You ask for items, details of my early life...You say you want to get at these details mainly as the go-befores and embryons of "Leaves of Grass." Very good; you shall have at least some specimens of them all.Rorem's songs come from Whitman's extensive writings about the Civil War, particularly the years 1863/'64.
Some of these entries are quite long and Rorem cut them heavily to fashion them into the songs. What I've decided to do for this entry is to begin where Rorem begins and include all of the text from that point to the end of Whitman's entry. Any text that Rorem cut, I'll
A Night Battle
...This entry is dated May 12, 1863. It details the epic battle at Chancellorsville that had ended a little over a week before Whitman wrote this. The Union participants were led by General Joe Hooker, the South by General Lee and Stonewall Jackson. This was the battle, in fact, that dealt Jackson the wound that would eventually kill him on May 10. The battle began on April 30 and ended on May 6 with a victorious South. Judging by the date this entry was written, Whitman is talking about the fighting of May 2 and 3. That matches the history, as it was May 2 when Jackson began his assault on the Union line.
O heavens,what scene is this? --is this indeed humanity--these butchers' shambles? There are several of them.There they lie, in the largest,in an open space in the woods, from 200 to300 poor fellows--the groans the screams-- the odor of blood,mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees--that slaughter-house! O well is it their mother, their sisterscannot see them-- cannot conceive, and never conceiv'd these things. One man is shot by a shell, both in the arm and leg--both are amputated--there lie the rejected members.Some have their legs blown off--some bullets through the breast--some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out-- some in the abdomen--some mere boys-- many rebels, badly hurt--they take their regular turns with the rest, just the same as any--the surgeons use them just the same.Such is the camp of the wounded-- such a fragment, a reflection afar off of the bloody scene--while over all the clear, large moon comes out at times, softly, quietly shining. Amid the woods, that scene of fitting souls--amid the crack and crash and yelling sounds-- the impalpable perfume of the woods--and yet the pungent, stifling smoke--the radiance of the moon, looking from the heaven at intervals so placid--the sky so heavenly--the clear-obscure up there, those buoyant upper oceans--a few large placid stars beyond, coming silently andlanguidly out, andthen disappearing--the melancholy, draperied night above, around. And there, upon the roads, the fields,and in those woods, that contest never one more desperate in any age or land-- both parties now in force--masses--no fancy battle, no semi-play, but fierce and savage demons fighting there--courage and scorn of death the rule, exceptions almost none.
I say,can ever give--for who can know--the mad, determin'd tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and little squads--as this--each steep'd from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports?Who know the conflict, hand-to-hand--the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing moonbean'd woods--the writhing groups and squads--the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols--the distant cannon--the cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths--the indescribable mix--the officers' orders, persuasions, encouragements--the devils fully rous'd in human hears--the strong shout, Charge, men, charge-- the flash of the naked sword, and rolling flame and smoke? And still the borken, clear and cloded heaven--and sill again the moonlight pouring silvery soft its radiant patches over all. Who paint the scene, the sudden partial panic of the afternoon at dusk? Who paint the irrepressible advance of the second division of the Third corps, under Hooker himself, suddenly order'd up--those rapid-filing phantoms through the woods? Who show what moves there in the shadows, fluid and firm--to save, (and it did save,) the army's name, perhaps the nation? as there the veterans hold the field. (Brave Berry falls not yet--but death has mark'd him soon he falls.)
Before I talk about the beginning of Whitman's entry, I need to layout a time line of events. It appears that Whitman saw the battle first-hand on May 2 and 3. His descriptions of the battle in the woods, the moonlight, the camp of the wounded, suggest an eye-witness account. It is definitely possible. However, I also think it is possible, perhaps even more so, that Whitman was relying on reports from the front and accounts of the wounded soldiers that were streamed into Washington immediately following the fighting.
In Stephen W. Sears's book, Chancellorsville, he notes that
The first Union wounded from the fighting on Friday and Saturday (May 1 & 2) reached Washington at nightfall on May 4. Walt Whitman watched from the wharf at the foot of Sixth Street. (pg. 410)Whitman also mentions this in "The Wounded from Chancellorsville," which comes just before the entry Rorem chose to set. He says,
I was down among the first arrivals...You ought to see the scene of the wounded arriving at the landing here at the foot of Sixth street, at night. Two boat loads came about half-past seven last night.This tells us two things. First, Whitman wrote "The Wounded from Chancellorsville" on May 5 (he only dates it "May '63"), and second, Whitman's attendance at the fighting on May 2 & 3 is questionable. It is possible he traveled the sixty miles back to Washington with the wounded as it was in 1863/'64 that he served as a visitor to the wounded in the hospitals. It is entirely plausible that he did some of that work as the soldiers were returned to Washington. It is also plausible that Whitman wrote "A Night Battle, Over a Week Since" as a compilation of reports from participants in the battle and official reports from the front. The biggest question that rises from this entry is, why did it take him over a week to write it when the report of the wounded streaming in was written the day after he witnessed the return of the soldiers?
Now to the text. The beginning of the entry details the battle. He describes troop movement, the breaking of the Union line by the South and Union's push back, and the times which these things occurred. He goes on to describe the battle of Saturday evening (May 2) that took place primarily in the woods. Overriding all of the mentions of cannon fire, battle cries and wounded soldiers is his description of the night, how the moon shone over all of this and how underneath all of this raging battle, nature was at peace. He washes the entire battlefield with moonlight which makes the horrific scene softer and somewhat dreamlike.
After this, he pivots to the "camps of the wounded," and this is where Rorem picks up. It is surely a grizzly depiction. He questions whether what he is witnessing (or hearing about) is even human, if the social fabric can take this sort of rending. Here too, he lays a layer of moonlight and serene nature underneath the brutal depictions of fatal wounds and unthinkable suffering.
When I read this I see two images. The first, Whitman or the speaker glides through the camps as if he is in a dream, bathed in moonlight. The other is one of a wounded soldier looking up at the moon which seems so close he feels as if he touch it. Thinking about those buoyant oceans soothes him as he wrestles with the pain.
It's the moonlight that strikes me the most in this entry. The descriptions of the wounds and suffering is indeed troubling, but the way he keeps going back to the moon and the starlight tells me that Whitman is struck by the calm present in this realm of chaos. It is, in fact, a distraction from the battle. It comes up in the middle of descriptions of fighting ("the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing moonbeam'd woods--the writhing groups and squads"), he turns to it mid-paragraph ("And still again the moonlight pouring silvery soft its radiant patches over all"). He is always reinforcing the serenity of nature which serves as a backdrop to this macabre setting of blood and battle. It's an effective dichotomy that at once highlights the gruesomeness of this battle while also softening the blow (somewhat), casting a monochromatic silvery sheen over the charred woods, the bloody corpses, the Union's blue and the Confederate gray.