The Civil War only enhanced George Whitman's soldierly satisfaction; for his brother Walt, however, the horrors halted an outpouring of great poetry
By Robert Roper
December 1, 2008
On May 16, 1864, George Washington Whitman, a captain in the Union army, wrote to his mother, Louisa, in Brooklyn:
I am all right so far. We had a pretty hard battle on the 6th. I dont know what the battle is called but it was about 5 miles from Germania Ford on the Rapidan River [Virginia]. our Regt. suffered severely loseing 70 in killed and wounded. I lost nearly half of my Co but we won the fight and the rebel loss was pretty heavy. . . . There has been fighting going on every day.
The battle would be known as the Wilderness—the bloody opening to the last campaign of the Civil War. Whitman, 34 years old, led his company in a similar, equally ferocious battle five days later, at Spotsylvania Court House. Three of his comrades were shot dead by his side, and afterward his uniform was “riddled & wrinkled & slit in the most curious manner ever seen”—the result, his friends concluded, of having been raked by grapeshot from an artillery shell exploding at his feet.
“Of the officers, in their original position, that went with the regiment,” George’s brother, the poet Walt Whitman, wrote a year later, “not a single one remains; and not a dozen out of over a thousand of the rank and file. Most of his comrades have fallen by death.” Walt wrote several accounts of his younger brother’s extraordinary military career; there is understandably a tone of pride in these accounts, as well as one of frank wonderment that the brother whom Walt at times gently mocked for his bluff temperament had survived.
“George was just the luckiest man in the American army,” another officer told the poet. “Consider what tight skirmishes he has been in.” Some of these skirmishes were among the most murderous passages of combat in the entire war. They included the taking of Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam in September 1862 and the suicidal assault on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December. The war as George experienced it was often war in its most awful mode—war anticipating the epochal slaughters of World War I, battles such as the Somme and the Marne.
The Whitmans came from Brooklyn; George and Walt were two of six sons of a troubled, brilliant, declining, aspiring, woefully afflicted clan. The dark terrors of the 19th century shadowed their hearth, and madness touched several of their number. Yet somehow they did rise. Walt, born in 1819, became America’s most original poet, author of the country’s most influential book of poetry of the last century and a half, Leaves of Grass. That kind of anomaly begs explanation, almost—as well one might try to explain the eyes of a tiger. But George, born in 1829, and Jeff Whitman, born in 1833, were unusually gifted as well, and their accomplishments are likewise hard to explain. Jeff, Walt’s favorite brother, received no formal education after about age 14, yet he competed with university graduates to become one of the 19th century’s great engineers. He depended less on “formulae and mathematical deductions,” wrote one awed colleague, than on an “intuitive mechanical insight” that found solutions to maddeningly complex hydrological problems almost offhandedly.
George was also especially able—his gift being for war. Again and again the gods placed him in situations of maximum peril, and again and again he escaped. His behavior under fire led to a number of promotions. At war’s end, as a brevetted lieutenant colonel, he was among the most-honored veterans of the 51st New York Volunteers, a legendary infantry regiment sorely winnowed by injury and death. Early on, as is clear in a letter he wrote to his mother after an especially fierce battle in a swamp, he made a valuable discovery about himself:
The enemy had a great advantage in knowing the ground and could pick his position while we had to follow without knowing . . . they thought they would tole us up to the Bateries and then slaughter us . . . they did not think we would go in that water and fight. . . . I was as calm and cool as I am at any time. . . . So Mammy I think we done a pretty good days work . . . marching 15 or 16 miles and fighting with boots filed with water. . . . I wish Walt if he is home, or Jeff would send me some papers often it is a great treat to get a sight of a New York paper I should like one giveing a discription of the battle.
The brothers’ reliance on one another for a useful “discription” of what they were going through—for some sort of objective, analytic account—is one of the signal aspects of the voluminous Whitman family correspondence. In letters written at the rate sometimes of several a day, in newspapers mailed hot off the press to the front, and in diaries shared with an inquisitive brother or two, the Whitmans worked at constructing an overall theory and practice of the war—a war that in its scope and murderousness threatened to overwhelm each of them singly. Their outposts on the conflict were radically different, yet complementary. George, the ardent soldier, wrote vivid battle accounts. These fed Walt’s hunger to learn all he could of “war, red war,” and his poetry and journalism of the war owe a profound debt to the accounts in George’s many letters home.
