Week 21, Whitman and the Civil War

A page from Whitman’s 1863 Civil War notebook, containing the draft of lines that would find their way into “A Veteran’s Vision.” Library of Congress, Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman. Scan courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archive.
A page from Whitman’s 1863 Civil War notebook, containing the draft of lines that would find their way into “A Veteran’s Vision.” Library of Congress, Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman. Scan courtesy of the Walt Whitman Archive.


This week's text is "The Veteran's Vision."

In an 1863 notebook, Whitman recorded his experiences at Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he came in search of his wounded brother George, and he jots down many battle and camp stories that he heard from the soldiers he came to know during his stay there. A number of his war poems emerge from these notes, and on one page he records a list of “scenes, sounds, &c” of “a battle.” It is hard to tell if Whitman is recording memories of one or more soldiers or if he is imagining these sounds himself, based on what he has heard of battle. But he eventually employs much of this catalog of battle sounds in his haunting poem, “A Veteran’s Vision,” where the sounds never leave the former soldier’s head, even as he lies half-awake in his home, with his wife sleeping at his side and his infant asleep nearby. In a brilliant framing of these battle sounds, Whitman gives us a narrator years after the war, safe in a happy domestic setting, where every night he relives the horror of a battle. We have commented before on Whitman’s oxymoronic experience of the war, the way that love and death, beauty and horror, affection and violence, meld and flow into each other continually. In this poem, we see how two apparently distinct and separate realms—the domestic home and the battlefield—encroach on each other as well, insisting on mixing horrifying war memories with the comforting postwar reality of a home and family. In the space of this poem, we discover how that comforting present can never be fully experienced, because it is continually merging with the sounds and excitement and terror of battles past.

In a poem so devoted to sound, it is fitting that Whitman draws our attention to the ways that words, too, slip from one meaning to another, from one realm of experience to another. In his half-sleep, the first sound the veteran hears in the “stillness” and “dark” is “the breath of my infant,” and that reassuring sound—the very sound of the hope of his new post-war life—generates a cascade of other sounds: the infant’s quick, repetitive, rhythmical breaths become “the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle-balls,” and perhaps the happy thought of the infant learning to crawl morphs into the “skirmishers” in the battle who “crawl cautiously ahead.” Even the word “infant” generates thoughts of “the hastening of infantry” (the words come from the same roots and both mean “beginners,” since the infantry tended to be made up of the youngest and most inexperienced soldiers). The diction of the veteran’s memory is oddly linked again and again to the diction of childhood—the “strange lull” in the battle echoes the lullaby that probably put the infant to sleep; the “patter of small arms” might well echo the pitter-patter sounds of the infant crawling on small arms; “the cry of a regiment charging” echoes the crying of the infant that the veteran now experiences daily. We realize that the competing realms that the veteran inhabits—the martial and the marital—seem so distinct from each other but are in sound and orthography separated only by the reversal of two small letters. The veteran, unlike his wife and infant, lives in both realms simultaneously; he tells us that “the wars are over long,” but the distorted syntax (“over long” instead of “long over”) lets us know that, while the war may have been over for years, it is nonetheless “overlong,” lasting far beyond the formal cessation of hostilities and signing of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, enduring in fact as long as the veteran lives.

This poem is another of Whitman’s extended single-sentence structures, where the opening scene of domestic comfort moves inexorably into the brutal memory, where a few parenthetical interruptions work to repress parts of the memory the veteran has to work hard not to heed, not to register, parts that he needs to repress in order to continue to live: he sees “the gaps cut by the enemy’s volleys, (quickly fill’d up, no delay),” and we realize that “gaps” here serves as a kind of euphemism, a protective linguistic gesture, to keep away the image of shattered bodies that those “gaps” represent, gaps that are “quickly fill’d up” with other soldiers’ bodies (even the elided “e” in “fill’d” is a small orthographical gap). Only late in the poem, protectively distanced in another set of parentheses, does the veteran allow himself to glimpse what those “gaps” really are (“the wounded dripping and red”), even as he reminds himself to “heed [them] not.”

Amidst the “chaos louder than ever” of this battle memory, the veteran realizes (in another parenthetical aside) that he is at some level aroused by “the sound of the cannon” and feels a “devilish exultation” and even an “old mad joy in the depths of my soul.” He realizes, in other words, that his war experience has left him unsure, in his new home with his wife and infant, whether he can ever be fully at home there, since, night after night, in his marital bed, the sounds of domestic bliss get transmuted into the martial sounds of battle, calling him to another home, one more dangerous and risky and exciting than anything he could find in his postwar life. And so the poem ends with an echo of Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” (which did not become the official national anthem until 1931, but was a popular unofficial anthem from the 1820s on), a reminder that, like the veteran in this poem, Americans today continue in their daily domestic lives, far from scenes of battle, at baseball games and the Super Bowl, to join together to conjure up the buried aural memory of “bombs bursting in air” and the visual flash of “the vari-color’d rockets,” their “red glare.”


