Week 19, Whitman and the Civil War

Left: Two Union soldiers during the Civil War. Courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Two Union soldiers during the Civil War in front of a painted backdrop of a camp scene.
Left: Two Union soldiers during the Civil War. Courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Two Union soldiers during the Civil War in front of a painted backdrop of a camp scene.


This week's text is “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice."

In the years following the Civil War, many novels and stories appeared that portrayed the marriage of a Northerner and a Southerner. John William DeForest’s Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) was perhaps the best known of these works that employed the power of fiction to help Southerners and Northerners imagine a new kind of bond that would heal the divisions and lingering enmity of the war: by figuring a marriage between two people from opposite sides of the Civil War, these writers created an imaginary space that helped readers think their way toward the possibilities of a Re-United States. Whitman had already begun imagining a different kind of cross-sectional affection that he originally believed—when he first published his “Calamus” poems in 1860—might prevent a civil war from happening. His “Calamus” poems had explored the possibilities of a more public and accepted expression of a national affection between males, a freeing of homoerotic feelings from the repressive and repressed dungeons to which they had long been cast. While women were free to express their strong affection for other women—to hold hands, walk arm-in-arm, embrace and kiss, even write passionate letters to each other—males were disciplined into withholding such expressions of love to other men. Men were taught that their relationship to other men needed to be based on manly competition, starting as schoolboys on athletic fields and carrying over into the capitalistic survival-of-the-fittest economy that rewarded self-reliance, ambition, and, increasingly, a ruthlessness that might result in business victories over competitors. For democracy to flourish, Whitman believed, this dangerous faith in manly competition had to be offset with the encouragement of affection between men. He saw the developing hatred between North and South as the perverse flowering of manly competition gone mad. When he published the “Calamus” poems as a new cluster in his 1860 Leaves of Grass, he hoped the book might help avert a war by proposing a simple solution—“affection”—to all the problems the young nation was facing.

When that attempt failed, Whitman revised one of his “Calamus” poems and repurposed it as a Civil War poem. He published it in Drum-Taps, adding a new first line—“Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice”—and made it clear that the prophetic voice was his own, the same voice that he had raised five years earlier, when that voice implicitly warned of the carnage that would result from men’s failure to love and respect the bodies of other men. That carnage had now, by the time the poem was published, manifested itself in 1.5 million casualties, the horrifying fruit of untrammeled competition: America now could only speak “over the carnage,” because dead and maimed male bodies were scattered throughout the American landscape (many still being buried in the first years after the war) and in town squares all across the nation, where amputees from the war gathered for decades. The war, then, intensified the urgency of Whitman’s belief that there needed to be a radical reconception of America’s ideas of affection and a new emphasis on and acceptance of intimacy between men: “It shall be customary in the houses and streets to see manly affection.” America’s public spaces, in Whitman’s prophecy, would welcome the sight of men touching “face to face lightly,” welcoming instead of recoiling from physical touch with each other. All the political problems of union, secession, and re-unification, would be solved, he believed, not by legal or military means, but by a release of repressed physical affection: “Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet.” Those looking for Constitutional remedies for regional hatred and division were missing the root cause: no “agreement on paper” or laws enforced “by arms” would allow the fragile nation, “nor any living thing,” to cohere. Instead of military “arms,” the newly reconstituted nation needed the “arms” of its young men embracing.

So, what had in the 1860 “Calamus” poems been a desperate attempt to call young men of the North and South to recognize the affectional bonds that united them in order to tamp down the enmity that was flaring up and threatening war, now became in 1865 Whitman’s attempt to offer an imaginary healing space similar to, and yet radically different from, the post-Civil War marriage fiction that united a Southern belle with a Union veteran: Whitman, instead, offers the healing figure of men expressing affection for each other across formerly warring regions—“One from Massachusetts shall be a Missourian’s comrade; / From Maine and from hot Carolina, and another an Oregonese, shall be friends triune.” It is a vision of a reunited nation, sustained and held together not so much by legal remedies as by the remedy of a new homoerotics—men loving men. As we have seen, Whitman experienced in the Civil War hospitals a deepening expression of affection among the wounded and dying young soldiers; he observed the camaraderie of soldiers that had been forged on the battlefield, their growing comfort with physical touch with other men, even the easy camaraderie of Confederate soldiers in those hospitals with their Union counterparts. It was Whitman’s crazy and powerful notion that the love he experienced then would survive the war and remake the nation.


“Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice”

OVER the carnage rose prophetic a voice,
Be not dishearten'd—Affection shall solve the problems
of Freedom yet;
Those who love each other shall become invincible—
they shall yet make Columbia victorious.

Sons of the Mother of All! you shall yet be victo-
You shall yet laugh to scorn the attacks of all the re-
mainder of the earth.

No danger shall balk Columbia's lovers;
If need be, a thousand shall sternly immolate themselves
for one.

One from Massachusetts shall be a Missourian's com-
From Maine and from hot Carolina, and another an Ore-
gonese, shall be friends triune,
More precious to each other than all the riches of the

To Michigan, Florida perfumes shall tenderly come;
Not the perfumes of flowers, but sweeter, and wafted
beyond death.

It shall be customary in the houses and streets to see
manly affection;
The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face
The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.

These shall tie you and band you stronger than hoops
of iron;
I, extatic, O partners! O lands! with the love of lovers
tie you.

Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?
—Nay—nor the world, nor any living thing, will so


Columbia is the name that Whitman invokes for postbellum America in “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” signaling a spiritual union grounded in affection between males: comradeship. The name derives, of course, from Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer and colonizer of the New World, and it was bestowed on many towns, things, and institutions in America, including Columbia University, the District of Columbia, a river in the Pacific Northwest, a record company, the command module that landed the first men on the moon, a radio and television network, a film studio, and the ill-fated space shuttle that in 2003 disintegrated upon reentry into the atmosphere. A variation of the word, Columbiad, was the name given to a cannon deployed on both sides of the Civil War, and to the fictional space gun in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon, which could fire an aluminum ball capable of carrying people to the moon. In short, a name rich in associations, which in the poet’s hands becomes a figure for uniting men north and south, turning combatants into comrades, enemies into lovers.

The grammatical inversion in the first line (added five years after the poem was published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass) contains a visual pun: “carnage rose” can be read as a noun and a verb or as a compound noun—a cultivar, if you will, created especially for the soil of the battlefields thick with human remains. The mind makes the necessary correction with the next word, “prophetic,” even as it retains an image of the flower that symbolizes love and death. It is also an emblem of purity and passion, change and perfection: key elements of Whitman’s poetics and philosophy. Rooted in this charged earth, his prophesy—“Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet”—is thus a rebuke to the despair that customarily takes hold in the aftermath of war. What he proposes is a radically new understanding of the bonds that will hold together the society rising from the ashes of sectarianism—a blossoming of homoerotic love.

Which begins with “friends triune,” a secular version of the Holy Trinity, uniting comrades (Gods) from three points of the compass: north and south and west. Call them Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity: the slogan of the French Revolution. Law in this conception of America is neither the governing idea of a land composed of disparate peoples nor the final arbiter of right and wrong. For a paper agreement can be ripped up; flaws can be written into a constitution; the breakdown of the social contract can lead to war. But love? “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Allen Ginsburg declared, obeying Whitman’s imperative. There lies the future.



“All you need is love,” wrote John Lennon in a song released by the Beatles in 1967. Whitman’s simple solution to a complex problem—“Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet”—has often been proposed by many writers before and after him. Many writers have also explored the remarkable phenomenon that soldiers often experience, in the heat of battle, intense feelings of love and camaraderie for their fellow soldiers, what many describe as the most intense feelings of love and loyalty that they have ever felt. Whitman certainly experienced this deep affection in his wartime experiences. Discuss the relationship here between the feelings of homoerotic love—the love of men for other men—that seems in American culture to be recognized, sanctioned, and accepted in war (and other arenas of “manly competition,” like team sports), but is viewed quite differently outside the context of war and fierce competition, and is not sanctioned as a feeling to be encouraged in order to prevent war.

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