How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman's Poetry
By the fall of 1861, Whitman had come to believe he needed to do something for the war effort. His first act was to contribute a patriotic broadside that appeared simultaneously in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript, the New York Leader, and Harper’s Weekly:
BEAT! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he now have with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
The poem is rich with hearty imperatives: Sweep away schools, work, even weddings: war is at hand! As with much patriotic verse of the era, Whitman’s poem not only celebrates the drums and bugles of war but attempts to become those drums and bugles—to embody the martial music that would lead an army to victory.
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.
The source of this insight and the inspiration for the poem was Bull Run. On July 21, 1861, a month and a half after the disastrous skirmish at Big Bethel, hundreds of curiosity seekers and politicians from Washington had filled their picnic hampers and piled into carriages and veronicas for the twenty-mile ride to Manassas Junction. The day was insufferably hot and dusty, but the scalding Virginia summer did little to alter the atmosphere of general merriment. The crowd of spectators expected nothing less than to witness a heroic battle that would conclude, if God had any say in the matter, with the punctual reunification of the country.
What they saw instead was panic and confusion. Entire companies of men fled, some dazed and bloodstained, some screaming in pain. They ran from the battlefield as fast as they could, stunned by what they had just experienced in nearby fields and woods. The fear was contagious. Hearing hysterical soldiers shriek, “Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped!,” the civilians fled in as hurried and disorganized a fashion as the disgraced Army of the Potomac.
At the time of the First Battle of Bull Run, John Newton Breed was twenty-three years old: a husband, father, and bugler in the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. In his manuscript reminiscence written more than thirty years later, Breed attempted to tell in clear and unemotional language what it felt like to hear bullets slap into the meat of the person beside him, to see bloody pieces of human beings scattered underfoot, and to march toward an enemy entrenched less than a hundred yards away. “As we crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford,” he recollected, “we saw for the first time the results of real war. It was a new sight probably to everyone in the regiment; the dead and wounded lying where they fell.”
Made solemn by these scenes, Breed’s battalion continued toward the field of action, where things only got worse. A mile from the Bull Run River, he saw “the killed and wounded . . . lying by the score, and rifle and cannon balls were flying thick and fast.” He asked himself
whether I should go forward and do my duty, or slink out with the field music. I was frightened, and am not ashamed to own it. I thought it was sure death if I went on. I thought of my wife and helpless child, what a pity it was to leave them to the mercy of the world; while, on the other hand, I could not be a coward, for I was the descendant of revolutionary heroes, therefore I would go where duty called.
Later in the afternoon, something occurred that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
I had gone but twenty or thirty steps when a cannon-ball, passing a few feet from my head, struck a comrade who was walking nine or ten feet from us and severed his head from his body as clean as it could have been done by a guillotine. The headless trunk remained trembling, and still holding his gun in his hand—I stood gazing on the terrible object, unable to move hand or foot—I do not know that I breathed—how long I know not—it seemed hours, but it could not have been but minutes, it may have been but a few seconds—I can remember five other cannon-balls striking the road at my side and in front, and yet I could not stir, until at last the headless trunk swayed and fell, almost to my feet.
Whitman later called Bull Run a “crucifixion,” a defeat he included in the two days “of all the war . . . I can never forget.” (The other was April 14, 1865, the day of Lincoln’s assassination.) The defeat obsessed him for years, appearing again and again in his writings. Although he had been in Brooklyn at the time and had yet to see the war up close, he wrote about the battle as if he had been there, relying upon newspaper accounts to provide details of the chaotic retreat. “The Saturday and Sunday of the battle (20th, 21st) had been parch’d and hot to an extreme,” he reported,
the dust, the grime and smoke, in layers, sweated in, follow’d by other layers again sweated in, absorb’d by those excited souls—their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air—stirr’d up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery, &c.—all the men with this coating of murk and sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge—a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.
