Most people are familiar with the lines, “O captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done…” but how many of you have read Whitman’s journals from the Civil War? Well today we will rectify that by excerpting from Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War: Written on the Spot in 1863-’65. Originally published in 1875, this book is the product of some 40 notebooks Walt Whitman filled, in between the time he spent with wounded soldiers, both in the field and in the hospitals, during the Civil War. It’s a pretty incredible book filled with understated descriptions written by an artist known for his exuberance.
During the Union War I commenced at the close of 1862, and continued steadily through ’63, ’64 and ’65, to visit the sick and wounded of the Army, both on the field and in the Hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little notebooks for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances, and what was specially wanted, &c. In these brief’d cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung…
Soldiers and Talks
Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers, you meet everywhere about the city, often superb looking men, though invalids dress’d in worn uniforms, and carrying canes or crutches. I often have talks with them, occasionally quite long and interesting. One, for instance, will have been all through the Peninsula under McClellan – narrates to me the fights, the marches, the strange, quick changes of that eventful campaign, and gives glimpses of many things untold in any official reports of books or journals. These, indeed, are the things that are genuine and precious. The man was there, has been out two years, has been through a dozen fights, the superfluous flesh of talking is long work’d off him, and now he gives me little but the hard meat and sinew……I find it refreshing, these hardy, bright, intuitive, American young men, (experienced soldiers with all their youth.) The vital play and significance moves one more than books. Then there hangs something majestic about a man who has borne his part in battles, especially if he is very quiet regarding it when you desire him to unbosom. I am continually lost at the absence of blowing and blowers among these old-young American militaires. I have found some man or another who has been in every battle since the War began, and have talk’d with them about each one, in every part of the United States, and many of the engagements on the rivers and harbors too. I find men here from every State in the Union, without exception. (There are more Southerners, especially Border State men, in the Union army than is generally supposed.) I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this War practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having.