Walt Whitman’s Battles of Chancellorsville: Horrific Wounds, Night Fighting, and Other “Strange and Fearful Pictures”

from: Harrison

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, a contrarian forecast for writing about the conflict, a forecast that he seems to have reworded and later reissued in the now-famous sentence, “The real war will never get in the books.”

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman in 1863. Library of Congress.

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”:)

Ironically, Whitman 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 hospitalized 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.

“No 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.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

“No 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.” An officer of the 30th United States Colored Infantry ponders a skull at Chancellorsville, along or near Bullock Road a year after the fighting. Freeman S. Bowley, The Boy Lieutenant, p. 65.

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.)

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From John Hennessy:

Local resident Matilda Hamilton, at Belvoir.

The parlor was filled with wounded men when I got there. Belvoir has been taken for a hospital. Forest Hill, is too near the battlefield. We saw General Gregg of South Carolina brought in mortally wounded.  Mr., Yerby, who knew him, said he was an elegant man. A soldier came up as we all sat in the porch at Belvoir and asked if he could get any nails. We asked what was the matter, and he told us his friend, young Barton was killed, and he wanted to make a coffin far him

Carrying the wounded to Falmouth Station.1399From George Parsons, 16th Maine. 

On the Battle Field.  December 12th or 13th 1862   Dear Father.  I write you wile lying on the battle field, wounded, perhaps fatally.  I am very weak I fell, wounded in the side. Good by, if I never see you again.  Tell mother I think of her while lying here, and I wish I had her to be with me in my past parting moments. Much love to all. I fell while doing my duty….Farewell. I may never see you again on earth, but I hope to meet you in heaven, where there will be no fighting…  Yours affectionately,  Geo. R.Parsons. 

St. Clair Mulholland, in St. George’s Episcopal Church

In the lecture room of the Episcopal church eight operating tables were in full blast, the floor was densely packed with men whose limbs were crushed, fractured and torn.  Lying there in deep pools of blood, they waited very patiently; there was no grumbling, no screaming, hardly a moan, many of the badly hurt were smiling, and chatting, and one-who had both legs shot off-was cracking jokes with an officer who could not laugh at the humorous sallies, for his lower jaw was shot away.  The cases here were nearly all capital, and amputation was almost always resorted to.  Hands and feet, arms and legs were thrown under each table, and the sickening piles grew larger as the night progressed.  The delicate limbs of the drummer boy fell along with the rough hand of the veteran in years, but all, every one, was brave and cheerful.

Embalming building.2413Death at the hospitals. Dr. Franklin Hough, 97th New York.

Hough, at Rumford.  “…All hands were busy—decisions involving loss of limbs or of life were quickly made and executed, cooks, attendants, and slightly wounded soldiers were actively employed, and the pioneer corps began its sad labor of opening a long trench to receive the bodies of those that die.  The burial service is simple.  A dozen bodies are laid side by side in the trench, they are covered with blankets and the clothing stripped from wounded parts—a piece of board bearing in pencil an inscription of the name, rank and company is placed at the head of each, and the earth is again thrown over them, leaving the further end of the trench open, to receive the next comers….As an exceptional usage, a chaplain will at times pronounce a few words of exhortation and prayer, among the few who gather around, but the greater part are interred without any religious services whatever.” 

Abraham Welch of the  4th New York established his hospital in a “large room which had been used for the purpose of keeping carriages in.” 

There was room enough to accommodate 50 or 75 of the wounded, and I do not think it was an hour, or in fact, half an hour before this number was brought in….. The roads and streets were very muddy and wet from recent rains, and the floor on which I was obliged to lay the wounded, soon became equally so. But, notwithstanding, I was obliged to lay the wounded down upon this muddy, wet, cold floor with only their blankest underneath them—and these in many instances, saturaged with their own blood…..I had only time to perform such operations and dress such of the wounded as was required by the most urgent necessity, and this in most cases, in a temporary and superficial manner….

Chaplain J.W. Stuckenberg, 145th Pennsylvania.