Jeff, who worked in Brooklyn as an engineer, kept the family going financially during the war and meanwhile insinuated himself into the city’s political structure. From his New York outpost he was able to advise both his brothers on how to proceed in situations requiring a degree of savoir-faire (and good contacts). Walt spent the war mostly in Washington, where he volunteered in the military hospitals. These hospitals—hard to distinguish from foul charnel houses, especially early in the war, before a reformist surgeon general began to clean them up—were where the casualties of Antietam and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg ended up, and where thousands died of their wounds or of hospital-borne infections. Walt’s volunteer work had everything to do with George’s soldiering. Having read in a New York newspaper of a wound to a certain “Lieutenant Whitmore” at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Walt immediately caught a train south and was soon tramping the muddy battleground in Virginia, in search of his brother or his brother’s grave. But George had been wounded only slightly—a fragment of metal had pierced his cheek. Walt remained with him for a week and a half, sleeping alongside him and his brother-officers and eating their humble grub, and in the course of those few days he became vividly aware of the suffering of the thousands of wounded. He decided to return to Washington, where he had stopped for a couple days en route from New York, and to seek work there as a nurse.
To the family correspondence, over the next several years, Walt contributed a different kind of reportage from George’s. It was not about battles and campaigns and the unholy joy of doing “terrible execution” upon the dangerous foe, as George described the essence of battle, but about the suffering of the young men, rebel as well as Yankee. Working as a government copyist to pay the rent, and “hacking on the press” whenever he could, he nursed and gave other assistance for four or five hours per day, five or six days a week. By his own reckoning he cared for more than 80,000 soldiers in the course of the war. He assisted at amputations, carried bedpans, fed those too weak to feed themselves, held the hands or mopped the brows of men dying of typhoid, dysentery, pyemia (an epidemic blood infection), and systemic gangrene. He wrote hundreds of letters of condolence, and those few letters not lost to history exhibit an affecting restraint. Walt’s instinctive sympathy for the parents and other relatives of the young men sacrificed in the war led him neither to patriotic effusions (“Rest assured that your son died in a noble cause, there being no greater honor than to shed one’s blood for one’s country,” etc.) nor to religious or religio-mystical hyperventilations. He was not of the school that asserts that the dead are better off, that they have gone to a better place. Rather, his letters of condolence tended to describe the young man so painfully lost in terms that a father or mother or brother or sister could readily understand and would long remember: how the boy behaved at the end; what he said, if anything; whether he had lost weight, had a haircut, or suffered some other notable alteration in appearance. “Though I knew him but briefly,” a number of the letters say, in essence, “I came to love him, beautiful and appealing young man that he was.”
Walt came to believe that the details of the battles—the “mere military minutiae,” as he called the information about tactics, victories, and acts of combat heroism—would soon be lost to history, and deservedly so. What would be remembered, instead, would be the acts of compassionate intercession: the nursing, comforting, and condoling to which he and other volunteers and medical personnel had dedicated themselves. A poet’s narcissism may explain his praise for what he himself was undertaking to do—Whitman is, after all, the Poet of Himself, ever given to idealizing and mythologizing his own character and life. But other concerns were also at play. Though loyal to Lincoln and to the Union cause, Walt was disgusted by the war—his letters to his mother recount again and again the horrors he was seeing, the gross waste of young life, the hideous, pointless agonies. He was finally overcome by what he saw. In the spring of 1864, just as George was embarking on the final campaign of the war, Walt began to fail emotionally. He exhibited an assortment of odd symptoms and had to take temporary leave from the hospitals and go home to Brooklyn to be nursed by his mother. It is a testament to his devotion that, six months later, he returned to Washington and to the same grim, saddening work in the hospitals. His love for the young men and his pity for their suffering made his return unavoidable.
