missvirginia on Sep 27th 2009
Whitman, especially in his Memoranda during the War, sounds like a poster child for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. However, and obviously, he isn’t rallying for people to “nevah fahgit tha gret wahr”, but simply to never forget the men and boys who gave their life. He seems to be terrified that if he doesn’t record what happened during the war, that people will start to look at it, like a simple tiff between brothers. When in fact, Whitman saw first hand the blood, guts, the gutteral cries from dead, dying, and recovering men. He saw the “real war”.
I grew up in the center of the Civil War. Yes, I know that’s a pretty gutsy claim to make, especially if there are fellow southerners reading along. I grew up in Appomattox. Right where Lee, in a bittersweet moment, surrendered to Grant. When I was little, every family vacation had some sort of educational sidenote. In Maryland, we visited Antietam, in Nova (Northern Virginia) I walked where soldiers ran at Bull Run, after riding horses in Kentucky, my momma dragged me to Perryville. My entire life has danced around the Civil War, and I like it that way. Yet, it is another thing to truly see photographs from the era (thank you, Mathew Brady) and read the hair-raising, gag-inducing scenes from Whitman, Barton, and other “insiders” from the war.
Whitman comments in his memorandum, “in the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.” I think Whitman realized that people were shocked at the horrible detriments of the war when it became public, like the way standards for becoming a surgeon in the war was so little. In the same light, he also realized the almost desired ignorance of the public. They wanted to hear “Our boys are fighting as hard as they could. Your knitted mittens and socks are coming in handy. The food isn’t delectable, but it’s healthy.” Whitman saw first hand, and heard reliable accounts from the boys he helped nurse, that the described situation was a farce and simply wishful thinking.
After helping those boys to health (or at least a little more comfortable death), I think Whitman felt he owed it to them that they would know they didn’t fight in vain just to have all the dirty secrets swept under the table. Whitman also knew the public would want to just sweep it under the table, no one wants to hear about “their boys” dying of diarrhea or some other “undignified” disease. Even though war is ugly, and Whitman certainly painted that picture stealthily and effectively, he does it beautifully as well. The Better Angel mentions both “Sights–The Army Corps, Encamped on the War Field” and “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”. Both poems are great examples of what one critic was quoted in The Better Angel as saying “gentle but lethal”.
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