After two years of war Whitman wrote, “Death is nothing here. As you step out in the morning from your tent to wash your face you see before you on a stretcher a shapeless extended object, and over it is thrown a dark grey blanket – it is the corpse of some wounded or sick soldier of the reg’t who died in the hospital tent during the night – perhaps there is a row of three or four of these corpses lying covered over. No one makes an ado. There is a detail of men made to bury them; all useless ceremony is omitted.”
At war’s end, the President dead and a solemn Grand Review just taken place in the nation’s capital, he wrote,
“How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks, and to you,The picture that emerges in this excellent, highly readable, even brief account is as dark and clear as an El Greco painting. It has not the hopeful feeling of Thomas Cole nor does it convey the majesty of Whitman’s contemporary Frederick Church. It is dark and it is honest and more real than Winslow Homer’s Civil War sketches. It is simply very well worth reading.
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! Yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
Nor the bayonet stab O friend.”
It is the Civil War seen through the eyes and actions of its victims. It is the often simple but fatal injury before disease is understood. It is infection before antibiotics. It is one of the last wars before modern medicine. It is almost always tragic.
It is also the war that was really fought rather than the war we choose to remember. It is the attitudes and prejudices of that time fully exposed without apology or mitigation. And it is therefore very valuable for it makes it possible to understand who we are and why we are what we are today because we are simply down the road from these events. We are the direct descendents of these men and in reading about them we read about ourselves.
Read it to understand the past, the present and I’m afraid the future.