...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

June 29, 2005

Wednesday Is Poetry Day: Whitman's Civil War

Here's a great poem, written by America's greatest poet, who was an eyewitness to what he writes about.

The Artilleryman’s Vision

While my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars are over long,
And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the vacant midnight passes,
And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just hear, the breath of my infant,
There in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision presses upon me:
The engagement opens there and then, in fantasy unreal;
The skirmishers begin—they crawl cautiously ahead—I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles—the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls;
I see the shells exploding, leaving small white clouds—I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass;
The grape, like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees, (quick, tumultuous, now the contest rages!)
All the scenes at the batteries themselves rise in detail before me again;
The crashing and smoking—the pride of the men in their pieces;
The chief gunner ranges and sights his piece, and selects a fuse of the right time;
After firing, I see him lean aside, and look eagerly off to note the effect;
—Elsewhere I hear the cry of a regiment charging—(the young colonel leads himself this time, with brandish’d sword;)
I see the gaps cut by the enemy’s volleys, (quickly fill’d up, no delay;)
I breathe the suffocating smoke—then the flat clouds hover low, concealing all;
Now a strange lull comes for a few seconds, not a shot fired on either side;
Then resumed, the chaos louder than ever, with eager calls, and orders of officers;
While from some distant part of the field the wind wafts to my ears a shout of applause, (some special success;)
And ever the sound of the cannon, far or near, (rousing, even in dreams, a devilish exultation, and all the old mad joy, in the depths of my soul;)
And ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions—batteries, cavalry, moving hither and thither;
(The falling, dying, I heed not—the wounded, dripping and red, I heed not—some to the rear are hobbling;
Grime, heat, rush—aid-de-camps galloping by, or on a full run;
With the patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the rifles, (these in my vision I hear or see,)
And bombs busting in air, and at night the vari-color’d rockets.

We're coming up on the one hundred forty-second anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 to July 3, 1863) and the conclusion of the Vicksburg Campaign (May 19 to July 4, 1863). With Shelby Foote's death yesterday and the Fourth of July this weekend it's appropriate to remember the most important event in our nation's history. Of course i'm talking about the Civil War.

Yesterday in the comments to my post about Shelby Foote's death i mentioned how i am fascinated by the differences between our own time and the way people lived in the time of the Civil War.

We all have a pretty good idea of how soldiers fight today. Heck, we've grown up watching war on tv. But it's almost impossible for most of us to imagine how men fought during the Civil War. It must have taken a special kind of courage and discipline to march side by side with a bunch of other men towards a line of cannon and guns.

Posted by annika, Jun. 29, 2005 |
Rubric: History & Poetry


And have you seen the terrain at Vicksburg? All hellish inclines and fish-in-a-barrel valleys. I can't imagine rushing the lines atop those ridges in the sweltering heat, wearing wool, carrying the dead weight of a musket.

Korea is the closest I've seen to hills and valleys like those. Only, those men ran up and down those mountains in freezing cold, cold so profound that cartridges froze in breeches and refused to fire.

Every field has its advantages and disadvantages. In Baghdad, Taqaddam, Ramadi, and Balad the sand is everywhere. It's hard to walk in, let alone run with 100 lbs of gear. In Mosul, it was hilly, and everywhere was late-winter mud.

Since Whitman's time, everything has changed, but for the footsoldier, nothing really has changed at all. It's a matter of legs and back and heart and love for the men you're fighting with, until you're home again, awakening next to your wife with the din of battle in your ears.

Thanks for the poem, Annika.

Posted by: Steven Givler on Jun. 29, 2005

If you are a fan of Foote's, might I recommend a lighter perspective from Tony Horowitz, "Confederates in the Attic".

Posted by: Will Stewart on Jun. 29, 2005

Thanks for the recommendation Will.

Steven, i have been to Vicksburg, when i was thirteen. Sadly i didn't appreciate what i saw at that age. The story of the Vicksburg Campaign, and how Grant severed his supply lines before going back to begin the seige, is fascinating and underappreciated. It's an argument against the popular misconception of Grant as a simpleton or a drunk.

Posted by: annika on Jun. 29, 2005

Hmmmmm, as bloody as the civil war battlefield was, there is comfort in the closeness of one's comrades. Shared hardship, all that stuff men live for.

Today, an attack can come from any direction at any time. And it's also worth remembering that more died of disease than wounds in the civil war. Death was a lot closer to the living experience of the 19th century. It's more foreign to us, so more extreme today.

Go watch "Blackhawk Down" again, and then try to compare.

Posted by: Casca on Jun. 29, 2005