Week 33, Whitman and the Civil War

African Americans burying the corpses of soldiers on the Cold Harbor battlefield, 1865.
African Americans burying the corpses of soldiers on the Cold Harbor battlefield, 1865.


This week's text is "Reconciliation."

One of the most remarkable poems to appear in Whitman’s Sequel to Drum-Taps is this little poem with its evocative title, “Reconciliation.” Whitman, in a manuscript note probably written before the war began, was already thinking through what he called “the idea of reconciliation”: “that what has been done, is consumed—Ever, out of its ashes, let new, sweeter, more amicable fruits ripen.” Etymologically, the word means “to bring together again” or, more precisely, “to make friendly again.” It is as if, even before the war broke out, Whitman realized that what lay ahead for his country was an entire era of the difficult work of turning enemies back into friends, turning disunion back into union. And, buried deep in the idea of “reconciliation” for Whitman was his old notion of “compost”: out of the ashes of the war’s conflagration would grow “sweeter, more amicable fruits,” the fruits of a new and intensified camaraderie emerging from the consuming fires of four years of fratricide.

The poem’s hauntingly beautiful opening lines mythologize the process of composting, as we get “Death and Night” turned into “sisters” who, like the wound-dresser, are now making their rounds and washing the hundreds of thousands of ruined bodies that lie upon “this soil’d world” (the world, as always for Whitman, is “soil’d,” covered with a layer of death, and, after the war, that layer is thick with “carnage” and desperately needs those sisters’ hands to “wash” it away and make the soil fertile for the “amicable fruits” of a post-war reconciliation to grow and ripen). The speaker hauntingly verbalizes the “chemistry” that we saw in “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up”—the composting power of nature that turns death to life again, that heals the “deeds of carnage” in a way Whitman captured in the closing words of Memoranda During the War, as he looked back a decade later on the Civil War battlefields and cemeteries: “From ten years’ rain and snow, in their seasons—grass, clover, pine trees, orchards, forests—from all the noiseless miracles of soil and sun and running streams—how peaceful and how beautiful appear to-day even the Battle-Trenches, and the many hundred thousand Cemetery mounds!” In “Reconciliation,” this realization is put in the voice of a speaker who seems to be experiencing “this soil’d world” up close. The speaker looks at the dead body of his “enemy” and approaches it, bends down, and kisses its “white face.” Again, we can hear the faint echoes of the wound-dresser and of Whitman himself, holding and kissing the dying soldiers in the hospitals.

But just who is the speaker of this poem? Twice, a “white face” of the “enemy” appears, and the insistence seems odd: “he lies white-faced and still in the coffin” and the speaker “touch[es] lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.” Many readers will read through the whiteness here, finding nothing remarkable in the description and perhaps hearing it only as a reference to the pallid complexion of the corpse (or even as the white skull itself). But the double reference in the final two lines draws attention to itself, and it is difficult not to hear some racial edge to the description. Some readers have heard the insistence as the sign of Whitman’s affirming a racial bond with his white Southern enemies, the explicit reference to “white” becoming an exclusionary statement, as white racial solidarity finally trumps sectional enmity to bond the South to the North again. The historian David Blight, for example, sees the poem as underscoring Whitman’s “virtual kinship” with “all the ‘white-faced’ dead brothers,” thus enacting “the ultimate betrayal of the dark-faced folk whom the dead had shared in liberating.” Similarly, the poet Natasha Trethewey hears Whitman’s emphasis on the “white face” in this poem as an indication that he “leaves out the reality of so many dead soldiers whose faces were not white.”

The opposite may be the case, however. Whitman records in Memoranda that some of the last soldiers in the hospitals that he was talking to were African Americans. And what would he have been hearing from them? If he was jotting down their experiences, as he had with other soldiers over the previous two years, he would have been recording the main duty of black soldiers at the end of the war—burying the corpses left on America’s battlefields. If Whitman is again speaking in the voice of a soldier-persona, and if that persona was originally conceived of by Whitman as a black soldier, then the “I” of this poem might be heard as another of Whitman’s excursions into black subjectivity, and the speaker’s peculiar insistence on the white face makes sense, for this reconciliation promises now to transcend race, to bring black and white together, as the war produces (if only temporarily) a previously unimaginable reconciliation between the races.

