Let’s begin Whitman and the Civil War at the end—the end of the Civil War and the end of Walt Whitman’s book of prose recollections called Memoranda During the War, where he writes the longest sentence he would ever compose. It was a sentence so long that he initially wrote it out as a poem, using his long catalog-lines to tally the dead. Instead of using those long lines to absorb an ameliorative, evolving, progressive, expanding self and nation and cosmos into his affirmative song, as he had done in his pre-war editions of Leaves of Grass, he now catalogs mass death. We can find pieces of this catalog throughout Whitman’s wartime poetry, but perhaps never so effectively as in this sentence, where he invented a syntax of mass death, an un-diagram-able utterance that wanders the ruined nation to gather up “the infinite dead,” pausing again and again to absorb the horror, the details, the unimaginable numbers of dead young men whose bodies eluded the grave and were composted back into the landscape itself. The sentence buries seven parenthetical insertions among its thirty-some dashes, creating a jagged syntactical field sliced with phrasal trenches. And this astonishing catalog of a sentence ends up, after its nearly 400 words, being a sentence fragment. There is no way, Whitman discovered, to predicate this subject: “The dead in this war.” These numberless dead are of course beyond animation, themselves now fragments of bodies, amputated selves, irretrievable, that have so “saturated” America’s land that we the living are now all fated to reap forevermore a harvest of death, with blood in every grain we eat.
Whitman entitled this section of his Memoranda “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” using his characteristic contraction-apostrophe, which here creates a haunting ambiguity, because the sentence with all its embedded statistics, its death-data, does give us the Civil War dead summed up, but the contraction also invites us to fill in a few more missing letters, as we realize this death sentence literally summons up the dead, reminding us of their actual physical presence throughout the landscape, north and south, and insisting on their physical emergence in everything that grows from the soil they dissolved into. It’s the million dead summoned up. (Whitman is reminding us here of the opening words of Memoranda, where he tells of the technique he has used to write his book: “Each line, each scrawl, each memorandum, has its history…. Out of them arise active and breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried….”) Whitman’s catalog, then, is a summing and a summoning, and the summons is not just of the dead but also of the living, who are being summoned to witness this mass death and, grotesque as it may seem, ingest it, live off of it, make a future out of it.
The apostrophe in “summ’d” is a slippery one, where one missing letter suddenly morphs into three missing letters: once the absence begins to take away what should be there, the absence seems to demand a right to more. That three-letter absence, we suddenly realize, turns out to form the word “one” (summ[one]d). This elided and silenced “one” is precisely what has been lost in Whitman’s relentless summing up of the dead, where individual identity is subsumed by mass anonymity: “we see . . . on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.” Whatever summoning up of the dead the chemistry of nature may now do, what the wheat and flowers will never produce in their composting magic is the one who is lost, the one with a name and identity that is compounded into the “infinite dead”—an infinity of elided “ones.” We can sum up the ones into the million, but we can never summon up any one of the million. This is the loss that Whitman now has to confront in his postwar writing as he tries to reconstruct a nation.
The Million Dead, too, summ'd up—The Unknown.—The Dead in this War—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the South—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern Hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War Department is 25,000 National soldiers kill'd in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown'd—15,000 inhumed by strangers or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover'd by sand and mud, by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburg—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, Hospitals everywhere—the crop reap'd by the mighty reapers, Typhoid, Dysentery, Inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the Prison-Pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante's pictured Hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell'd those Prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic Coast or Mississippi Valley—Some where they crawl'd to die, alone, in bushes, low gulleys, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach'd bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found, yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the Upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general Million, and the special Cemeteries in almost all the States—the Infinite Dead—(the land entire is saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes' exhalation in Nature's chemistry distill'd, and shall be so forever, and every grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw,)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye many tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.
And everywhere among these countless graves—everywhere in the many Soldiers Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are over seventy of them)—as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles—not only where the scathing trail pass'd those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land—we see, and see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word
(In some of the Cemeteries nearly all the dead are Unknown. At Salisbury, N. C., for instance, the known are only 85, while the Unknown are 12,027, and 11,700 of these are buried in trenches. A National Monument has been put up here, by order of Congress, to mark the spot—but what visible, material monument can ever fittingly commemorate that spot?)
