Week 15, Whitman and the Civil War

A page from one of Whitman’s Civil War hospital notebooks, recording the story that generated “A March in the Ranks, Hard-Pressed.” Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.
A page from one of Whitman’s Civil War hospital notebooks, recording the story that generated “A March in the Ranks, Hard-Pressed.” Courtesy Walt Whitman Archive.


This week's text is "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown."

This is another poem that grew out of Whitman’s Civil War notebooks, where he recorded talks he had with soldiers about their experiences in the war. This time it was a Maine soldier named Milton Roberts, who, from his hospital bed after having his left leg amputated, told Whitman of a “scene in the woods on the peninsula”: “after the battle of White Oaks church, on the retreat, the march at night—the scene between 12 & 2 o’clock that night at the church in the woods, the hospital show at night, the wounded brought in—previous the silent stealthy march through the woods, at times stumbling over the bodies of dead men in the road. . . .” Whitman writes down all the grisly details of Roberts’ narrative about what the soldier saw as his unit finally came to the opening in the woods: “in this opening was a pretty good sized old church used impromptu for a hospital for the wounded of the battles of the day thereabout—with these it was filled, all varieties, horrible beyond description—the darkness dimly lit with candles, lamps, torches, moving about, but dark but plenty of darkness & half darkness.—the crowds of wounded, bloody & pale, the surgeons operating—the yards outside also filled—they lay on the ground some on blankets, some on stray planks.” Roberts described to the poet how in the “murky darkness” he could discern “the doctors operating, the scent of chloroform, the glisten of the steel instruments as the flash of lamps fell upon them.” Whitman transfers many of these details directly into “A March in the Ranks, Hard-Pressed,” as he takes on the voice of Roberts, imagining him arriving at “an open space in the woods” to find “a large old church . . . now an impromptu hospital,” “dim-lighted,” where, inside, among “Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,” is “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,” with “surgeons operating, . . . the smell of ether, the odor of blood.”

It is a horrifying spectacle that Whitman imagines here and re-creates, one that seems beyond the power of art to capture: no “pictures or poems ever made” have absorbed this, and yet Whitman’s poem will try, although he can only make out “the group of forms vaguely” because of the dim and wavering light amidst the dark shadows that protect him from confronting the full horror. Whitman carried his copy of Dante’s Inferno with him in the hospitals and jotted notes on Dante right next to his descriptions of the wounded soldiers he was visiting: it was as if he knew, as he traversed the rows of beds in Washington’s makeshift hospitals, that he was experiencing his own descent into hell, faced with horrors that a year or so earlier would have been unimaginable. Like “A Vigil Strange,” this poem is one long unbroken sentence, originally with semicolons at the end of most lines (later replaced with commas), underscoring the inexorable march of words that match the “hard-prest” march that these words record. But the “hard-prest” march pauses for a moment at this hellish church-turned-hospital, and two small parenthetical pauses in the long march of the poem’s sentence make us pause, too, as we read.

By the time we reach those two brief parenthetical pauses, we realize that Whitman has added one significant detail to Milton Roberts’ narrative of his experience: he has imagined a very young, mortally wounded soldier (“a mere lad”) who captures the narrator’s attention and makes him pause amidst the murky horror. This boy soldier takes shape out of the vague forms—“more distinctly a soldier”—and is there only for three short lines before the narrator returns to the surrounding “obscurity” and then goes outside to join the ranks for the ongoing march. The two parentheticals in those three lines enact a syntactic pause in the sentence’s march. The first is a clinical and unpoetic frank appraisal of the soldier’s grievous wound: “(He is shot in the abdomen).” Gut wounds in the Civil War were among the most fatal, producing massive bleeding and quickly spreading infection: the narrator knows immediately the boy is “in danger of bleeding to death.” But then comes a remarkable line: “I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily).” We move from the clinical description of the first parenthetical to the poem’s one “poetic” moment, buried in the second parenthetical—the only metaphorical statement amidst all the horror. But we realize with a start that this poetic moment in fact emerges directly from the clinical observation: the boy’s face can be described as a white lily only because he has been shot in the abdomen and is bleeding out of his gut, draining the blood from his face as he dies. The most the narrator can do is stop the flow “temporarily”—an awkward word that is difficult to say and that takes time, five syllables that slow down the poem incrementally, that buy a precious extra moment of the boy’s life. And, our ears tell us, that awkward word “temporarily” rhymes, surprisingly, with “lily,” forming a moment of consonance, of fleeting stasis in the march and flow. There are several marches and flows going on in this poem: the march of the soldiers (put on pause for a brief time by the stop at the church/hospital), the march or flow of the nonstop long sentence that extends across all the lines of the poem (paused momentarily by the parentheticals), and the flow of the young soldier’s blood out of his body (staunched by the narrator but only “temporarily”).