“Reconciliation” is, after all, an outdoor poem, taking place under the sky and on the “soil’d world” (we’re certainly not in a funeral parlor). If the narrator is heard, then, as one of the black soldiers who so often placed the white dead in coffins and buried them, he now finds that his labors of gathering death from the “soil’d world” of shallow graves strewn across the Southern landscape provides him a moment to express affection in a charged kiss on the lips of “the white face in the coffin,” and the double emphasis on white captures the amazement of the former slave at this newfound liberty to kiss and honor the dead white soldier. Whether that dead white soldier was a Union or a Confederate corpse, it would have been—for most of American history—the black’s “enemy,” but now, in this moment of intimate confrontation with the corpse, the experience of being a soldier unites rather than separates the black speaker from his dead white enemy, allowing this powerful (if macabre) experience of reconciliation. This is one Whitman poem for which we have no manuscripts, so it is impossible to determine (as we can, for example, in “The Sleepers” manuscripts) if there is an erased black presence, even an erased black speaker, here. But the manuscript evidence for other such charged passages is strong enough to allow us to entertain the possibility of a ghost-black speaker in “Reconciliation” and to imagine this poem as another of the ways Whitman transformed his notes of what soldiers told him into a haunting and lasting poem. In this case, those soldiers would have been black soldiers who had been on grave detail, burying white soldiers and finding themselves again and again in the position of the speaker in this poem, drawing near to the coffin with the dead “enemy,” all too familiar now with what it feels like to touch a white-faced corpse with affection.



WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:
…For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.


“In the beginning was the Word,” according to the Gospel of John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Now at the end of the war Whitman renders this sentence as “Word over all,” translating a statement about the nature of divinity into a secular call for reconciliation, which must shape a new covenant between the North and South. Men and women, blacks and whites, slaves and slave masters, all must be reconciled to keep at bay the ever-present forces of division. Stitching together the Union and the Confederacy will be the task of generations, taking its cue on the battlefield from one man kissing another—possibly a black soldier on a burial detail bending over a fallen white man to bid him adieu. Tender and taboo, this shocking image offers proof that what transpires in any confrontation—in politics or war, at table or in the bedroom—may in the fullness of time acquire other meanings. Death dissolves differences, reminding us that even before the dust settles we ought to honor one “Word over all”: reconciliation.

We have seen how Whitman thought another word—convulsiveness—best described the war, “the temper of society preceding it,” and the tenor of his reminiscences in Memoranda During the War. Writers are cautioned to avoid what the critic Yvor Winters called the fallacy of imitative form: “To say that a poet is justified in employing a disintegrating form in order to express a feeling of disintegration, is merely a sophistical justification for bad poetry, akin to the Whitmanian notion that one must write loose and sprawling poetry to ‘express’ the loose and sprawling American continent.” But the convulsive aspect of Whitman’s war-time writings was a function not only of his determination to create a vibrant mosaic of historical events but of his mastery of the tools of reportage—sketch, anecdote, testimony, reflection, digression, and surmise. Out of carnage and chaos he created an American form of literary journalism, which fed his poetry.

The intimate moment recorded in “Reconciliation” represents the sort of loving kindness that for Whitman was a prerequisite for healing the rift between the North and South, a virtue to be practiced soul by soul. The poem neatly divides in two, the first half praising the ways in which time and death and night wash clean the horrors of war, the second half adopting the viewpoint and voice of the speaker, who recognizes that he shares with the dead man lying before him the same spark of divinity, and must be treated with the same dignity that he himself hopes will guide the hands of those who will usher him to his final resting place: a perfectly balanced representation of forces, passive and active, dead and alive, joined in a kiss.

We, too, are living in convulsive times—I am writing this as financial markets tumble in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, mindful of the continued fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention the refugee crisis in Greece, the threat of climate change, and a contentious presidential campaign in America. In Whitman’s writings we may discern ways to capture the essence of this moment, hoping that we too may discover how to reconcile ourselves to “this soil’d world”—how to carry on.



If you were forced to it, what would be your “word over all,” the one word you might use to suggest what is needed to begin to heal what feels like this broken world of ours? Identify that word, then write about how it captures for you a necessary quality that needs to be nurtured and fostered in order to restore balance and sanity, in order to begin to wash clean “this soil’d world."

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