As I write this conclusion—in the open air, latter part of June, 1875, a delicious forenoon, everything rich and fresh from last night's copious rain—ten years and more have pass'd away since that War, and its wholesale deaths, burials, graves. (They make indeed the true Memoranda of the War—mute, subtle, immortal.) From ten years' rain and snow, in their seasons—grass, clover, pine trees, orchards, forests—from all the noiseless miracles of soil and sun and running streams—how peaceful and how beautiful appear to-day even the Battle-Trenches, and the many hundred thousand Cemetery mounds! Even at Andersonville, to-day, innocence and a smile. (A late account says, 'The stockade has fallen to decay, is grown upon, and a season more will efface it entirely, except from our hearts and memories. The dead line, over which so many brave soldiers pass'd to the freedom of eternity rather than endure the misery of life, can only be traced here and there, for most of the old marks the last ten years have obliterated. The thirty-five wells, which the prisoners dug with cups and spoons, remain just as they were left. And the wonderful spring which was discover'd one morning, after a thunder storm, flowing down the hillside, still yields its sweet, pure water as freely now as then. The Cemetery, with its thirteen thousand graves, is on the slope of a beautiful hill. Over the quiet spot already trees give the cool shade which would have been so gratefully sought by the poor fellows whose lives were ended under the scorching sun.')
And now, to thought of these—on these graves of the dead of the War, as on an altar—to memory of these, or North or South, I close and dedicate my book.
The root meaning of memorandum is to be remembered. It may take the form of a short note, a record or written statement, a diplomatic communication, a summary of the terms of transaction, or a page in a publication honoring the memory of someone who has died. Whitman’s Memoranda During the War employs all of these ways of remembering, and its final entry, “The Million Dead, too, summ’d up—the Unknown,” is a long sentence fragment that bears witness to the sheer scale of the carnage caused by the Civil War, the blood-stained horror of the battlefields in Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Petersburg, Antietam, Manassas, the Wilderness, and beyond, the stench of field camps and hospitals, the piles of amputated limbs, the men dying of typhoid and dysentery, the silence of the burial pits—“the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or North or South, ours all (all, all, all, finally dear to me)”—all leading to military cemeteries and countless graves bearing “the significant word: UNKNOWN.” For in the face of the greatest American tragedy, the effects of which still shape our body politic and bearing in the world, Whitman summons the dead lying in the earth, not to name them, since that is impossible, but to honor them, remembering the role they played in the conflict that will forever mark this soil, this nation.
His brother’s name on a casualty list from Fredericksburg, in December 1862, was what inspired Whitman to travel to Falmouth, Virginia to find him. Relieved to learn that his brother’s wound to the cheek was slight, Whitman discovered in the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp that he had entered a new world of “deep things,” as he wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “unrecked by current print or speech.” Accordingly, he began to take notes, “memoranda of names, items, &c”, in order to remember what he was seeing and experiencing. “This thing I will record—it belongs to the time, and to all the States—(and perhaps it belongs to me.)” From the camp he moved to Washington, D.C., where in the coming years he would spend his free time ministering to the wounded and the dying—writing letters for the young men, bringing them gifts, holding their hands, giving them a last kiss, staying with them until the end.
Much else remained unknown during the war: how Whitman would reconcile his pre-war anthem to possibility, “Song of Myself,” with the anonymity of mass death; how the Emancipation Proclamation would alter the American experiment in liberty; how to come to terms with Lincoln’s assassination—a man the poet was accustomed to seeing on his daily rounds about the city; how to reconstruct his own soul and the soul of his nation. From forty notebooks Whitman filled in the hospitals or after work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs he fashioned “a special history of those years,” which culminates in this hymn to the unknown: the compass for his darker, and deeper, journey into the heart of this vast, unknowable country.
Human cultures over the centuries have developed various ways to acknowledge, honor, mourn, and memorialize the dead. The rituals of mourning and memorializing work most effectively when the focus of the mourning is a single person. Mass death--brought on by war, natural disaster, or accident--creates a very different challenge, as Whitman demonstrates when he tries to "sum up" the hundreds of thousands dead in the American Civil War. How have modern media tried to cope with mourning, honoring, and memorializing mass death? Is it possible to respect and honor individuals lost in a mass death?
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