To our right I saw a large brick house immediately back of one of our batteries. I pointed it out to the surgeons and we immediately took possession of it as a hospital.  Some of the wounded of our regiment were brought into the parlor ….-which was elegantly furnished. The first few were but slightly wounded. Then was brought in one who was still a boy-his name was W[illia]m Wicks,” Co D-who was wounded in the groin. He at once recognized me. His groaning was loud and heartrending. “Chaplain” he said, “why don’t you kill me? It is cruel to let me suffer so-it is a mercy to kill me.” I could hardly stand this-I tried to compose him. Medicine was given to deaden the pain-but it was of little avail. He knew he must die-then came thoughts and fears of eternity-and he spoke to me about his soul. I knelt by his side offered a short prayer and did all to make his suffering less excruciating.

Letter of J.C. Allen re death of Richard W. Milner, 13th GA, December 18, 1862, to his cousin Sallie.

Dear Cousin Sallie,  It is with feelings of sadness that I attempt to write you this evening for I suppose ere this reaches you you will have heard that Dick is no more.  He died on the night of the 16th inst., having been wounded, severely, Sunday last the 14th, he lived about two days and a half, after receiving the wound, died about eleven oclock.  At the same time and by the same ball Clem Maddux was killed they with two others having been detailed to go after water were struck by a solid cannon ball.  Dick’s left arm was badly shattered near the shoulder, and the arm amputated there…..He was buried on the farm of Capt John Alsop, five miles from Fredericksburg, in two hundred yards of the Richmond and Fredericksburg rail road, under a small persimmon tree, near two other graves, under a larger Persimmon    His overcoat was left in charge of a Negro boy on the same farm, with instructions to deliver it to any one who should come after the body.  I have been this precise, thinking you might probably some time wish the body send for. …Cousin Sallie, you will please except of our heartfelt sympathies in your sad bereavement.  No one feels the loss more keenly than I do myself.  My heart saddens at the pain and anguish this wicked war has caused. 

 PS  Those who attended the burial say the corpse was interred decently, in a coffin, much better than soldiers usually are.

Dead Yankees as Economic Stimulus

From John Hennessy:

[Apologies for the quiet of late–vacations and a heavy workload have conspired to limit attention to Mysteries and Conundrums. Things should ease up soon.]

In my meanderings through newspapers this week I came across this item from the Fredericksburg News in January 1867. It was written while the Union burial corps was at work moving the Union dead at Fredericksburg to the new National Cemetery on Willis Hill (the southernmost portion of Marye’s Heights). The article drips of bitterness and speaks to the continued wretched condition of the local economy.

Camp of the Union burial corps along Sunken Road after the war.

PAYMENT OF “BURIAL CORPS”– Eleven thousand six hundred dollars, we hear, were paid out here on Saturday to the “Burial Corps for their pious labors in re-burying the Federal dead during the months of October and November.  But for General Lee’s mercy to citizens in refusing to fire on Fredericksburg on the night of December 15, 1862, ten times as many would have required the services of a Burial Corps; and that interesting “Corps” would have had occupation, and pay to spend in Fredericksburg for some time to come.  Burnside, it seems, was our benefactor.  But for the stupid slaughter of his own soldiers, there would not have been so much money paid out in impoverished Fredericksburg.  The field on this side of Marye’s Heights, on which was grown the corn our charity sent to starving Ireland in 1847, has yielded a rich harvest in the Irish invaders slain, whose dead bodies covered its fair surface in December ’62, and now the money paid for their re-interment on the “Heights” they could not take, will bring a circulating medium to the Confederates whom they robbed and whose houses they sacked.”

This piece highlights a couple of things that warrant a future post–the idea that Lee’s army did not fire into Fredericksburg, and the irony that the fields that produced food sent to relieve the Irish famine in 1847 would later witness the deaths of so many Irishmen on December 13, 1862.  More on both soon.

Remembering James Clarey on Memorial Day

From Mink:

Part of working at a Civil War battlefield is being a steward of history. Not only are we stewards of the battlefields themselves, the monuments and historic buildings, but we also are stewards of the memory of those who participated in the events that the battlefields seek to interpret and commemorate. At the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), perhaps there is no one place within the park where that memorialization is more evident than in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. On this Memorial Day, we thought we’d share with you an event that for many on the park staff brought home this notion of stewardship of the battlefields and the memory of the men who fell upon them.

