After languishing in Confederate prisoner-of-war camps for months, Whitman’s brother George was finally released and made his way home to New York; Whitman, after receiving word of George’s return, quickly took a leave from his clerk’s job in Washington and headed to New York. Arriving at his mother’s home in late March of 1865, he began to make arrangements for the printing of Drum-Taps, his book of Civil War poems, and, on April 1, he signed a contract with Brooklyn printer Peter Eckler. The war was not yet quite over, but President Lincoln was already discussing Reconstruction with his generals, and, in the following few days, the Confederates would abandon their capital, Richmond, and Jefferson Davis and his cabinet would flee to Danville, Virginia. The end was near enough for Whitman to get his book printed and ready for sale by the official conclusion of hostilities.
As had been the case with the first two editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman was self-publishing (and paying for) his book, and his timing could hardly have been worse. The war had pushed paper prices to record levels, and, as critic Ted Genoways has shown, Whitman immediately began scaling back his original plans for a 120-page book and worked to rearrange his poems to take advantage of all the available space on each valuable page, turning it into a 72-page book with virtually no blank space. Amidst much shuffling of texts and type design in order to make everything fit, as well as last-minute revisions to acknowledge that the war had in fact ended (General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9), he faced his greatest challenge when, with the book set to be printed, Abraham Lincoln was shot on the night of April 14 and died the next morning. Whitman now knew his book of war poetry would immediately be an anachronism if he did not somehow acknowledge this momentous event that punctuated the war in a way few could have imagined.
So Whitman told Eckler to delay the printing while he quickly wrote the short “Hush’d Be the Camps To-Day.” He had Eckler remove a poem of similar length and substitute this one, which Whitman had unfortunately subtitled “A. L. buried April 19, 1865.” Trying to keep abreast of fast-moving events in Washington, he relied on initial false reports that Lincoln would be buried in the capital, and so Whitman’s subtitle remained an embarrassing error, since Lincoln would not be buried until May 4, in Springfield, Illinois, after the long railroad journey that allowed much of the nation to see his coffin and to honor him. And the poem was in error, too, about the way Lincoln was buried: there was no “lower’d coffin,” and no “shovel’d clods” filling “the grave,” since the president’s body was instead put into a vault in Springfield. In the 1871 printing of this poem in Leaves of Grass, Whitman corrected the subtitle to “(May 4, 1865)” and altered the final stanza: “As they invault the coffin there, / Sing—as they close the doors of earth upon him—one verse, / For the heavy hearts of soldiers.”
Eckler printed the book, but Whitman, already aware that Drum-Taps would now need additional work, kept the printing small and the number of bound copies even smaller. He would immediately begin working on more accurate and fitting tributes to Lincoln, and his Sequel to Drum-Taps (with “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d”) would be printed six months later and would be bound together with Drum-Taps.
For all the problems Whitman faced in getting his book of war poems into print in the form that he wanted, and for all the haste with which he wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps,” this quiet little poem is nonetheless quite moving. Whitman immediately locates the scene of mourning not among the populace in the streets but among the soldiers in their camps, who have fallen silent, have draped their weapons, and now “retire . . . to celebrate” their “dear commander’s death.” The poem lets us experience not the death of a president so much as the death of the civilian commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The soldiers’ “celebration” is of course akin to a religious celebration—“celebrate” in its etymological sense of keeping solemn, gathering to honor and sing praises. Then, in the suggestive third stanza, the soldiers movingly look up from their own makeshift rituals of mourning and loss, and they beseech Whitman himself, the “poet,” to write something “in our name,” to “sing of the love we bore him.” And they look to this poet, to Whitman, because they know him—he was after all a “dweller in camps,” not to mention a comrade in hospitals—and he is therefore the only poet they trust to sing for them. And so Whitman offers a small “verse” here, but, in the months to come, he would embrace their imagined request and compose a song of national loss and healing, not only for the dead president but also for “the debris and debris of all dead soldiers.” While recalling the aroma of the early-blooming lilacs that he inhaled in his mother’s dooryard the day that he heard the news of Lincoln’s death, he would in fact sing one of the most powerful odes ever written.
A. L. BURIED APRIL 19, 1865.
HUSH'D be the camps to-day;
And, soldiers, let us drape our war-worn weapons;
And each, with musing soul retire, to celebrate,
Our dear commander's death.
No more for him life's stormy conflicts;
Nor victory, nor defeat—No more time's dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.
But sing, poet, in our name;
Sing of the love we bore him—because you, dweller in
camps, know it truly.
Sing, to the lower'd coffin there;
Sing, with the shovel'd clods that fill the grave—a
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.
Necessity is the mother of invention: I like to think the unknown author of this proverb was a poet, since poetry depends for some of its effects on the limitations it sets for itself, whether it is written in traditional or open forms. And there is no better example of a poet inventing on the nonce than Whitman’s “Hushed Be the Camps To-Day,” the inspiration for which, as Ed Folsom notes, was the fact that his collection of Civil War poems, Drum-Taps, was about to go to press when Lincoln was assassinated. How to address the most important casualty of the war in twelve lines—the space that became available with the removal of another poem? Impossible, of course. Which is why this late addition, poignant as it is, cannot compare to his forthcoming magisterial elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” Think of it as a stop-gap measure, which acquired a certain beauty from its setting among soldiers stunned by the loss of their commander-in-chief. Whitman’s larger poetic problem—finding the right words to reconcile North and South, on the page if not in the body politic—would exact from him considerably more toil.
In its very modesty the poem speaks volumes not only to the grief of the soldiers, who were well acquainted with death and doubtless grasped what this might presage for the cause of peace, but also to the necessity of poetry in a time of national crisis: how it can clarify, if not transfigure, emotions triggered by the event. Lincoln’s death would complicate the work of reconciliation and reconstruction, jeopardizing the Union, the preservation of which had already demanded too much from the soldiers, the heavy-hearted young men who trust Whitman to give voice to the pain they feel in the harsh light of this ultimate sacrifice.
The poet who competes with historical events, the meaning of which will inevitably change over time, is bound to make mistakes, especially in war—where, as it is often said, the first casualty is the truth. This Whitman discovered when the details of Lincoln’s burial became clear—after his book had been printed. One imagines that the language, by which all poets live, forgave him for that slip, and in any case he corrected it in the next edition of Leaves of Grass. What matters here is that as a “dweller in the camps” he knew how to sing truly to his comrades, and so he did.
When we are faced with a moment of deep loss or even a catastrophic event, the last thing most people think about is writing about it. Yet some, as Whitman did here, do write while the grief is still almost unbearable. What are the advantages and drawbacks of writing about grief and loss when the feeling is still raw? Do you think it is helpful to get something down in words while you are very close to the event, or is it best to give yourself time? Why?
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