WALT WHITMAN ON DEATH, 1861 – 1865

Walt Whitman was a correspondent and frequent visitor to the sick and dying men in the hospitals around Washington, DC. He witnessed most of the blood, gore and dying that he describes below.

from: Walt Whitman, COMPLETE PROSE WORKS: Specimen Days and Collect, November Boughs and Good Bye My Fancy, editing Grace George, [Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1901, Copyright 1881, 1888, 1891]: 72- 75.

THE MILLION DEAD, TOO, SUMM’D UP

The dead in this war — there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south — Virginia, the Peninsula— Malvern hill and Fair Oaks— the banks of the Chickahominy — the terraces of Fredericksburgh — Antietam bridge — the grisly ravines of Manassas — the bloody promenade of the Wilderness — the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d— 15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities — 2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)— Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest — Vicksburgh — Chattanooga — the trenches of Petersburgh— the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere — the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations — and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons) — the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead — or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me) —or East or West — Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley — somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills — (there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet [about 1880]) — our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us — the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee — the single graves left in the woods or by the roadside, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated) —the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh) — some lie at the bottom of the sea — the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States — the infinite dead — (the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw) .—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil — thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

And everywhere among these countless graves — everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are now, I believe, over seventy of them) — as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles — not only where the scathing trail passed those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land — we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.

(In some of the cemeteries nearly all the dead are unknown. At Salisbury, N. C., for instance, the known are only 85, while the unknown are 12,027, and 11,700 of these are buried in trenches. A national monument has been put up here, by order of Congress, to mark the spot — but what visible, material monument can ever fittingly commemorate that spot ?)

THE REAL WAR WILL NEVER GET IN THE BOOKS

And so good-bye to the war. I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others — to me the main interest I found, (and still, on recollection, find,) in the rank and file of the armies, both sides, and in those specimens amid the hospitals, and even the dead on the field. To me the points illustrating the latent personal character and eligibilities of these States, in the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in those armies — and especially the one-third or one-fourth of their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest — were of more significance even than the political interests involved. (As so much of a race depends on how it faces death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions under emergencies, and the indirect traits and asides in Plutarch, we get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal history.)

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books. In the mushy influences of current times, too, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten. I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he raised himself and recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward. (See in the preceding pages, the incident at Upperville — the seventeen kill’d as in the description, were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.)

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written — its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.

The preceding notes may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors, never to be fully convey’d to the future. The hospital part of the drama from ’61 to ’65, deserves indeed to be recorded. Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties — the immense money expenditure, like a heavy-pouring constant rain — with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans — the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Army Hospitals—(it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges)—those forming the untold and unwritten history of the war — infinitely greater (like life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been — buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

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