Week 14, Whitman and the Civil War

Alexander Gardner photograph of a Union soldier at the grave of another Union soldier, with a Confederate soldier’s body left unattended. Antietam Battlefield. Source: National Park Service.
Alexander Gardner photograph of a Union soldier at the grave of another Union soldier, with a Confederate soldier’s body left unattended. Antietam Battlefield. Source: National Park Service.


This week's texts are “Mother and Babe” and “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night”

Scattered through Drum-Taps are some very short proto-imagist poems that initially seem to have nothing to do with the Civil War. The critic Ted Genoways has shown how Whitman’s attempt to maximize the use of space in his self-published book (and to minimize the number of pages, since the price of paper during the war had increased exponentially) led him to disperse the shorter poems somewhat randomly at the last moment before printing, wherever there was a small open space left on a page. Still, many of the resulting juxtapositions of shorter and longer poems are quite suggestive: the very brief “Mother and Babe” coming just before “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night” is a case in point.

We begin with a tender and intimate two-line observation of a sleeping mother nursing her sleeping baby, with the “hush’d” poet “study[ing] them long and long.” This is the primal scene of maternal intimacy, the baby’s first experience of the secure bond of nurture and love, a bond so close and sensual that the act of nursing allows both participants to peacefully sleep: only the poet is awake, in fact wide awake—“I see,” “I study.” The poet is so attentive because, during the war, as he watches so many very young men die alone, far removed from their families, he takes on himself that role of nurturing parent, to tenderly hold and kiss these dying boys, to be the loving and caring presence that they so desperately need at that moment. That babe nursing at its mother’s breast is not that many years removed from the suffering soldiers at whose bedside Whitman sat: it is as if Whitman absorbed the original scene of nurture and worked to re-create it time and again in the hospitals he visited.

But what of the soldiers who died on the battlefield? Did they depart without care or love? Most, of course, did, but, as Whitman listened to the stories that wounded soldiers told him of their experiences in battle, he jotted down in the notebooks he carried with him on his hospital visits soldiers’ recollections of the intense love they felt for their comrades, and he was particularly taken with one story he heard. He wrote down the particulars: “William Giggee, Sept 18th ’62. I heard of poor Bill’s death—he was shot on [Union General John] Pope’s retreat—Arthur took him in his arms, and he died in about an hour and a half—Arthur buried him himself—he dug his grave.” Recent research by Martin G. Murray has revealed that William Giggee (or Giggie) and Arthur Giggie were privates in the same New York regiment, and, though they share an uncommon last name, they were not related; Murray suggests that Arthur Giggie may in fact have taken William’s last name in order to allow the two young men to claim a brotherly relationship and thus not to draw attention to what may have been a homoerotic relationship. In any case, Arthur’s tender gesture of care for William stayed with Whitman, who, a year later, began drafting lines for what would become “Vigil Strange,” as he imagined himself as the soldier burying his “loving comrade”: “Carefully wrapt in my blanket there I buried my soldier / Buried my loving comrade boy of responding kisses, there on the field, never again responding.” Another draft began: “I wrapt him in his blanket / A Soldier’s death when death arrives / When my darling & comrade fell, / Not a tear I shed.”

Eventually Whitman developed the idea of an all-night vigil and worked his way toward the striking syntactical reversal of the first line: “Vigil strange I kept on the field one night.” The usual syntax, of course, would be “I kept a strange vigil on the field one night.” By displacing the adjective and putting it after the noun it describes and by reversing the position of object and subject, Whitman creates a disorienting word field, where the adjective “strange” adheres to both “vigil” and to the “I” that it seems to modify: it is a “strange I” that keeps this nonstop “vigil” (the poem is one long sentence—in the original version, the clauses are joined by semicolons, but, as Whitman revised the poem, he replaced the semicolons with commas, emphasizing all the more the relentless and unbroken attentiveness of the speaker’s all-night vigil). As the soldier recounts the vigil, there are three parenthetical pauses: one is his attempt to offer himself consolation by addressing the dead comrade and expressing the hope that “we shall surely meet again,” but the two shorter parentheticals that frame the consolatory one underscore the finality of the comrade’s death—“(never again on earth responding).” Taken together, the parenthetical interruptions destabilize the serenity that the soldier otherwise feels in the presence of his comrade’s body, a “body . . . of responding kisses” that “never again” will respond to kiss or touch.