Considering his uncanny insight into the hearts of men, the way Walt got things exactly wrong about the Civil War is notable. He abhorred violence and thought that the 620,000 dead of the war—a figure equivalent to six million Americans today percentagewise—would consign war to the ashbin of history. But the world was actually on the threshold of an enduring boom in war, with the Civil War marking but its initial stage. A new and harsher kind of conflict, fought with better rifles, ironclads, railroads, the telegraph, and other technological enhancers, and with brilliant innovators such as William T. Sherman and Stonewall Jackson making tactical breakthroughs that later generals eagerly adopted, secured a central place in the activities of nations for war on a mass scale.
Indeed, accounts of the “military minutiae” of the Civil War so far outnumber meditations on the meaningful suffering of the men as to produce an absurd disproportion. Of some 50,000 books published to date about the war, Walt Whitman’s book of battle pieces, Drum-Taps, may be the only one to hold that the way the soldiers suffered and died and were cared for trumps all else. Every other approach to the war has been richly explored, and it sometimes seems that every material detail figures in some study or other, from the incidence of venereal disease among the troops to their coffee-drinking habits to the frequency with which Confederate officers’ letters to their wives mentioned concepts like duty, honor, and gallantry. Overwhelmingly, however, the strictly military details constitute the literature. There may never be an end to the fascination with martial virtue and the way American men responded to their severe test at arms. The suffering is part of this fascination, certainly, but not in the way that Walt forecast—rather than superseding the battlefield accounts, the wounding and dying provide a dark background against which the minutiae play out endlessly.
Many soldiers are profoundly stirred by their experiences of war; and some are fundamentally changed by those experiences. Walt’s take on the war—that it was atavistic and horrible, and in some ways beneath discussion (“the real war will never get in the books,” he once wrote, hopefully)—was no doubt more progressive than the tiresome dwelling on who fought where and how each battle was won or lost. But it was not therefore more truthful. If Walt had instead identified a readiness to engage in ruinous war as an inherent tendency of men in our time, then that would have been an original thesis. The war was tragic, according to our national mythology, because brother slaughtered brother; in reality, it was tragic because so many brothers took to the killing and did it so well, for so long. The enormous body count suggests something almost spree-like to the killing. Many of the wounded whom Walt met in the hospitals had fired rifles, if not in anger then surely with intent to wound or kill. They were not just debris left by the whirlwind; they were the whirlwind.
The soldiers were not mere passive victims of larger war-making forces—pawns of governments, draft laws, commanding officers, and sectional hatred. Many had taken up arms willingly and had fought aggressively, relishing the opportunity to do “terrible execution.” George Whitman’s reports of his own combat experiences hint at strong pleasures taken repeatedly and not regretted. Not a homicidal monster by any stretch of the imagination—by most accounts, a thoughtful and companionable man beloved by his troops—George found many aspects of war congenial. After the Battle of New Bern, North Carolina, in early 1862, he wrote to his mother:
We have given the Secesshers another thundering thrashing, and have gained a splendid victory. I went through the fight and did not get a scratch although the balls fairly rained around me. . . .
We had skirmishers extending about a quarter of a mile on each side of the railroad and we had not gone more than 3 or 4 miles before they came upon the rebels in strong force. . . . We marched right up under a terrible fire, formed in line of battle and . . . fought them in splendid Style for about 3 hours, when our boys drove them from their entrenchments.
When Walt read this letter, he highlighted the last sentence with penciled-in parentheses. He often marked passages in letters that George sent home; a number of these passages unequivocally express soldierly pride and feelings of fulfillment in combat. George’s entire correspondence, at the same time, is dedicated to lessening his mother’s anxiety on his account; he spared her many details, but he did not feel constrained to hide his feelings of satisfaction.
If there is something like an ideal response to war service, then George Whitman probably had it. He never testified to enjoying the killing of men per se, but he found fulfillment in triumphing over the foe by using superior energy and skill and, in the process, capturing or killing a number of them. Remembering the furious fighting at Burnside’s Bridge, he wrote,
Burnside who was looking on ordered Sturgis to send our Brigade there saying . . . that he knew we would take it. As soon as we were ordered to forward we started on a double quick and [reached the bridge]. . . . We were then ordered to halt and commence fireing, and the way we showered the lead across that creek was noboddys buisness. I had command of our Company again and as soon as the men got steadily settled down to their work I took a rifle from one of the wounded men and went in, loading and fireing.