Like a cut flower, this boy is already dead, and he achieves his ultimate lily-beauty as (and because) his life is draining from him. As the narrator goes back outside the church and hears “the orders given, Fall in, my men, fall in,” we can hear the dark pun: “Fallen, my men, fallen.” For this is the nature of a military march: it is “hard-prest,” and the men who remain capable fall into formation to push ahead “in darkness marching . . . the unknown road,” while the men who have fallen stay behind in the church/hospital or are abandoned along the road. Soldiers either “fall in” or they are “fallen.” So as the narrator hears the order to prepare to march, he thinks again of the boy whose fatal flow of blood he had momentarily staunched, and he recalls the final moment before death: “his eyes open, a half-smile gives he me.” This tender moment produces a syntactical inversion, as we get the odd grammatical situation of subject and object nestling directly next to each other—“he me”: a perfect rhyme, subject and object sitting intimately on the same side of the verb, “gives he me.” The narrator, marching again into the darkness, now carries with him a gift from the dead soldier, whose tentative smile breaking in his lily-white face gives something to the narrator—a moment of shared subjectivity, of deep union captured in the juxtaposed “he me.” This boy has, in some very real sense, given the marching soldier back to himself; his death has delivered a moment of deep sharing and love, and, in a place overwhelmed by death, his death has given the narrator life. Easter lilies in church, we recall, are the flower of resurrection and new life, and that new life comes only through death.


"A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown"

A MARCH in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown;
A route through a heavy wood, with muffled steps in the
Our army foil'd with loss severe, and the sullen remnant
Till after midnight glimmer upon us, the lights of a
dim-lighted building;
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the
dim-lighted building;
'Tis a large old church, at the crossing roads—'tis now
an impromptu hospital;
—Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all
the pictures and poems ever made:
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving
candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red
flame, and clouds of smoke;
By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the
floor, some in the pews laid down;
At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in
danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the ab-
I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is
white as a lily;)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene,
fain to absorb it all;
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in
obscurity, some of them dead;
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell
of ether, the odor of blood;
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers
—the yard outside also fill'd;
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers,
some in the death-spasm sweating;
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor's shouted orders
or calls;
The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the
glint of the torches;
These I resume as I chant—I see again the forms, I
smell the odor;
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men,
Fall in;
But first I bend to the dying lad—his eyes open—a
half-smile gives he me;
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to
the darkness,
Resuming, marching, as ever in darkness marching, on
in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.


The researcher from Human Rights Watch, who was taking testimony from an Albanian victim of abuse at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries, impressed me with his methodical questioning and equanimity. Pristina, Kosovo, 1992. The war raging in Bosnia and Croatia had displaced millions of men, women, and children, many of them living precariously in refugee camps in the republics of the former Yugoslavia, and the consensus among foreign policy experts and journalists was that it was only a matter of time before the fighting spread to Kosovo. Reporting from the camps, I also encountered journalists, investigators from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and humanitarians from a variety of NGOs, all of whom faced the challenge of recording stories of unimaginable suffering. In their own ways they were carrying on the tradition of Whitman’s hospital note-taking, which formed the basis of his Memoranda During the War and Drum-Taps. But only Whitman could have written “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest,” the dramatic monologue of a sojourner in Hell.

Whitman adopts the fictional persona of a soldier marching through dark woods, a Dantean mask that grants him the freedom to invent a scene, drawn from his notes, in which he joins the ranks of a retreating army approaching a dimly-lit building in an open space—a church that offers no salvation, because it has been converted into a field hospital. Here is “a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made;” for war creates a new reality, which demands new forms of writing to account for the bloodletting. He surveys a congregation of dead and dying souls, some lying in the pews instead of kneeling, sacrificed for the Union, and then temporarily staunches the bleeding of a gut-shot soldier, whose “face is white as a lily.” In his brief time inside a place defined by shadows he can neither save the wounded man nor absorb the full weight of the scene—“postures beyond description,” surgeons barking orders, their “little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches.” His attention to the dying is a light in the darkness, which calls to mind Robert Frost’s dictum: “Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion in the world.”

The religious element in the poem is unmistakable. The metaphor of the lily invokes critical passages from the Old and New Testaments: “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” we hear in the Song of Solomon: “he feedeth among the lilies.” And in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus preaches to His disciples: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” What the speaker chants to the young man in his final moments is a kind of benediction born of the love that priests bestow in God’s name on their parishioners—the love that most of us experience at some point in our lives, given and received: a form of grace reserved for the living and the dead. It is what marks the ministrations of the humanitarians who care for refugees from Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Somalia, Burundi and the Congo; the chronicles of the journalists who bear witness to the tragedies of our time; the prayers of all who find themselves on “The unknown road still marching.”



Many buildings are repurposed—during wars and other crises, or often more routinely when one owner abandons or sells a property that then becomes something else. Churches become hospitals, warehouses become art studios, old mills become condos, newspaper buildings become restaurants. When this happens, the lingering presence of the old can often still be sensed in the new, creating an odd conflation of purpose and tone (as we see in Whitman’s poem, where the functions and senses of the church intermingle with the narrator’s experience of the place as a hospital). Think of such a building that you have occupied or visited, and explore how the two contrasting functions create a dissonant or consonant effect, an odd duality of experience.

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