This year’s sesquicentennial commemorations of the Battle of Chancellorsville will build upon long traditions of eyewitness, published narrative and non-eyewitness scholarship. Yet I’ve been fascinated lately to realize that Chancellorsville inspired Walt Whitman to make, forcefully, one of his earliest contrarian forecasts for writing about the Civil War, a view that he later expressed in the now-famous sentence, “The real war will never get in the books.”
Whitman’s longest-known rumination on Chancellorsville, dated May 12, 1863, asked
Of scenes like these, I say, who writes—who e’er can write, the story? Of many a score—aye, thousands, North and South, of unwritten heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells? No history, ever—No poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds. Nor formal General’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, North or South, East or West.
(If the recording below indeed turns out to capture Walt Whitman’s voice in 1889 or 1890 and shortly before his death in 1892, as has been suggested, it’s one of the few spoken traces of a witness to Chancellorsville, or at least to the ordeals of the battle’s survivors. The voice reads the first four lines of Whitman’s 1888 poem, “America”:)
In a March 1863 letter to friends, describing the real-life scenes and people he encountered in Washington’s military hospitals, Whitman had ventured an early version of this theme, writing, “To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest?”
Ironically, he penned assertions of the Civil War resisting accurate representation at the same time that he was creating representations of it vividly and in abundance, drawing special inspiration from his interactions with sick and wounded soldiers. At one point, he acknowledged harboring an ideal of a “many-threaded drama,” which would include everything from the war’s political context to its national financial burdens and grief. But above all, he envisioned portrayals of the “nobility of the people: the essential soundness of the common man” in 1861-1865.
Whitman remained in Washington during the entire period of Chancellorsville but in an important sense became an eyewitness to it. He recorded his initial responses to the battle in at least four formats in prose: diary entries, letters, notebook jottings about wounded soldiers whom he encountered in hospitals, and longer reflections in his notebooks. These together underscored his view that a battle that other writers would portray as one event in a discreet place, albeit a broad one, was in his words actually “many conflicts” and “first-class desperations,” in many places.
Whitman’s Chancellorsvilles proliferated and spread outward from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, engulfing him via the casualties who reached Washington—their ongoing sufferings, hopes, stories, scars, and rearranged and shifted locations. (For some thoughts on how Chancellorsville continued to acquire new meanings after the war, see my post on our sister blog here.)
Bodies as well as land composed these numerous battlefields. Whitman sought to convey through words the “strange and fearful pictures.” And at virtually the same time that he was doing that, medical staff were making literal pictures of and even curating the bodily landscapes of Chancellorsville. The results can be difficult to look at, and even 150 years later are one of the least-discussed facets of the Civil War’s visual record (although certainly not ignored altogether). Beyond exploring Whitman’s multiple meanings and written pictures, then, my post asks whether the literal pictures of bodies torn and marked by Chancellorsville should be discussed and interpreted more often, or best left in the veiling moonlight of obscurity.
(Graphic images of soldiers’ wounds and remains appear after this page-break.)
In a diary entry for May 2, 1863, Whitman penned one of his earliest responses to Chancellorsville, after watching Confederate prisoners pass under escort:
We talk brave & get excited & indignant over the “rebels,” & drink perdition to them-but I realized how all anger sinks into nothing, in sight of these young men…. wretchedly drest…. I felt that they were my brothers just about the same as the rest…. these Americans…. to have suffered! what a title it gives!-all the honors, the President at his levee, the ribbon’d & starr’d ambassadrs…these must and shall yield…to prisoners, with wretched blankets, marched to prison…to the poor boys, faint & sick in hospitals, without grace, have not an eye for pictures, have not read the elder poets, but have amputated limbs.
At about the same time, Whitman recorded his response to the first waves of wounded arriving at Washington’s Seventh Street Wharf:
Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night. A little after eight it rain’d…. The poor, pale, helpless soldiers had been debark’d…. The few torches light up the spectacle. All around—on the wharf, on the ground, out on side places—the men are lying on blankets, old quilts, &c., with bloody rags bound round…. The men generally make little or no ado…. A few groans that cannot be suppress’d, and occasionally a scream of pain as they lift a man into the ambulance…. To day, as I write, hundreds more are expected.
