Week 31, Whitman and the Civil War

A Confederate and a Union soldier together.
A Confederate and a Union soldier together.


This week's text is “Two Brothers, One South, One North."

Just as he was doing in his poetry at the end of the Civil War, so in his prose was Whitman recording images of reunification, of reconciliation between countrymen who had become enemies but who needed, now that the war was ending, to once again become comrades. And, like the “Consolator” in “Chanting the Square Deific,” Whitman, the caregiver to both Union and Confederate soldiers in the Washington hospitals, modeled for his readers the unifying gestures of healing love needed to mend the national fracture. In this entry in Memoranda During the War, which he copied out of one of his hospital notebooks from May of 1865 (just after final hostilities had ended and just as President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation giving general amnesty to most of those who had taken part in the rebellion), the poet records a fairly common encounter—a meeting of brothers, one who had fought for the Union, the other for the Confederacy. Such instances of fraternal bonds splintering into fratricidal hatred were particularly common in the border states like Maryland, where many families were divided in their loyalties to North and South.

The month before, General Grant had ordered an all-out Union assault on Confederate forces that had long been dug in south of Petersburg, Virginia. Major Clifton Prentiss of the 6th Maryland Union Volunteers personally led the attack and penetrated the enemy fortifications, only to be shot in the lung. Prentiss’s younger brother, William, was one of the Confederate soldiers defending the fortification, and, in the same battle, he received a shell fragment in his knee. Some of the Maryland Union soldiers, after their victory, were tending to the wounded on the battlefield when they came upon William Prentiss, who told them that he had a brother in the 6th Maryland. The soldiers realized that Prentiss’s brother was in fact their major, who was lying gravely wounded not far away. William said he wanted to see his brother. When word was brought to Clifton, however, the Union soldier refused to see his Confederate brother, whom he now considered a traitor. The Union commanding officer begged Clifton to relent and ordered William to be brought over beside his brother. Clifton glared at William, but William smiled back, and then both men, who hadn’t seen each other since the war began, broke into tears and were briefly reunited. Soon after, William had his leg amputated, and Clifton’s lung became infected.

Clifton and William then ended up in Armory Square hospital together, where Whitman cared for both of them. But his notebook entry lingers on his warm encounters with the Confederate William, with whom Whitman could enact the affection across the regional divide that he believed was the only hope for the country’s future. When William tells the poet he is “a rebel soldier,” Whitman replies that “it made no difference.” In Whitman’s quiet response, we can hear the erasure of “difference,” the hoped-for fading away of distinction between Union and Confederate, as the nation began its long process of healing. Clifton and William had fought each other fiercely through four years, but here at the end of the war they were “both brought together” in Armory Square “after a separation of four years.” Neither would survive the wounds they received in the same battle. The entire country, it seemed to Whitman, had been hospitalized for the duration of the war: the poet had written to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1863 that “America” was “already brought to Hospital in her fair youth,” and, as Whitman wandered the wards of the hospitals that had colonized and taken over the nation’s capital, he encountered young men from the North and South and West, black youth and white youth, immigrants and native-born, a microcosm of the young, vast and expanding nation battered, torn, suffering, and dying. William would never leave Armory Square, dying there in June. Clifton managed to get to his home in Brooklyn but died soon after in August. They became part of Whitman’s “million dead.” But, increasingly, for Whitman and the rest of America that emerged from the war hospital to face and build a future, the question now was how to carry on the democratic experiment that had just passed through its most dire test. America may have been in its “fair youth” when it was brought to the hospital of the war, but the country that was released from that hospital was now, as it faced its own massive Reconstruction, forced to quickly mature.


“Two Brothers, One South, One North”

Two Brothers, one South, one NorthMay 28–9.—I staid tonight a long time by the bed-side of a new patient, a young Baltimorean, aged about 19 years, W. S. P., (2nd Md. Southern,) very feeble, right leg amputated, can't sleep hardly at all—has taken a great deal of morphine, which, as usual, is costing more than it comes to. Evidently very intelligent and well bred—very affectionate—held on to my hand, and put it by his face, not willing to let me leave. As I was lingering, soothing him in his pain, he says to me suddenly, “I hardly think you know who am—I don't wish to impose upon you—I am a rebel soldier.” I said I did not know that, but it made no difference.......Visiting him daily for about two weeks after that, while he lived, (death had mark'd him, and he was quite alone,) I loved him much, always kiss'd him, and he did me.

In an adjoining Ward I found his brother, an officer of rank, a Union soldier, a brave and religious man, (Col. Clifton K. Prentiss, Sixth Md. Infantry, Sixth Corps, wounded in one of the engagements at Petersburgh, April 2—linger'd, suffer'd much, died in Brooklyn, Aug. 20, '65.) It was in the same battle both were hit. One was a strong Unionist, the other Secesh; both fought on their respective sides, both badly wounded, and both brought together here after absence of four years. Each died for his cause.


Displayed on the mantelpiece of my grandparents’ living room, in northern Maryland, was a blood-stained bullet chiseled from a tree on the battlefield at Gettysburg—a symbol, I knew from an early age, of the fratricide at the core of American history. My grandfather was a country doctor who treated everyone in the community, rich and poor, black and white, and after he died it came out that he had forgiven thousands of dollars in debts owed by indigent patients. His oldest son, an Episcopal priest and my godfather, hailed this as evidence of the ways in which faith had informed his practice. My grandmother, a nurse and the church organist, heartily agreed. But his death also led to a breach in the family, when my mother objected to her brother serving as executor of the estate, in fulfillment of their father’s wishes. This complicated my relationship to both my mother and my uncle. Nor did they reconcile before my mother slipped into dementia.

Differences of opinion, which are integral to family life, escalate when money and beliefs collide, as happens in every civil war. For example, a Serbian poet married to a Muslim writer in Sarajevo found himself estranged during the siege from his father and brothers, who took to the surrounding hills to rain down terror on the civilians trapped in the city without water, electricity, or gas. One night in his unheated flat the poet told me that whenever he published an article in the daily newspaper a shot was fired through his roof, presumably by someone in his family. He added ruefully that if he were more prolific his place would resemble a gingerbread house!

Whitman’s small sketch of two brothers fighting on opposing sides and dying from wounds suffered in the same battle reveals the costs of war. It is significant that the younger brother, a rebel soldier struck by shrapnel, is the one who asks to see his older brother, a religious man who cannot summon the faith to overcome his anger, despite the bullet in his lung. “Every word is a doorway to a meeting,/ one often canceled,” wrote the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, “and that’s when a word is true:/ when it insists on the meeting.” William Prentiss insisted on meeting his brother, and that made all the difference to Whitman, who saw no difference between the warriors from the North and South. Peace would endure only if the victors and the defeated made gestures, large and small, to overcome their hostility—and their grief. Then the poet’s word would ring true.



In 1963, the American writer Eudora Welty published a story in The New Yorker inspired by the assassination of the civil rights leader Medger Evers. "Where the Voice is Coming From" narrates the terrible event and its aftermath from the killer's point of view, because, as the writer said, she knew what was going through his mind. She was a white Southern woman with a liberal cast of mind who was not afraid to find points of contact in her own soul with that of a man she regarded as evil incarnate. This, then, is a marvelous example of the power of art to shed light on the darkest aspects of the human condition. And here is a literary exercise to broaden one's powers of empathy: Describe a conflict in your family from the vantage points of two or more parties to the conflict. Give every side its due.

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

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