On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore in North Carolina, passed through Virginia, and left a path of destruction in its wake. FRSP was hit hard by the heavy winds and rain. Fortunately, the historic buildings, such as Chatham and Ellwood, escaped with only very minor wind damage. Most of Isabel’s impact was felt in over a thousand downed and uprooted trees throughout the park.

In the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, a large tree blew down and the root throw opened a three-foot deep hole over Graves #1650 and #1651. Park staff was unsure whether the burials in those graves had been disturbed. We called our National Park Service archaeologists. Fredericksburg was not the only park dealing with potential disturbance of archaeological sites, as the regional support office fielded calls from many parks in Virginia and North Carolina. Since no human bones were visible at the two graves, park staff was instructed to use hoses to wash the dirt off the tree’s root mass, thus exposing any bones, if they were present. If bones were discovered, we were to stop and immediately call the archaeologist and he would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as he could.

The process of examining the root mass began with sweeping a metal detector over thecompacted earth and roots. Six large (3”) cut nails and one unidentified iron fragment were found. If the remains of the two soldiers had been interred in coffins or boxes, the nails suggested that the burials had indeed been disturbed.

Washing a root mass, compacted with rocky Virginia clay, using a garden hose is not an easy task. As the day wore on, we began shaking the roots to help loosen the clay. I reached for a root, shook it and immediately realized I was not holding something made of wood. I was holding  a tibia, a bone that forms part of the human leg. All work immediately stopped. A call was placed to Philadelphia and our regional archaeologist said he would be at the cemetery the following day.

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“Skeleton Hunt”–Spotsylvania 1865

By Donald Pfanz (this is a follow-up on Don’s writings on the burial of the dead at the Wilderness, which you can find here, and at Spotsylvania in 1864, which is here. Check out too our previous posts on the dead at the Alsop farm and Theodore Lyman’s postwar visit to the Bloody Angle.):

Union graves near the Bloody Angle, 1866.

In June 1865, Federal authorities sent the First Veteran Volunteers to the Fredericksburg region to bury the dead on the four battlefields.  They worked first at Wilderness, and then moved on to Spotsylvania Court House.  Colonel Charles P. Bird and his First Regiment Veteran Volunteers followed the Brock Road—the same route used by much of Grant’s army in 1864. On the way it passed Todd’s Tavern, a ramshackle frame building that had been the site of some minor fighting in the campaign. The remains of eight soldiers lay within sight of the road. Colonel Bird and his men hastily committed the skeletons to the soil and continued on their way.

Laurel Hill, the home of Katherine Couse.

A little farther on, the First Regiment came to the home of Katharine Couse. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House the building had served as a Union field hospital, and for Landon its sight brought back vivid and unpleasant memories. “I well remembered the rows of wounded soldiers I had seen stretched out here as we bivouacked on the same spot but little over one year ago, and listening all the night long to the deep groans of the wounded and dying heroes and shrieks and curses of those undergoing the torture of the probe or keen blade of the amputating knife. Many a poor fellow’s bones rest here under the shade of the oak and pine,” he wrote a friend, “and few with boards to mark the spot.”

The Brown house at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield

Across the road from the Couse house stood “Liberty Hill,” the farm of Captain John C. Brown, a War of 1812 veteran. Here the Second Corps had gathered its strength before assaulting the Muleshoe Salient on May 12, 1864–an attack that led to the most savage day of fighting in American history. Continue reading

Burying the dead at Spotsylvania–1864

By Donald Pfanz [Don has done trememdous work on the creation of the National Cemetery. This piece, and the post to follow, are derived from that work. The whole will eventually be published in book form.]:

Unioni burial temas in 1864. An engraving made from a period photograph.

When the Confederates abandoned the Muleshoe Salient on the morning of May 13, 1864, Union forces occupied the contested ground, now thickly carpeted with blue and gray corpses. To make the position tolerable, the Northern soldiers threw the bodies of the dead in the trenches formerly occupied by their foes and kicked dirt from the adjacent parapet down on them. Thus, remarked one soldier, “the unfortunate victims [had] unwittingly dug their own graves.”

Burial of a Confederate soldier at Widow Alsop's farm.

Not all graves were so large and impersonal. Continue reading