Most of Whitman’s interactions with the Chancellorsville wounded occurred once they had reached hospitals; his writings would mention at least a dozen of these men by name. They represented 11 of the Union regiments and four of the seven Union army corps that fought at Chancellorsville. They were both witnesses to and victims of some of the battle’s most dramatic fighting, including Jackson’s flank attack on May 2, 1863, the intense struggles between Hazel Grove and Fairview on May 3, and the Federals’ capture of Marye’s Heights and Lee’s Hill that same day.
In an article published in 2012, a trio of scholars examined the cases of a group of Union soldiers wounded at several different battles and described by Whitman. Among them was a private in the 82nd Ohio Infantry, Oscar Cunningham, who had sustained a gunshot to his right thigh during Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville. The article notes that the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which inherited the anatomical specimens collected by the Civil War-era Office of the Surgeon General, include a portion of Cunningham’s thigh bone.
The real war—the real Chancellorsville—inscribed itself horribly upon Oscar Cunningham’s body. Yet thanks to Whitman something of the soldier’s animating spirit—his acutely human resilience alongside his despair in the face of protracted agony—accompanies the bone and its graphic record of destruction. Whitman described Cunningham, upon first arriving at the hospital, as “the noblest specimen of a young Western man I had seen, a real giant in size, and always with a smile on his face.” The ensuring year, however, brought agonizing complications from the bullet’s extraction, culminating in an amputation of the right leg. Several days before Cunningham’s death on June 5, 1864, Whitman wrote again of the Ohioan: “[I]t would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him…. He has long been very irritable to every one but me, and his frame is all wasted away.”
Whitman’s May 12, 1863 notebook-entry, or memorandum, brought together his initial responses to Chancellorsville, newspaper accounts evidently having supplemented the sights and stories of wounded soldiers and the sights of the prisoners in providing images of the battle. The May 12 account would first appear in print in Memoranda of the War in 1875-1876. Here are some excerpts:
May 12—A Night Battle, over a week since.—We already talk of Histories of the War, (presently to accumulate)—yes —technical histories of some things, statistics, official reports, and so on—but shall we ever get histories of the real things? There was part of the late battle at Chancellorsville…. (a moment’s look in a terrible storm at sea…full details impossible.) …an attack sudden and strong by Stonewall Jackson had gain’d a great advantage…broken our lines, entering us like a wedge, and leaving things in that position at dark. But Hooker at 11 at night made a desperate push, drove the Secesh forces back, restored his original lines….. This night scrimmage was very exciting, and afforded countless strange and fearful pictures.
While well aware that the battle resulted ultimately in Hooker’s retreat across the Rappahannock, Whitman erred not only in believing that the Union commander had repaired the damage of Jackson’s flank attack but also in attributing the repair to the May 2,1863 night assault of Brig. Gen. David Bell Birney’s Division, misidentified by the poet as Maj. Gen. Hiram Berry’s Division of the same army corps. (Shifting for a moment from compassion for Chancellorsville’s casualties to patriotic optimism, Whitman on May 13 wrote his mother, “The more I find out about it, the more I think they, the Confederates, have received an irreparable harm and loss in Virginia—I should not be surprised to see them…leaving Virginia before many weeks…. I think Hooker is already reaching after them again.”)
Jumping off with two of its three brigades just before midnight on May 2, Birney’s Division had made some temporary inroads against the Confederates’ newly advanced position but then withdrew after encountering mistaken fire from other Federal units. Yet Whitman’s notion of the night attack’s effectiveness was no less garbled than, say, that conveyed by a correspondent’s report published in the New York Times on May 5:
This night attack was the most grand and terrific thing of the war. The moon shone bright, and an enemy could be seen at good musket range. The air was very still, and the roar and reverberation of the musketry and artillery past all conception. Malvern Hill was a skirmish compared with this, save in the degree of slaughter. But it was successful…
(The Times correspondent had actually been present on the battlefield, although doubtless at a prudently safe distance from the scene of Birney’s advance.)
