We fly to Washington, D.C., on Monday, spend two days wandering museums and monuments, and then drive south to Fredericksburg, Va., where my in-laws live. Each day I’ll walk the battlefield which, like Gettysburg and Antietam, is a beautiful landscape of woods, hills and fields. There, between Dec. 11 and 15, 1862, the Union army suffered 12,653 casualties; the Confederates, 5,377. The pig-headed blunders of Maj. Gen Ambrose E. Burnside resulted in carnage reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the Somme half a century later.
Walt Whitman read his brother’s name on a list of Union casualties at Fredericksburg and headed south to find him. On Dec. 29, he confirmed that George Whitman, a lieutenant with the 51st New York Infantry Regiment, was recovering from wounds in a field hospital in Falmouth, across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. The poet, then forty-three years old, spent most of the rest of the war nursing casualties on both sides. He writes in Specimen Days:
“The results of the late battle are exhibited everywhere about here in thousands of cases, (hundreds die every day) in the camp, brigade, and division hospitals. These are merely tents, and sometimes very poor ones, the wounded lying on the ground, lucky if their blankets are spread on layers of pine or hemlock twigs, or small leaves. No cots; seldom even a mattress. It is pretty cold. The ground is frozen hard, and there is occasional snow. I go around from one case to another. I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying; but I cannot leave them. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.”
Herman Melville and his brother Allan visited the front lines in Virginia in April 1864, occasionally drawing fire from Confederate troops. According to Herschel Parker’s Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891, the poet (who by this time had virtually renounced writing fiction) had already written “Inscription for the Slain at Fredericksburgh [sic]”:
“A glory lights an earnest end;
In jubilee the patriot ghosts ascend.
Transfigured at the rapturous height
Of their passionate feat of arms,
Death to the brave’s a starry night,--
Strewn their vale of death with palms.”
Parker gives no evidence of Melville visiting Fredericksburg, but in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), he included “Inscription for Marye’s Heights.”
“To them who crossed the flood
And climbed the hill, with eyes
Upon the heavenly flag intent,
And through the deathful tumult went
Even unto death: to them this Stone--
Erect, where they were overthrown--
Of more than victory the monument.”
Randall Jarrell wrote: “Whitman, Dickinson and Melville seem to me the best poets of the nineteenth century here in America,” and I wish I could share his enthusiasm for Melville’s verse. An occasional line or phrase is notable but his finest poetry was prose. In “Melville’s Letter to William Clark Russell” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002), Helen Pinkerton has the novelist writing late in his life to the British novelist and historian. He tells Russell the war killed his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick. The war, Pinkerton’s Melville says, “Played out the tragedy we had foreseen / But had not guessed the actors nor the places…” then he lists some of those places, including:
“The heights at Fredericksburg, where Cobb’s men saw
Our blue ranks melt like snow, and the living piled
The frozen dead as breastworks….”
Like Antietam and Gettysburg, Fredericksburg is a holy place for those who remember.