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, 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.”

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”:)

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.

“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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The specter of black troops opens a door for Maine relief workers–literally

From Hennessy:

Our apologies for quietude of late, but as you might guess, preparations for the Fredericksburg 150th haven’t left a lot of time for Mysteries and Conundrums.  We have lots in the pipeline, just no time to put the posts together. We will.

Backyard of U.S. Sanitary Commission depot.439.cropped 3 womenHere’s a quickie, something I came across this morning.

I have been collecting a huge amount of material on the use of Fredericksburg as an evacuation hospital in May 1864, and the related effort by Northern civilians to come to Fredericksburg to help. We have written about this before.  Among those who came were an energetic group of four from the Maine State Relief Agency, including a woman named Sarah Smith Sampson. As the wounded from the Wilderness and Spotsylvania poured into town from the west, hundreds of volunteers from relief agencies, the Sanitary Commission, and the Christian Commission, poured into town from the landing at Belle Plain. Mrs. Sampson and her cohort Ruth S. Mayhew faced a common problem in town for relief workers: finding lodging. The locals, as might be imagined, were disinclined to give up their homes to anything remotely Yankee.  As this passage from Sampson’s report makes clear, the Maine delegation used the looming specter of the arrival of wounded from the Union army’s new division of USCTs to convince them to open their house willingly now rather than unwillingly later.

Sarah Smith Sampson.  Used by permission from www.maine.gov.

Sarah Smith Sampson. Used by permission from http://www.maine.gov.

Mrs. Mayhew and myself tried to obtain lodging of the family who were in the other part of the house we occupied, but were peremptorily refused; but after a time they were glad to cook our rations that we drew from the commissary that they might have something for themselves to eat. The Provost Marshal afterwards gave us permission to take two of the largest houses in Fredericksburg for hospital purposes. At first the ladies of the premises seriously objected, (the men, at this time, were in the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, having been arrested and sent there, for driving the wounded of our army, who were making their escape through the city, back into the enemy’s lines,) but on being told that Burnside’s wounded were yet to come in, and their houses might then be taken without regard to their wishes for the colored troops of his command, they yielded: and both houses were filled with our patients, that we took from floors of other buildings, or from army wagons as they were coming in. The Provost Marshal also detailed four men to make bunks for these buildings; the ladies supplied us with bedding so far as they were able, and two surgeons of Maine were placed in charge of the patients, much to the gratification of all parties. 

[A copy of Sarah Sampson’s report is in the bound volumes at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP–the original is likely in the Maine State Archives (our copy does not indicate the original source].  Her description of her time in Fredericksburg in 1864 is powerful, and we’ll share it at a future date.]  Photo of Sampson used by permission from http://www.maine.gov.

The Quick and the Undead; or, A Secret Sharer Outbound

from: Harrison

On May 23, 1863, in the wake of defeat at Chancellorsville, Washington’s Daily National Republican conveyed some brief but vivid and mysterious tidings from the Army of the Potomac. The story, to the extent it was known, opened amidst the sprawling Federal camps and logistical facilities in Stafford County:

Day before yesterday morning the body of a soldier, exhumed for the purpose of being sent to Washington for embalment, was placed on board the John Brooks at Aquia Creek.

Union depot at Aquia Landing. Courtesy The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, http://www.mfa.org.

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Indians at Brompton

From Eric Mink:

No single site in the Fredericksburg area received more attention from Civil War photographers than “Brompton,” the John L. Marye plantation. Between May 19 and 20, 1864, no fewer than three photographers took nearly a dozen photographs at Brompton. What attracted the photographers were the scenes in the yard, where Union casualties lay waiting for medical attention. Brompton served at that time as a military hospital caring for the wounded and sick of the Union’s 9th Army Corps.

Personally, of all the photographs from this Brompton series, the image that has always intrigued me is one that depicts a small group of wounded soldiers lying beneath a small tree. A member of photographer Matthew Brady’s firm took the photo and it bears the original caption of “Wounded Indians.”

“Wounded Indians”

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A Confederate Hospital in Fredericksburg, and the women mobilize–1861

From John Hennessy:

A tobacco factory would seem an unlikely place for a military hospital, but during the exceedingly polite Confederate presence in Fredericksburg during the first year of the war there were few other options. (The Union army used churches, stores, hotels, homes, and the courthouse–none of which were accessible to those bent on politeness in 1861). We don’t know the circumstances that led the Confederate army to take over the tobacco factory of Alexander Gibbs and his partner John F. Alexander (there is no record, for example, of the Confederates leasing the building or of their commandeering it), but by late June of 1861, as the landscape around Fredericksburg filled with spanking new Confederate troops (including some from Tennessee and Arkansas), Gibbs’s and Alexander’s tobacco factory on Prussia street held upwards of 150 sick Confederate soldiers.  Betty Herndon Maury recorded on June 26:

Betty Herndon Maury

The sick suffer a great deal for want of proper medical attendance and good nursing.  Many of the soldiers are laid on the floor when brought in, and are not touched, or their cases looked into, for twenty-four hours.  One or two died when no one was near them; they were found cold and stiff several hours afterwards.  The other night at ten o’clock, when one of the ladies left, there was not a soul in the house besides the sick men.  Every one in town has been interested in them.

The wretched conditions at the hospital soon spurred the community to action.  Two days after Maury’s gloomy assessment, the Fredericksburg News reported: Continue reading

A salvo at Clara Barton

From John Hennessy:

Our apologies for the pace of posts lately, but we have all been involved in some form in the Manassas 150th, and so things have been a bit hectic. For another post that speaks to Clara Barton’s service in Fredericksurg, click here.

Plain sight is often the worst place for something to be, for in our ardor to dig deep in our search for interesting and new things, we often miss that which is before us.  We are grateful to th park’s former Chief Historian, Bob Krick, for pointing out a passage that we have had for years, but missed.

J. Franklin Dyer’s The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (edited by Michael B. Chesson) is flat-out one of the best chronicles of its kind. Dyer worked extensively at Chatham after the Battle of Fredericksburg, and his is by far the most detailed account we have of the use of the place as a hospital.

His diary does not mention Clara Barton, but in the introduction, Mr. Chesson quoted a letter Dyer wrote after Gettysburg. In it, Dyer offers harsh commentary on volunteer nurses male and female, and reserves especial criticism for Clara Barton. In so doing, he gives us some more information about Barton’s work at Chatham, and also reveals a great deal about the unprogressive attitude of many Union surgeons toward the civilian volunteers that came forward to help them.  Continue reading

Around the watering hole: faces of war in Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Sometimes we look deeply into images of the war in the Fredericksburg region because they tell us something important about the landscape. But sometimes a deeper look is just purely interesting. In May 1864, a photographer (or photographers–we can’t be certain they were taken by the same man) thought it interesting enough to stop and take three images of soldiers in the simple act of getting water at or near Fredericksburg. At one place, he took two images, at another only one.  But in each he captured common people doing an everyday thing, without pretense or pose (at least not much).

The first image a group of men gathered around what apparently is a well or watering station, filling their canteens. Continue reading