For Whitman, the incongruously gentle aesthetics of nature that accompany Birney’s operation do much to render it surreal:
But it was the tug of Saturday evening, and through the night and Sunday morning, I wanted to make a special note of. It was largely in the woods…. The night was very pleasant, at times the moon shining out full and clear, all Nature so calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the trees—yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying helpless…the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass…. the light nearly bright enough for each side to see one another—the crashing, tramping of men—the yelling—close quarters—we hear the Seecesh yells—our men cheer loudly back…hand to hand conflicts, each side stands up to it, brave, determin’d as demons…a thousand deeds are done worth to write newer greater poems on….
Note that abundant moonlight seems to bring the hope–temporary, it turns out–that the real war might get into the books after all, at least in books of poetry.
The night attack of Birney’s Division was unquestionably a vivid, bizarre experience for its actual participants. Even among Chancellorsville’s many other events recounted in detail by the Federals, Birney’s operation stands out for inspiring “an army of letter writers,” as historian Stephen W. Sears found more than a century later. A soldier from Maine, among these eyewitness chroniclers, recalled, “our bayonets glistened in the moonlight like the rising and falling of waves,” a “magnificent sight, not to be soon forgotten.” Another of Birney’s soldiers recorded how men in the rear companies, “excited by the shower of lead and the whistling of bullets,” fired “in the direction of the enemy, but really d[id] more execution in the ranks of the companies in front.” Some 200 of the participating Federals became casualties.
As the May 12 memorandum continues, Whitman’s Chancellorsville changes as his gaze changes, from battlefield scenes illuminated by the moon “full and clear” to those shadowed by vegetation and uneven light, bringing further, terrible variety to a single swath of rural Virginia. He understands the Chancellorsville events that occurred in Spotsylvania County in early May 1863–setting aside for the moment the Chancellorsville events that he later witnessed in the Washington hospitals and prisoner marches–as resistant to getting “into the books” because of geographic fragmentation and visual obscurity, not solely because of emotional- or cognitive distance. Variations in physical terrain, including the degree of its literal illumination, are as defining as the battle’s less tangible aspects:
What history, again I say, can ever give—for who can know, the mad, determin’d tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads—as this—each steep’d from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports? Who know the conflict hand-to-hand—the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing-moonbeam’d woods—the writhing groups and squads—hear through the woods the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols—the distant cannon—the cheers and calls, and threats and awful music of the oaths— the indiscribable mix—the officers’ orders, persuasions, encouragements—the devils fully rous’d in human hearts…. W’hod paint the scene, the sudden partial panic of the afternoon, at dusk? Who paint the irrepressible advance of the Second Division of the Third Corps…those rapid-filing phantoms through the woods’/ Who show what moves there in the shadows, fluid and firm—to save, (and it did save,) the Army’s name?
Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings. Indeed no picture gives them. Likely their very names are lost. Likely, the typic one of them, (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands,) crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death-shot—there, sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass and soil with red blood—the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by—and there, haply with pain and suffering, (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him— the eyes glaze in death—none recks—Perhaps the burial squads, in truce, a week afterwards, search not the secluded spot—And there, at last, the Bravest Soldier crumbles in the soil of mother earth, unburied and unknown.
