W. asked Corning [candidate for the pulpit of the Unitarian church on Benson street]: “And what may be the subject of your sermon tomorrow?” “My subject? Why—the tragedy of the ages.” “And what may be the tragedy of the ages?” “The crucifixion.” “What crucifixion?” “The crucifixion of Jesus, of course.” “You call that the tragedy of the ages?” “Yes—what do you call it?”
“It is a tragedy. But the tragedy? O no! I don’t think I would be willing to call it the tragedy.” “Do you know any tragedy that meant so much to man?” “Twenty thousand tragedies—all equally significant.” “I’m no bigot—I don’t think I make any unreasonable fuss over Jesus—but I never looked at the thing the way you do.” “Probably not. But do it now—just for once. Think of the other tragedies, just for once: the tragedies of the average man—the tragedies of every-day—the tragedies of war and peace—the obscured, the lost, tragedies: they are all cut out of the same goods. I think too much is made of the execution of Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ would not have approved of this himself: he knew that his life was only another life, any other life, told big; he never wished to shine, especially to shine at the general expense. Think of the other tragedies, the twenty thousand, just for once, Mr. Corning.” C. said: “I have no doubt all you say is true. You would not find me ready to quarrel with your point of view.” W. laughed quietly. “The masters in history have had lots of chance: they have been glorified beyond recognition: now give the other fellows a chance: glorify the average man a bit: put in a word for his sorrows, his tragedies, just for once, just for once.” Corning said: “You ought to be in that pulpit instead of me, tomorrow, Mr. Whitman. You would tell the people something it would do them good to hear.” “I am not necessary,” replied W. graciously: “You have the thing all in yourself if you will only let it out. We get into such grooves—that’s the trouble—passing traditions and exaggerations down from one generation to another unquestioned. After awhile we begin to think even the lies must be true.” — from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. I, p.103 (May 5, 1888), via The Walt Whitman Archive
The source of the Walt Whitman quotes in the article is Memoranda during the War, specifically the essays, “Typical Soldiers,” “The Million Dead, too, summ’d up” and “No good Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” (The “No Good” essay includes a splendid rant on corruption.)
Memoranda has some troubling passages. As Bob Blaisdell put it in his introduction to my edition, when Whitman relies on “hearsay, history, or received opinion” as in the “Notes” that conclude the Memoranda, he can lapse into “dime-a-dozen prejudices.” But mostly the book draws on Whitman’s direct experience and, as Blaisdell says, “What has lasted and will last are the vivid, body-electric recordings of men and moments he collected in his little homemade notebooks.”
Those first-hand moments began when Whitman got word that his brother George was wounded at Fredericksburg in December 1862. He left New York to go to him. Although Whitman found, to his relief, that George had sustained only a minor shrapnel wound, he didn’t go home. The suffering at the field hospital at Falmouth (a house called Chatham Manor) made him a devoted companion and nurse to the Civil War wounded and ill, first around Fredericksburg, then in Washington, DC. Although Whitman at times expressed deep rage toward the Confederacy, his compassion toward individual soldiers transcended divisions of North and South.
The quality that infused Whitman’s care for the soldiers is for me the most poignant aspect of his writings: a tender and earthy love that proves the union of human clay and human spirit. In “The Million Dead” Whitman unites the Civil War dead, their bodily and spiritual remains, with our land. Those who fought on the land literally become of our land, abiding not only in memory but in substance, sustaining us.
Following is a picture of the Fredericksburg National Cemetery showing the wooden headboards that were replaced by the granite markers. The picture was taken by local photographer F. Theodore Miller, probably in the early 1870s. Collection of Jerry H. Brent, executive director of Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.
David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey lists some of the most well-known artistic, scientific, and literary figures of the Civil War era among those who “made pilgrimages to Paris,” including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. While living in Paris in the 1830s, Samuel Morse found inspiration for his world-changing invention, the telegraph, and was later honored there as a “benefactor of mankind.”
An expatriot just as well-known at the time, but less expected, is Charles Sumner. The abolitionist senator from Massachusetts found Paris a refuge, especially after the infamous, savage beating he suffered in the Senate chamber from Preston Brooks, an outraged Southerner.
Records indicated no concussion or fracture resulted from the attack but, as McCullough notes, Sumner’s suffering “was entirely real, but the indications are it derived far more from the psychological trauma of the attack than from a neurological cause.” Sumner’s well-being improved markedly when he left Washington and deteriorated each time he returned. Though Parisian doctors subjected him to some brutal, though well-intended quackery, the city and the company he kept there proved healing. A friend said, “I never found him more cheerful or more hopeful. It is a continual feast to see him.”
The outbreak of the American Civil War interrupted the Parisian idyll. Worried Americans dashed back over the ocean and Northern and Southern expats became enemies. After the War, not even the City of Light could erase from memory the frightful suffering Americans had endured in battle and on the home front. But the artists soon trickled back, and the Parisian joie de vivre beckoned pleasure-loving Gilded Age visitors.
If the roots of Whitman’s witness tree were bathed in the anguish the poet beheld, no wonder its form holds such tortured beauty.
Walt Whitman opened his “Memoranda during the War” at the Chatham house, in Fredericksburg. The house had been occupied by the Union army and, like many houses and churches, converted into a hospital. Whitman’s mission to comfort the wounded and dying began here when his brother was wounded, December of 1862. His memoir opens with a sight all too familiar to soldiers and surgeons.
