters in which he details the untold hours he spent in hospitals and army field camps tending to the wounded, describing in touching and moving detail the horrors of the wounds and the suffering of the troops, both Union and Confederate.

This is a marvelous little book, so carefully selected to Whitman’s response to the war, that we are treated to powerful insights to the everyday lived experiences, tragedies and feeling tone of the war years.

Bob Corbett



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