Also striking is Whitman’s portrayal of the enemy at Chancellorsville. As he asserted in the first passage that I quote in this post, laurels for valor at Chancellorsville were not limited by region in his memorandum of May 12, 1863. Confederates as well as Federals were “brave, determin’d as demons” in combat. The Chancellorsville wounded, gray and blue, having been carried to new “bloody scenes” to face new ordeals, shared suffering and treatment equally—a vision that Whitman doubtless compounded from the sights he had encountered earlier that month at the prisoner march-by, the Seventh Street wharf at night, and the initial conversations and images at hospital bedsides:
Then the camp of the wounded—0 heavens, what scene is this ?—is this indeed humanity—these butchers’ shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from 500 to 600 poor fellows—the groans and screams—the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees—that Slaughter-house !—0 well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them—cannot conceive, and never conceiv’d, these things One man is shot by a shell, both in the arm and leg—both are amputated—there lie the rejected members. …some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out—some in the abdomen—some mere boys— here is one his face colorless as chalk, lying perfectly still, a bullet has perforated the abdomen—life is ebbing fast, there is no help for him. In the camp of the wounded are many rebels…they take their regular turns with the rest…the surgeons use them just the same Such is the camp of the wounded—such a fragment, a reflection afar off of the bloody scene—while over all the clear, large moon comes out at times softly, quietly shining.
The collection of poems that Whitman first published in 1865, a later and more generalized set of reflections on wartime events than that of his initial prose responses to Chancellorsville, would include a poem entitled “Reconciliation,” as well as one entitled “Look Down Fair Moon”:
LOOK down, fair moon, and bathe this scene;
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods, on faces ghast-
ly, swollen, purple;
On the dead, on their backs, with arms toss’d wide,
Pour down your unstinted numbus, sacred moon.
Noel G. Harrison
Sources: I make no claim to be a Walt Whitman specialist and offer this post merely as an introduction to his ruminations on Chancellorsville, which have been overshadowed by his writing on Fredericksburg. Citations for the vast body of scholarship on Whitman are readily available via Internet searches. I recommend as a starting point the outstanding collections of primary sources and secondary works at The Walt Whitman Archive. My sources for the number and units of the Chancellorsville casualties name-identified by Whitman are: Lenore Barbian, Paul S. Sledzik and Jeffrey S. Reznick, “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections,” Museum History Journal 5 (Jan. 2012); Walt Whitman, “from Hooker’s Command,” diary, 1863, Special Collections, University of Virginia. My sources for the quotations (italics), in order of appearance above, are: The Real war will never get in the books: Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works (1892), p. 80; Of scenes like these: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, (1875-1876), p. 16; To these what are your dramas and poems: Whitman, to Nathaniel Bloom and John F. S. Gray, March 19–20, 1863, etext; many-threaded drama, nobility of the people: cited in Theodore Howard Genoways, “Whitman’s Lost War: America’s Poet During the Forgotten Years of 1860-1862,” PhD diss.: 2; many conflicts, first-class desperations, no formal general’s report, many strange and fearful pictures: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, pp. 14-16; we talk brave: Whitman, Diary for 1863, in Charles I. Glicksbuerg, ed., Walt Whitman and the Civil War, pp. 133-134; two boat-loads came: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, p. 13; the noblest specimen, it would draw tears: Whitman, The Wound Dresser: A Series of Letters Written from the Hospitals in Washington during the War of the Rebellion, pp. 190-191; May 12–A Night Battle: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, pp. 13-14; The more I find out about it: Whitman, The Wound Dresser, p. 75; This night attack: “The Great Battle of Sunday,” New York Times, May 5, 1863; But it was the tug of Saturday evening: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, p. 14; an army of letter writers: Stephen W. Sears, Chancellorsville, p. 302; our bayonets glistened in the moonlight, magnificent sight: Ruth L. Silliker, ed., The Rebel Yell & Yankee Hurrah: The Civil War Journal of Maine Volunteer, p. 80; excited by the shower of lead, in the direction of the enemy: Edwin B. Houghton, The Campaigns of the Seventeenth Maine, p. 75; brave, determin’d, What history, Unnamed, Then the camp of the wounded: Whitman, Memoranda During the War, pp. 14-16; LOOK down, fair moon: Whitman, Drum Taps (1865), p. 66.
Special thanks to my colleagues at the park, Eric J. Mink and Beth Parnicza, and to Fatima Mahdi and Jan Clough at The Hastings Historical Society.