There is something deeply personal about this description. Julia Ward Howe, soon to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had commemorated the first wave of volunteers by comparing them to “new-fledged eaglets” who met “unscared the dazzling front of day.” William Cullen Bryant and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. boasted of the heroic recruits in their own poems, “Our Country’s Call” and “The Wide-Awake Man.” But Whitman’s description of these same men after Bull Run is stripped of patriotic ideology, of cheap glory or contrived heroics. His focus instead is on the fear and humiliation of the soldiers following a crushing defeat—a perspective made possible in part by his emotional identification with the men and their experience.
Like John Newton Breed, who had never seen war until he marched into its chaotic maw, Whitman would be changed forever by Bull Run. Never again would he boast so confidently about the future of America. “The dream of humanity, the vaunted Union we thought so strong, so impregnable,” he wrote after the war, recalling the first summer of war, “lo! it seems already smash’d like a china plate.” Implicitly criticizing the poetry of Leaves of Grass, with its confident assertions of national destiny and personal freedom, he asked of the young recruits, “Where are the vaunts, and the proud boasts with which you went forth? Where are your banners, and your bands of music, and your ropes to bring back prisoners? Well, there isn’t a band playing—and there isn’t a flag but clings ashamed and lank to its staff.”
It wasn’t just young men who were wounded in the rout at Bull Run, Whitman asserted; it was the nation. “The fact is,” he reported, that this “hour was one of the three or four of those crises we had then and afterward, during the fluctuations of four years, when human eyes appear’d at least just as likely to see the last breath of the Union as to see it continue.” He described an incident in which one “of our returning colonels express’d in public that night . . . the opinion that it was useless to fight.” No one in “that large crowd of officers and gentlemen” bothered to contradict him.
The malaise and hand-wringing that inevitably followed Bull Run also prompted the writing of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” In it, Whitman tried to record as honestly as possible the social costs of the war while at the same time conveying the urgency of restoring the Union:
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.
Shrill and mildly panicked, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” is by no means a great Whitman poem. Yet it manages to express a sentiment that few of his poetic contemporaries were willing to articulate so early in the war: Saving the Union would require the ugly realities of modern warfare. The nation would have to become acquainted with the stench of terror and the sorrows of bloodshed if it were to be reunified, and in the aftermath, celebrating America would become increasingly difficult.
A week or so before Bull Run, Whitman had rather blithely suggested in a chatty note to his brother George, “All of us here think the rebellion as good as broke—no matter if the war does continue some months yet.” In truth, George would spend the next four years in the Union army, marching thousands of miles, camping in swamps, riverbeds, and unprotected fields in the hottest of summer days and coldest of winter nights, subsisting on hardtack and whatever game could be shot, fighting in more than twenty battles, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness. Of the original 1,100 enlistees in his regiment, George Whitman was among the less than 20 percent who survived. Referring to this fact, a comrade called him “just the luckiest man in the American army.” Rising from private to major, he was finally captured toward the end of the war and placed in a rebel prison, which he managed, improbably, to survive as well. Always more laconic than his older brother, he would compress all the terror and hardship of those four years into a simple phrase scrawled in a hasty letter to his mother: “it was mighty trying to a fellows nerves, as the balls was flying around pretty thick.”
Even after the shock of Bull Run, the sequence of events George Whitman would experience seemed impossible to imagine in the fall of 1861. Almost as unlikely was the transformation of Whitman’s poetry. Emerson’s prediction that Leaves of Grass marked the “beginning of a great career” would prove to be correct. The gaudy emerald-green volume of poems first published in 1855 and revised during the next four decades would launch one of the most remarkable careers in American literary history. It would permanently alter what poetry could be, what it could look and sound like, what it could discuss and signify.
Endowing that poetry with meaning, however, was the Civil War. The war made a significant impact on Whitman’s art in Drum-Taps, a collection of poems later absorbed into Leaves of Grass, and in the nonfiction prose of Specimen Days and Memoranda During the War, written a decade or so later. More important, it provided an experience bigger than Whitman, bigger than the nation, bigger than poetry itself. It did so, he observed years later, by revealing to him “some pang of anguish—some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote.”
