I was eight years old when the United States started its observance of the centenary of the Civil War, an event that fired my imagination almost as powerfully as the space program. I remember trying to read the books of Bruce Catton and Fletcher Pratt, and collecting the Civil War stories, painting and Matthew Brady photos published in Life magazine. My brother and I collected Civil War trading cards, and relished the gorier scenes, and later we visited Gettysburg. Never a “buff,’’ always suspicious of the mental health of “re-enactors,” I’ve maintained a quiet interest not so much in the military history of the war as in its cultural significance, the way it still reverberates in our lives. Edmund Wilson’s most enduring book, Patriotic Gore, published in 1962 during the centenary, is a treasure, particularly the pages devoted to Abraham Lincoln.
Some of the most poignantly under-stated writing I know can be found in Walt Whitman’s accounts of nursing sick and wounded soldiers during the war. In December of 1862, Whitman saw his brother George’s name on a list of casualties at Fredericksburg, Va., where a battle had raged Dec. 11-15. The poet traveled from his home in Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., from there by boat to Aquia Landing, then to Falmouth. George served in the 51st New York, saw fighting throughout the four years of the war, and survived. Whitman soon found his brother, who had suffered a modest wound to his cheek.
The Battle of Fredericksburg had been another disaster for the North, with 12,600 dead, wounded or missing. The Confederates suffered 5,300 casualties. At the winter camp of the Army of the Potomac, Whitman said he discovered a “new world.” On Jan. 17, 1863, he wrote Emerson: “I find deep things, unrecked by current print or speech.” He continued, “I now make fuller notes, or a sort of journal,” and “This thing I will record – it belongs to the time, and to all the States – (and perhaps it belongs to me).”
In Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburg, on Dec. 21, 1862, he wrote:
“Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a Hospital since the battle – Seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket. In the door-yard, towards the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”
In its calm objectivity and its openness to the real, this is photography, or even film, in prose. Whitman was a man of intense feeling, but he had disciplined himself to capture scenes of horror and suffering in matter-of-fact language. In ``Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” an essay collected in Keeping a Rendezvous, the English art critic and fiction writer John Berger writes:
“Walt Whitman, who was born at the end of the Napoleonic age and died two years before the first [film] reels were shot, foresaw our cinematographic vision. His intensely democratic sense of human destiny made him the poet of the cinema before the cameras were made.”
In 1876, Whitman privately printed Memoranda During War, a collection of letters, journal extracts and other brief prose pieces, in an edition of about 100 copies. Much of it was later incorporated into the better-known Specimen Days and Collect, published in 1882. In 2004, Oxford University Press published an elegant edition of Memoranda During War, edited by Peter Coviello. For Whitman, the war was necessary and costly sacrifice, if the Union was to be preserved. While he frequently interrupted his war books, poetry and prose, to rhapsodize democracy and the nation, he always returned to the individual soldier, his story and needs, rather like Ernie Pyle in another war, 80 years later.
In recent years, I have been able to more clearly and in greater detail visualize what Whitman saw. My wife was born in Peru but her family moved to Fredericksburg when she was four years old. Her parents have lived there ever since, and every day walk their dogs on the battlefield. As I have noticed at Gettysburg, Antietam and the sites of other battles, Fredericksburg – not the city, the historic park – though surrounded by commerce and essentially a bedroom community for Washington, D.C., is a conspicuously quiet place. When I first visited, during the Christmas season in 1997, the ground was dusted with snow. Holly trees, with dark green leaves and red berries, grow densely throughout the park – somber and oddly festive. The battlefield is beautifully landscaped. The famous stone wall, where two-thirds of all Union casualties were suffered, has been restored and resembles a wall built of field stones in Vermont. There’s a famous photograph of a dead soldier, lying on his back in a ditch beside the wall, blood on his face. No one has identified him.
“And everywhere among these countless graves,” Whitman writes near the end of Memoranda During War, “we see, and see, and again yet may see…the significant word Unknown.”