Week 7, Whitman and the Civil War

The bombardment of Fort Sumter (engraving by unknown artist)
The bombardment of Fort Sumter (engraving by unknown artist)


This week's texts are “Opening of the Secession War,” “National Uprising and Volunteering,” “Contemptuous Feeling”

The three opening entries of the Specimen Days (1882) section on the Civil War were taken from what were originally appended “notes” in Memoranda During the War (1876). Whitman reorganizes and reshapes the notes to create in Specimen Days a dramatic threshold to the story of the war as Whitman is about to tell it—a narrative that will center the war not on the battlefields but in the hospitals, not on heroic deeds and exciting battles but on horrifying aftereffects.

As Whitman recreates his initial reactions to the first reports of the outbreak of war, we are struck by the very different way that the media in his time carried and distributed such urgent news. Whitman has just exited an opera, where he had witnessed a grand, sweeping, mythic drama set to intense and soaring music, and he walks out into the late spring night onto Broadway where a very real drama is just now beginning to unfold: the newsboys’ furious shouts are the perfect prelude to what will develop into a four-year saga of mass death and heartbreak. One anonymous voice reads aloud, by the lamps of a nearby hotel, the report of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, as a small crowd gathers and listens in silence. As the news sinks in, Whitman can already feel “the volcanic upheaval of the nation,” “breaking out like an earthquake.” The newsboys’ shouts seem to have released vast destructive natural forces that will eventually lead to “the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age, old or new, to political progress and democracy,” as the nation begins a “prompt and splendid wrestling with secession slavery, the arch-enemy personified.” The grand spectacle of the opera that Whitman has just witnessed fades into the opening act of what will become a far greater democratic spectacle of fighting the arch-villain of “secession slavery”—a conflated evil that threatens to tear asunder the still-young democratic republic and set up a competing slave empire. Whitman has wandered out of the opera onto the expanding stage of a national drama that will occupy four years of tumult and claim hundreds of thousands of young lives. No opera could begin to match this vast historical drama whose overture he was witnessing that night.

But Whitman has constructed this memory of the opening of the war only in retrospect. At the time of the firing on Fort Sumter, as he admits in “Contemptuous Feeling,” he in fact believed along with most other people that he was not really witnessing the beginning of a massive and long-lasting war but rather only a short, small, contained rebellion that would be put down in weeks, not years. The first companies of soldiers only signed up for thirty days, because no one thought they would be needed for longer than that. Few thought the rebellion would expand beyond South Carolina, and government officials were confident everything would be cleared up “in sixty days.” Only in retrospect, after the war and its duration and vast death-tally were known, could Whitman look back on the “opening of the Secession War.”

Indeed, it was only after the war was over that the war could be named, and even then, as Whitman’s use of “Secession War” indicates, the very name of the war was still very much in contention. While many writers at the time (including Abraham Lincoln) referred to “a civil war” in the lower case (in his 1863 Gettysburg address, Lincoln said “Now we are engaged in a great civil war”), very few were naming it The Civil War. That name would only emerge during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. Until then, the name of the war was itself a battleground, and at least fifty different names were used at various times by the two sides. The South preferred “The War Between the States” or “The War for Southern Independence,” while the North most frequently called it “The War of the Rebellion” (or simply “The Great Rebellion”) or “The War for the Union” (or even “The War to Preserve the Union”). The South was invested in naming the war as a battle between two sovereign states (or a confederacy of states vs. a federation of states), while the North insisted that it was dealing with a rebellion and thus could operate by the Constitution’s dictates for how to “suppress Insurrections,” turning the rebels into traitors and treating those in the South who remained loyal to the Union as citizens, not enemies. Frederick Douglass, speaking for many freed slaves, named it “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion,” and other freed slaves referred to it as “The Freedom War.”

Whitman, however, chooses here and throughout his Civil War reminiscences to call it “The Secession War.” This term gained favor in the 1880s and 1890s, and the name helped temper the idea that Confederate leaders were rebels or insurrectionists (and thus traitors) but rather were statesmen attempting a formal withdrawal from a federation of states they no longer wished to be part of. Whitman, in other words, chooses the term that softens the judgment of Southerners who fought the Union. This is very much in line with Whitman’s call at the end of the war for “reconciliation” with (rather than punishment for) the Confederates. For Whitman, the war was very much a “War to Preserve the Union,” for his antebellum ideal had been a unified democratic self that could contain contradictions (“Do I contradict myself? / Very well then . . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . . I contain multitudes”). The Civil War shattered that ideal, for it suggested that the contradictions at the heart of the American national experiment could not be contained, and he watched those contradictions between slave states and free states explode into open warfare as the Union split in two. His decision, after the trauma, to name it “The Secession War” is part of his desperate attempt to pull the shattered Union back together again, to suture the deep wounds of disunion.


“Opening of the Secession War”

Attack on Fort Sumter, April, 1861.—What ran through the Land, as if by electric nerves, and show'd itself in stupendous and practical action, immediately after the firing on the Flag at Fort Sumter—the Nation ('till then incredulous) flush'd in the face, and all its veins fiercely pulsing and pounding—the arm'd volunteers instantaneously springing up everywhere—the tumultuous processions of the regiments—Was it not grand to have lived in such scenes and days, and be absorb'd by them, and unloosen'd to them?

The news of the attack on Sumter was receiv'd in New York city late at night, (13th April, 1861,) and was immediately sent out in extras of the newspapers. I had been to the opera in Fourteenth street that night, and after the performance, was walking down Broadway toward twelve o'clock, on my way to Brooklyn, when I heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual. I bought an extra and cross'd to the Metropolitan Hotel (Niblo's,) where the great lamps were still brightly blazing, and, with a small crowd of others, who gather'd impromptu, read the news, which was evidently authentic. For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listen'd silently and attentively. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increas'd to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispers'd. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.

