Week 16, Whitman Civil War

Burial of Union troops at Fredericksburg, Virginia, May, 1864. Library of Congress.
Burial of Union troops at Fredericksburg, Virginia, May, 1864. Library of Congress.

This week's text is “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim."

In the original 1865 Drum-Taps, “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim” shared a page with another of Whitman’s brief imagistic poems, called “A Farm Picture,” consisting of two impressionistic lines: “Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn, / A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding.” This serene glimpse through an open barn door of a fertile farm reveals a sunny field with livestock feeding on the pasture, another scene of “leaves of grass,” where the animals are eating the grass that grows up from the soil, which is always simply composted death. As Whitman so often reminds us, the farm fields of America often became battle-fields during the war, and they were often the place where soldiers’ bodies were quickly buried after the fighting was over. As we saw in “A Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” those fields often reminded people how every grain of wheat we ate after the war contained the blood of soldiers, and so this peaceful pastoral scene captures the transformation of the dead back into life, as these animals feed on the vegetation emerging from death, and the living survivors in America feed on the cattle and harness the horses, completing the cycle of turning the massive Civil War death into the nation’s future life. After the war, Whitman added a third line to this tiny poem—“And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away”—emphasizing how the nation’s future (what Whitman would come to call its “democratic vistas”) depended on and stretched out from this innocent scene of the cycle of life out of death.

So the poem just preceding “A Farm Picture” offers us another glimpse—“A sight in camp”—perhaps of the same field a few days earlier or months later: the field occupied by soldiers’ tents and a “hospital-tent,” outside of which are “three forms on stretchers lying,” corpses, each covered with a blanket. Those blankets are “grey” like the poem’s light, in contrast to the “sun-lit pasture field” of “A Farm Picture.” The light is “dim,” and we can feel the narrator’s burden as he lifts each “heavy” blanket “with light fingers”: the lightness of the narrator’s touch contrasts the heaviness of the grey blankets, and his touch in fact brings some “light” along with an expression of affection and recognition for each dead soldier. The first lifted blanket reveals an “elderly man,” “gaunt and grim, with well-grey’d hair,” almost fading into the “gray and dim” atmosphere: the narrator blesses him with the name “dear comrade.” The second soldier is very young, “with cheeks still blooming,” cut off in the first flowering of his life, and he becomes for the narrator “my child and darling.” Then he lifts the blanket from the third corpse and finds a “beautiful yellow-white ivory” face, one that resembles paintings and pictures of Jesus, and he is stunned to think “this face is the face of the Christ himself,” and the narrator names him the “brother of all.”

These three soldiers will soon join many others buried in the field, but first they receive a gesture of affection and recognition from the poet, whose identification of the third soldier as Christ does not so much single out this particular soldier as special, but rather renders him representative of all the dead soldiers, because they are all (so the narrator suddenly realizes) part of a vast ritual of sacrifice, all dying so that we, the survivors, can live. It is what we tell ourselves about soldiers in any war: they sacrificed their lives for us; they died for our freedom; they died so we could live. They are, then, all Christ figures, but the mass Crucifixion of the war does not yield a new atonement with God but rather reveals the divinity in each and every slain soldier. Whitman makes us feel here the senselessness of the loss, even as we experience its inevitability. This young man’s death—like the boy-soldier’s death, like the elderly soldier’s death, like every soldier’s death—is as significant as any in human history, even Christ’s. There is divinity deep within all of us, and in war we see that divinity snuffed out with a frightening carelessness—war’s endless thousands of bloody crucifixions.


“A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim”

A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by
the hospital-tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there,
untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious, I halt, and silent stand;
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest,
the first, just lift the blanket:
Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with
well-grey'd hair, and flesh all sunken about the
Who are you, my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step—And who are you, my
child and darling?
Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very
calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory:
Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of
yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he


During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the future Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem in twenty parts, in the style of a school primer, “The World: A Naïve Poem,” proposing an idyllic vision of nature in counterpoint to what he would later call the poetry of witness, also collected in his post-war book, Rescue. The question posed in “Dedication,” the last poem in that book—“What is poetry which does not save/ Nations or people?”—Milosz answered in different ways during his long career, directly in this poem—“A connivance with official lies,/ A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,/ Readings for sophomore girls”—and indirectly in “The World,” which recalls his childhood in the countryside, as in the opening quatrain of “The Porch:”

The porch whose doors face the west
Has large windows. The sun warms it well.
From here you can see north, south, east, and west,
Forests and rivers, fields and tree-lined lanes.

Suffice to say the poet could see none of this during the occupation of Warsaw, which by the end of the war would lie in ruins, and in his poignant invocation of nature, juxtaposing pastoral visions with testimony about the tragic consequences of armed conflict, he achieves a similar effect as Whitman does in his pairing of “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim” and “A Farm Picture,” placing side by side disparate images of truth, eternal and temporal, inviting readers to reflect on the relationship between the two orders of being.

What the poet records in “A Sight in Camp in the Day-Break Grey and Dim” is steeped in religion: the last of the three corpses laid out on stretchers near the hospital-tent has “the face of the Christ himself;/ Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.” But there is no sense that the dead will be resurrected, even within the precincts of this poem. And the question that Whitman puts to the first two corpses—“Who are you?”—suggests not only the anonymity of the fallen in the Civil War, many of whom carried no identification, but also his fear of what he might find. He was looking for his brother, George, in the aftermath of the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and this sight made a deep impression on him.

The waste of blood would not be redeemed, unless a more perfect Union was established; hence every resource—military, economic, political, poetic—would have to be brought to bear to defeat the Confederate forces and create a more sustainable polity. Christ’s sacrifice and promise of a new covenant between God and humankind offered a template for the new order that Whitman believed must come to pass, if the sacrifice of so many young men was not to be in vain. Which helps to explain the power of “A Farm Picture”; for it presents a vision of the future as if glimpsed in a dream—a field restored to pasturage, thick with the blood of the slain: “Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,/ A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,/ And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.”



Think of a place—a natural landscape—that you have visited that once was the site of a battle or of mass death. Reflect on the peace and serenity of the present place, and then trouble that placidity by recalling the horrors that took place here years or centuries or even millennia ago. Is all land haunted by the specter of past death? Is the sensation you experience when you reflect on the past death one of relief, sadness, regeneration, horror? Explain.

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