Everything about the inverted syntax (which persists throughout the poem in phrases like “onward I sped”) leaves both the speaker and us a little off balance: it takes time (a night’s vigil) for the estranged self (the “strange I”) to put things in the proper order again: mourning must give way to “morning,” as the “sun” rises (prompting the speaker to do the same—“I rose from the chill ground”) while the speaker’s loving “son” sets and enters that chill ground (Whitman invites us to hear the wrenching play on words by juxtaposing the homonyms—“bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave”). Once the speaker has “envelop’d well his form” into a blanket, he has begun the grief-work of seeing the body as but the “form” of his once-responding comrade, allowing him now to carry out his difficult duty in straightforward syntax that indicates how he can move forward with his life (instead of continually circling back, as the earlier inverted syntax insisted on): “I rose . . . And buried him where he fell.” But the long night’s “vigil strange” was precisely a night of circling back, of thinking of the loving responses that the speaker will no longer receive from this soldier he calls “comrade,” “boy,” and “son.” His vigil is a time of intense looking—“long, long I gazed”—that echoes the intense looking of the preceding little “Mother and Babe” poem: the “son” has died young, far from his mother, but a comrade has held him, honored his body, shown him love, “Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head and carefully under feet.” Standing in for the missing mother, this soldier has—with utmost care—put his loving “son” to bed one final time.


"Mother and Babe"

I SEE the sleeping babe, nestling the breast of its
The sleeping mother and babe—hush'd, I study them
long and long.

"Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

VIGIL strange I kept on the field one night,
When you, my son and my comrade, dropt at my side
that day,
One look I but gave, which your dear eyes return'd,
with a look I shall never forget;
One touch of your hand to mine, O boy, reach'd up as
you lay on the ground;
Then onward I sped in the battle, the even-contested
Till late in the night reliev'd, to the place at last again I
made my way;
Found you in death so cold, dear comrade—found your
body, son of responding kisses, (never again on
earth responding;)
Bared your face in the starlight—curious the scene—
cool blew the moderate night-wind;
Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me
the battle-field spreading;
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet, there in the fragrant
silent night;
But not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh—Long,
long I gazed;
Then on the earth partially reclining, sat by your side,
leaning my chin in my hands;
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with
you, dearest comrade—Not a tear, not a word;
Vigil of silence, love and death—vigil for you, my son
and my soldier,
As onward silently stars aloft, eastward new ones up-
ward stole;
Vigil final for you, brave boy, (I could not save you,
swift was your death,
I faithfully loved you and cared for you living—I think
we shall surely meet again;)
Till at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the
dawn appear'd,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop'd well his
Folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully over head,
and carefully under feet;
And there and then, and bathed by the rising sun, my
son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I de-
Ending my vigil strange with that—vigil of night and
battle-field dim;
Vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain—vigil I never forget,
how as day brighten'd,
I rose from the chill ground, and folded my soldier well
in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.


The image of a poet assembling a book by spreading his or her poems around the floor to see which ones go where endures in the literary imagination, even in the Age of the Internet, when poets are inclined to save their work in electronic files. Robert Frost said that in a book of twenty-four poems the twenty-fifth one should be its arrangement, a challenge that rewards artfulness and imagination. For while a slim volume of poetry may amount to little more (or less) than a collection of individual poems, it can also be structured in the form of an aesthetic argument, defined in lyrical, meditative, or narrative terms (or some combination thereof), suitable for exploring personal, philosophical, political, and social themes. A book may follow an arc, musical or otherwise, with poems grouped together by images, ideas, or motifs. Or the poet may seek to create sparks between poems, linking them by means of subject and sound, texture and color, or putting some distance between poems that treat similar subjects, inviting readers to forge their own connections. Then again serendipity may guide the selection and order of the poems, the laying out of which can reveal gaps for the poet to fill with new work. There are myriad ways to organize a book.

Whitman was forever adding, removing, and reordering poems in Leaves of Grass, which was published in six different editions in his lifetime, presenting an evolving understanding of his work, its measure and meaning. The arrangement of Drum-Taps, which can be described as an argument against the needless carnage of sectarian strife incorporated eventually into Leaves of Grass, gains power from the inspired pairing of “Mother and Babe” and “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night.” To juxtapose a two-line imagistic poem on maternal love with a fictional rendering of a nocturnal vigil for a dead soldier may create in the reader’s mind the right conditions for a meditation on the ways in which a loving gaze extends into eternity. For the one who studies “long and long” the sleeping mother and child at her breast performs a similar function when he bends over the cold body of his dead comrade, “son of responding kisses (never again on earth responding),” keeping watch through the night. Birth and death, yin and yang—the central duality of the human condition acquires greater significance in the pairing of these poems.

When my father-in-law passed away on the morning of my older daughter’s fifth birthday, the hospice chaplain suggested that for the bedside service it might be wise to honor the life of the departed and then celebrate the future of the girl holding my hand.

“This is everything, isn’t it?” said the chaplain. “She’s learning that at early age.”

Among Whitman’s virtues as a poet was his grasp of the intimate connection between the beginning and the end—of everything.



Every culture creates rituals to mark significant passages in the lives of individuals and their communities, which writers may describe for posterity. Thus the nineteenth-century American custom of a nightlong vigil for the dead and burial at dawn takes on new meaning when Whitman recreates it on the battlefield and then juxtaposes it with an image of maternal love. Describe two rituals you know well and set them side by side: what do they reveal about the vision of the world you have inherited?

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