Began my visits in the Camp Hospitals in the Army of the Potomac. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion, on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a Hospital since the battle–Seems to have receiv’d only the worst cases. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket….
I wonder if Whitman could have guessed that the tree would recall the loving compassion of his visits to the wounded, and his compassion recall the tree, 150 years later, and both recall the “marrow of the tragedy” of the Civil War.
Nineteenth-century memoirs, letters, newspaper stories, and novels were loaded, and sometimes larded, with dialect.
Civil War U.S. Navy paymaster William Keeler quoted a black man boarding the Monitor: “O, Lor’ Massa, oh don’t shoot, I’se a black man Massa, I’se a black man.” A NYT Disunion writer said of Keeler that he “seemed to see the incident as little more than an opportunity for deploying minstrel-show stereotypes,” yet whites of the time were near as likely as blacks to find themselves speaking in dialect.
Rufus R. Dawes of the Wisconsin Iron Brigade quoted a German Captain Hauser gazing upon green troops: “Vell, now you looks shust like one dam herd of goose.” An Irishman nicknamed “Tall T” –who was, of course, very short–had pantaloons so oversized they “would almost button around his neck.” “‘Who’s your tailor, Tall T?’ once shouted a man as we marched. ‘The captain, be gob,’ came back like a flash from Tall T.” The enemy spoke dialect, too: “We uns durst leave our mammy,” one “Johnny” mocked Dawes, “You uns is tied to granny Lincoln’s apron string.”
An Indiana farmer retrieving the body of his son in Virginia says, in a letter by Union officer Theodore Lyman, “And that old hoss, that was his; the one he was sitting on, when he was shot; she ain’t worth more than fifty dollars, but I wouldn’t take a thousand for her, and I am going to take her home to Indiana.”
An anthology of Southern sentiment, published in 1867, quotes an “Old Lady”: “Dr. Jones, he wus sent for, and he up and said the boy must have nothin’ exceptin’ it war gruel for as many days, as he wur out in the woods.” Writers of Westerns had to avoid offending readers with substitutions, like “fortune” for “God”: “Thank fortune, we’ve wiped out the whole five of ’em, with the exception of the one hound that escaped!”
Yankees came in for it, too. Lyman quotes General Seth Williams: “’Sir!’ says ‘Seth’ (who cuts off his words and lisps them, and swallows them, and has the true Yankee accent into the bargain), ‘Sir! The Pres’dent of these Nited States has issued a procl’mation, saying nothing should be done Sundays; and Gen’l Merklellan did the same, and so did Gen’l Hooker; and you wanter talk business, you’ve got’er come week days.’”
Frank Wilkeson, remembering his own meeting with General Williams, makes no comment on the general’s accent and quotes him in straight English. Still, Wilkeson couldn’t resist a touch of dialect in dialogue with a Confederate prisoner. “[He] inquired kindly, ‘Howdy?’ So I said, still seated and sucking my pipe, ‘Howdy,’ as that seemed to be the correct form of salutation in Virginia.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is dialect from start to finish, from boys to belles to blacks to bums. Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens felt the need to offer guidance: “In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary ‘Pike County’ dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”
Though not free from the reflexive racism of their time, in dialect Lyman and Dawes are even-handed and apparently aim to amuse not abuse. On the other hand, Thomas Morris Chester, the only black Civil War correspondent for a major newspaper, reported faithfully the stories of African American soldiers and civilians, avoiding heavy dialect while capturing the voices of his subjects. In Richmond, April 1865, he described the exultation of the people greeting Union troops. “The pious old negroes, male and female, indulged in such expressions: ‘You’ve come at last’; ‘We’ve been looking for you these many days’; ‘Jesus has opened the way’… ‘I’ve not seen that old flag for four years.’” Chester did not mine humor in the speech of his subjects, white or black.
The most authentic dialect, of course, is written by the speakers themselves, especially men uneducated, untrained to write other than as they spoke. From a Piedmont North Carolina soldier’s letter to his wife: “You rote to me that you was agoing to have a garden….” My great aunt, from the same area, used “a-” in continuative tense.
In a sense, dialect says as much about the writer as it does about his or her subjects; characters who speak dialect are those with origins and/or education differing from the writer’s. This is as true today as it was in the Civil War era. A Pennsylvania friend living in Ardmore, Oklahoma, found the response locals make to an introduction humorous. She hadn’t been living there long enough to know that what sounds like “Howdy-do” to her is really “How do you do?”
Context plays a great role, but reaction to dialect can also reflect readers’ preconceptions. Does a Southern white man saying “you uns” instead of “you” or a black man saying “dat” instead of “that” evoke a positive or negative judgment, or do you simply “hear” it as someone talking the way they talk?
William Keeler, “Ironclad Freedom,” Opinionator blog, New York Times / Theodore Lyman, Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865 / W.B. Lawson, Jesse James, the Outlaw / Rufus R. Dawes, A Full Blown Yankee of the Iron Brigade, pp 13, 47 / R.J.M. Blackett, Thomas Morris Chester: Black Civil War Correspondent, pp. 290, 297 / Frank Wilkeson, Turned Inside Out, p. 140, 144 / Old Lady, The Land We Love, p. 155 / NC soldier / picture via