“The National Uprising and Volunteering”

The ensuing three Months—The National Uprising and Volunteering.—I have said in another place that the three Presidentiads preceding 1861 show'd how the weakness and wickedness of rulers are just as eligible here in America under republican, as in Europe under dynastic influences. But what can I say of that prompt and splendid wrestling with Secession-Slavery, the arch enemy personified, the instant he unmistakably show'd his face?......The volcanic upheaval of the Nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston, proved for certain something which had been previously in great doubt, and at once substantially settled the question of Disunion. In my judgment it will remain as the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age, old or new, to political progress and Democracy. It was not for what came to the surface merely—though that was important; but what it indicated below, which was of eternal importance.......Down in the abysms of New World humanity there had form'd and harden'd a primal hardpan of National Union Will, determin'd and in the majority, refusing to be tamper'd with or argued against, confronting all emergencies, and capable at any time of bursting all surface-bonds, and breaking out like an earthquake. It is indeed the best lesson of the century, or of America, and it is a mighty privilege to have been part of it.......(Two great spectacles, immortal proofs of Democracy, unequall'd in all the history of the past, are furnish'd by this War—one at the beginning, the other at its close. Those are—the general Voluntary Armed Upheaval—and the peaceful and harmonious Disbanding of the Armies, in the summer of 1865.)

“Contemptuous feeling”

Contemptuous National feeling.—Even after the bombardment of Sumter, however, the gravity of the revolt, and the power and will of the Slave States for a strong and continued military resistance to National authority, was not at all realized through the North, except by a few. Nine-tenths of the people of the Free States look'd upon the rebellion, as started in South Carolina, from a feeling one-half of contempt and the other half composed of anger and incredulity. It was not thought it would be join'd in by Virginia, North Carolina or Georgia. A great and cautious National official predicted that it would blow over 'in sixty days,' and folks generally believ'd the prediction. I remember talking about it on a Fulton ferry-boat with the Brooklyn Mayor, who said he only 'hoped the Southern fire-eaters would commit some overt act of resistance, as they would then be at once so effectually squelch'd, we would never hear of Secession again—but he was afraid they never would have the pluck to really do anything.'.......I remember too that a couple of companies of the Thirteenth Brooklyn, who rendezvou'd at the City Armory, and started thence as Thirty Days' Men, were all provided with pieces of rope conspicuously tied to their musket barrels, with which to bring back each man a prisoner from the audacious South, to be led in a noose, on our men's early and triumphal return! [This was indeed the general feeling, and came to the surface. Still, there was a very strong Secession party at the North, as I shall mention in a Note further on.]


“Naturally, the great seedbed of any poetic renewal is in the field of prose,” wrote the Italian poet Eugenio Montale. And the first entries in Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, reconstructed from notes taken at the start of “the Secession War” (his favored term for the conflict), reveal the seeds of what would shape his poetry for the rest of his life—the shock of the attack on the flag at Fort Sumter; the silent reception of the news spreading at night like wildfire across the land; his elation at the spectacle of volunteers instantly forming armed militias in response to the prospect of disunion—the first sign of national feeling; his dawning realization that Southern opposition to the Union was fiercer and more entrenched than he had expected. Left unspoken was the suspicion that the war would be longer, costlier, and bloodier than anyone had imagined, as so often happens at the outbreak of hostilities. In Whitman’s obsessive note-taking, the field of prose he shaped and compiled after the Confederate Army’s surrender, we may trace the outlines of what would inform the final, darker version of Leaves of Grass, his lifework.

War is the arena in which anything goes, sometimes for good, though mainly for ill—which is why over the last century the international community has established conventions on the lawful conduct of war: to check excesses on the battlefield and in the treatment of prisoners is judged to be necessary for the general welfare of humankind; for when the blood rises, it becomes easier for some to countenance cruel and malicious behavior. This is especially true in civil conflicts, which may be governed by what Freud defined as “the narcissism of minor differences,” proximity and similarity in outlook having the potential to exacerbate tensions between people in adjoining lands. Thus it is important to note Whitman’s memory of “the volcanic upheaval” of the first shots fired—and his joy at the realization that an era of political stalemate was over. “Was it not grand to have lived in such scenes and days, and be absorb’d by them, and unloosen’d by them?” he writes. Well, yes and no. For while secession resolved the question of whether the North would fight to preserve the Union, inspiring “the general Voluntary Armed Upheaval,” it also paved the way to carnage on a massive scale—truths that Whitman would address, in prose and poetry, until the end of his life, determined to reconcile his celebration of the self and its connection to all things in the universe—“for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”—with the terrible facts of war. In two spectacles bookending the war, the formation of volunteer militias in the North after Fort Sumter and then the peaceful disbanding of both armies after Appomattox, Whitman found “immortal proofs of Democracy,” his great theme. But at what cost, both to himself and his nation, he would not be able to gauge for a very long time to come.



We usually think of the victors in a war getting to write the histories, but what about getting to name the war? How do wars get named? The Civil War only became commonly known by that term in the early twentieth century. If the Union had gotten to name the war, we would probably still know it as the War of Rebellion. World War I, of course, did not become known by that name until after World War II; before that, it was generally called The Great War. American wars since World War II have generally been named by Americans according to the countries in which they were (largely) fought: The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The First Gulf War, The Iraq War, The War in Afghanistan. What names did people in those countries give to the same wars? What alternative names can you imagine for the wars we have come to know so familiarly by the names our historians/journalists/politicians have given them? Why is the name we give to a war important?

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

Languages and Selections