Hoping to inspire his men, or maybe just wanting some action himself, George did not merely guide them but instead picked up a weapon. He had done the same thing at the Battle of Chantilly two weeks before, taking a rifle from a fallen soldier and having “a few shots on my own which seemed to encourage the men very much.” Chantilly, usually reckoned a complete Union failure, had trappings of success in George’s description of it. His sector of the battle was not a zone of confusion or of backing down:
We soon drove the rebels but they rallied and came on again but we were ready for them this time and they gave way again and fell back we stayed there . . . till about 9 Oclock but they had enough and did not make another attempt and . . . our Regt left the field marching company front we being the last Regt engaged in the terrible fight of Saturday and the last to leave the feild.
Other signs of George’s ready accommodation to soldiering are his good health, his many strong friendships, his battlefield promotions, and the simple sensual pleasure he took in eating, drinking, and sleeping well in camp. After four years of highly active campaigning, including five months in rebel prisons, he was so little disenchanted with the practice of war as to hope to make a career in the postwar army.
Walt had this evidence before him when he formed his very different opinion of fighting and war. His verdict seems hasty, to say the least. Even after the dreadful carnage at First Fredericksburg, the Union troops were mostly of good cheer, as Walt discovered during his visit to the battleground; and during his only other visit to an active combat zone, in February 1864, he found the soldiers undaunted and eager:
I talk’d with some of the men [returning from a nighttime march near Culpeper, Virginia]; as usual I found them full of gayety, endurance, and . . . signs of the most excellent good manliness. . . . The mud was very deep. The men had their usual burdens, overcoats, knapsacks, guns and blankets. Along and along they filed by me, with often a laugh, a song, a cheerful word. . . . It may have been odd, but I never before so realized the majesty and reality of the American people en masse. It fell upon me like a great awe.
Walt had this evidence and the experiences of George, but he still insisted that war was anomalous, doomed to extinction. During his many thousands of bedside visits in the hospitals, it was the memory of combat that the wounded most desired to communicate to him, displaying an obsession with their seared-in memories of battle that he frankly acknowledged. No doubt he hoped to reform mankind when he consigned war to the premodern darkness. Let us pretend it is so, he seems to say, and the world will be a better place. The ease with which some men adapted to soldiering and the way it fascinated them, even transformed them, were dreadful recognitions. These were not the glorious human truths that he had labored so long in the hospitals to uncover.
To salvage something from the squalor; to restore America to its sane, noble, exemplary course through history—these purposes color most of what he wrote about the war, especially when he turned his pen to poetry. And for this reason, his literature of the war is oddly conventional, even sententious and old-fashioned. With the single notable exception of “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d,” his profound elegy on the death of Lincoln, there is nothing written during or after the war to compare to the longer poems he wrote before—to “Song of Myself,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “The Sleepers,” or the shorter love lyrics known as the Calamus poems, to name but a few. His vocation as a form-breaking, culture-defining poet on the order of a Homer or a Milton was another casualty of the war. It may be that he had nothing more to say that required him to dig as deep and see as far as had his prewar illuminations. Or it may be that the awful reality of the war made the poetry that he was most comfortable writing, the poetry of a tender, earthly visionary, seem beside the point. The other great American poet of his period, Emily Dickinson, wrote prolifically during the war, but she was able to thrive and to feel so much because she had perfected her Amherst hermitage, her eccentric bastion against the gaudy, murderous age.
Walt, like his soldier-brother George, gave himself body and soul to that age. And like his younger brother, he gave himself likewise to his country’s cause in its immemorial hour of torment, never naming what he did as sacrifice and refusing to reckon the cost. Indeed, after the war he always claimed that these were the years when he had been most fully alive, these seasons of careful tending. Surely from so harrowing and exhausting an experience would come deep insights, and from them he would surely fashion poems for which he would ever after be remembered. He had been a brother to the wounded sons, he had borne them in his arms as they traveled over, and his claim to know the suffering soul of America better than any other man can hardly be denied. And yet his life as a poet was now over.
Robert Roper is the author of Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War, Mexico Days, and The Trespassers.
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