Walt Whitman was standing in a deserted battlefield on Christmas Day 1862, scribbling in a small notebook. Dead horses and mules littered the countryside. Splintered stumps stood where fine, stately oaks and maples had recently grown. The earth, loamy, damp, and smelling of minerals, was churned from artillery.
Standing in the aftermath of battle, Whitman could “hear plainly the music of a good band, at some Brigadier’s headquarters, a mile and a half away.” He continued: “Then the drum tap from one direction or other comes constantly breaking in. . . . I hear the sound of bugle calls, very martial, at this distance.” Something about the music altered his mood, made him both pensive and hopeful. The landscape was suddenly transformed. “Amid all this pleasant scene, under the sweet sky and warm sun, I sit and think over the battle of last Saturday week.”
That battle was Fredericksburg: the Union debacle in which his brother George had been wounded, the battle that would end the year with yet another Northern defeat. Gunfire had been so heavy, according to a Confederate survivor, that “a chicken could not live in that field when we open on it.” Whitman would later describe it as “the most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever yet known in the earth’s wars.” To a visitor at the White House, Abraham Lincoln offered this assessment: “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.” The president had recently fired the inert and unresponsive George McClellan and replaced him with Ambrose Burnside to lead the Army of the Potomac. That choice proved disastrous. By no means a military strategist, Burnside impetuously led 120,000 troops across the Rappahannock in the hopes of attacking Fredericksburg. General Lee was waiting for him, his troops heavily fortified, entrenched on high ground. Marching into this trap, the Union suffered 13,000 casualties.
In Brooklyn, Whitman had happened across his brother’s misspelled name in the list of casualties printed by the New York newspapers after the battle. He immediately left home, presumably encouraged by his family, and boarded a train to Washington. Somewhere along the way, his pocket was picked, and for the next few days he wandered penniless through the capital’s thirty or so hospitals. He searched without success for George, haunting the teeming wards and makeshift infirmaries that had been set up throughout the city in tents, old taverns, and even the Greek-columned U.S. Patent Office. Finally, he borrowed enough money to take the train to Falmouth, Virginia, closer to the battlefield.
There, he stumbled into the chaos of defeat. The Army of the Potomac had been torn to shreds in its misguided assault upon the entrenched Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights, near Fredericksburg. Now, the wounded lay in makeshift clusters, awaiting treatment. Men leaned against trees and tents, wrapped in blankets, their heads bandaged, their clothes caked with dirt and blood. In this place of misery, Whitman soon found George, whose injury turned out to be slight. The poet left no description of the brief reunion that followed, but promptly wrote to his mother to inform her of the good news. Then, he strolled from camp to camp, asking questions, taking notes. He spoke with men clustered around fires and watched wagonloads of the injured depart for Washington. He stepped inside the hospital tents, where doctors were soaked to the skin in blood. One of the first things he encountered outside the field hospital was a somber row of “[s]everal dead bodies . . . each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket.”
The sight of these bodies, which he hastily recorded in a small, hand-sewn notebook, would become the source for one of his most moving war poems, “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The poem opens with its speaker emerging “so early sleepless, / As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near the hospital tent.” The morning stroll is abruptly terminated when the speaker discovers “Three forms . . . untended lying”:
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the
first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair,
and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
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?”
Stepping away from the row of the dead, Whitman encountered something even more disturbing: a pile of refuse stacked as high as his shoulders. The tang of blood was in the air, mixed with wood smoke and gunpowder, and upon closer inspection the pile of offal turned out to be “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening.” There was, he wrote, “a full load for a one-horse cart.”
For weeks and months to come, the image returned to him, unbidden, in vivid flashes, horrible. His description of the heap of severed limbs appeared in letters home, in notebooks, and eventually in the memoirs he published after the war. It changed his entire perspective, reoriented his vision. The poet who had sung hymns to the wholeness of the human form, who had praised “the body electric,” would soon turn his attention to the disfigured and maimed, to men who lay in the hospitals with arms and legs missing, bodies resembling meat, men who lay inert beneath the coarse woolen blankets, quietly suffering, the dying and the dead.