All right, so. The Civil War. It’s a subject we Southerners know like the back of our hands, and sometimes I think I learned what the Confederate flag was just as early as the American one (if only because I saw so many floating around the backs of every truck that passed me by. I know Lee; I know Grant.
Whitman’s role in the war strikes me as an interesting one. He’s a brother, a civilian, a nursemaid, and a writer. To me (sappily enough) he’s also become a sort of a friend. I think it’s interesting how quickly Whitman’s mood fades; there is a singular set of jubilant entries, with such quotes as “The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston…will remain as the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age..” (I wonder if he regretted these words later?). Only two entries later, Whitman’s mood is defeated with the soldiers at Bull Run.
Whitman’s prose strikes me exactly like his poetry does. There are times when Whitman can’t stop listing, especially when things are at their worst. Whitman’s summation of the dead is a frenzy similar to that of “Song of Myself.” Here we have the graves of “Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh” (800). It’s as if even with these (or rather, especially, since they have died for the cause), Whitman seeks to show these men united as a nation. Whitman’s language throughout “Speciman Days” is, as always, expansive, with most sentences lasting several lines and not fitting on the page. These are excepting the few worst days, such as “Down at the Front,” where Whitman’s length is cut short. He seems merely intent on focusing on the facts; he shows us “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands” (736), and that’s it. They’re in front of a cart. There’s no poetry in that, no “good manure” (85) or fear of the compost, and I’m dying to know what Whitman was thinking, or why he didn’t record that there . Perhaps it was too much for him. Then again, when Whitman sees the released Union prisoners later, his diction can’t can’t help but demonstrate horror; he calls them “monkey-looking corpses” (789). What was it about that day or that mood that silenced him? Surely the living dead would be more horrifying than the actual?
But I’m rambling at little, I think. Throughout this section of “Specimen Days,” we again get asides, but not in such an inclusive way as “Song of Myself.” Again, I see Whitman rushing to include important facts, especially in sections such as “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” So many of his asides here have to do with numbers, whether it be the breakdown of all the soldiers killed, or the number of soldier cemeteries now existing in the nation. It’s interesting that Whitman, normally so expansive and word-loving, uses numbers to literally “sum” the men up; eventually, it becomes all that they are (for evidence, all you have to do is go look at the graves in the Confederate Cemetary just a couple minutes from here). But perhaps that’s the point that he’s getting at later, in “The Real War will Never get into the Books.” We forget the loving husband, and instead remember that he was one of “25,000 national solders kill’d in battle and never buried at all” (800). Perhaps Whitman was balancing the reality of his words, with the sterile factoids that he knew the war would become today.