“The Veteran’s Vision”

WHILE my wife at my side lies slumbering, and the wars
are over long,
And my head on the pillow rests at home, and the mys-
tic midnight passes,
And through the stillness, through the dark, I hear, just
hear, the breath of my infant,
There in the room, as I wake from sleep, this vision
presses upon me:
The engagement opens there and then, in my busy brain
The skirmishers begin—they crawl cautiously ahead—
I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles—the short
t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls;
I see the shells exploding, leaving small white clouds—
I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass;
The grape, like the hum and whirr of wind through the
trees, (quick, tumultuous, now the contest rages!)
All the scenes at the batteries themselves rise in detail
before me again;
The crashing and smoking—the pride of the men in
their pieces;
The chief gunner ranges and sights his piece, and selects
a fuse of the right time;
After firing, I see him lean aside, and look eagerly off
to note the effect;
—Elsewhere I hear the cry of a regiment charging—
(the young colonel leads himself this time, with
brandish'd sword;)
I see the gaps cut by the enemy's volleys, (quickly
fill'd up—no delay;)
I breathe the suffocating smoke—then the flat clouds
hover low, concealing all;
Now a strange lull comes for a few seconds, not a shot
fired on either side;
Then resumed, the chaos louder than ever, with eager
calls, and orders of officers;
While from some distant part of the field the wind wafts
to my ears a shout of applause, (some special
And ever the sound of the cannon, far or near, (rousing,
even in dreams, a devilish exultation, and all the
old mad joy, in the depths of my soul;)
And ever the hastening of infantry shifting positions—
batteries, cavalry, moving hither and thither;
(The falling, dying, I heed not—the wounded, dripping
and red, I heed not—some to the rear are hob-
Grime, heat, rush—aid-de-camps galloping by, or on a
full run;
With the patter of small arms, the warning s-s-t of the
rifles, (these in my vision I hear or see,)
And bombs bursting in air, and at night the vari-color'd


The Italian writer Primo Levi believed that survivors of the Nazi concentration camps fell into two groups: those who could put the terrible events they witnessed and suffered out of their minds, and those who could not. Levi’s acclaimed writings about his imprisonment in Auschwitz, including If This Is a Man, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Black Hole of Auschwitz, testify to his continuing attempt to describe the Nazi cruelty, which he could not forget—and which perhaps contributed to his suicide in 1987. Soldiers and diplomats, journalists and humanitarians—all recall their wartime experiences in the same complicated fashion; hence the fabled strength of the bonds forged in war, which unite combatants and citizens alike long after the last shot is fired. “The Veteran’s Vision,” Whitman’s dramatic monologue from an artilleryman’s perspective is a vivid reconstruction of war’s horrors as well as a form of exorcism on behalf of those who inflict death and suffering on their enemies. His ventriloquism thus serves not only a poetic purpose but also a therapeutic one: ridding the imagination of demons is a lifelong project.

In bed one night the artilleryman is wakened by a vision of the war that presses on him—the sounds and sights of battle, which as his wife sleeps beside him he catalogues:

I hear the irregular snap! snap!
I hear the sounds of the different missiles—the short t-h-t! t-h-t! of the rifle balls;
I see the shells exploding, leaving small white clouds—
I hear the great shells shrieking as they pass;
The grape, like the hum and whirr of wind through the trees, (quick, tumultuous, now the contest rages!)

These are the kinds of sensory details that lodge forever in the memory; likewise “the suffocating smoke” that he breathes again and the “strange lull” that comes over the battlefield, the momentary peace that makes the resumption of fighting all the worse. It is common to say that war is a matter of long spells of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, and Whitman brings this idea to life now with the introduction of applause, cannon, and small arms fire. We do not learn whether the battle is won or lost, only that it persists in his memory like a waking dream.

Note that the monologue consists of a single sentence—hundreds of words spread over twenty-seven lines, delineating an engagement that “begins there and then” in the veteran’s “busy brain” and does not end. Which is, of course, how war haunts the minds of those condemned to remember until their dying breath what they saw, did, and suffered. Hundreds of thousands of such men returned to civilian life after the Battle of Appomattox Court House, and among Whitman’s many poetic virtues was his determination to find words to heal them, one reader at a time.



In “A Veteran’s Vision,” Whitman presents a soldier suffering from what today we might call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). We recognize this now as a mental disorder triggered by a traumatic event, often a war experience; PTSD is marked by flashbacks and nightmares, much like the event that the veteran in Whitman’s poem describes. Whitman, during his Civil War hospital visits with wounded soldiers, heard amputees describe a phenomenon physicians would name “phantom limb”—the sensation that the missing limb is still attached to the body and can feel pain and other sensations. Both PTSD and “phantom limb” are medical conditions that might help us understand this veteran’s sensation of fully experiencing a battle that is no longer “really” there. Explore your own experience with similar phenomena, with fully sensing something that you realize is no longer actually present. How did you respond to the sensation? Did you find the experience comforting, terrifying, unsettling, restorative?

Answer in the Comment box below or on WhitmanWeb’s Facebook page.

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