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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 Mexican War, though only two years long, weighs heavily among the direct causes of the American Civil War. The new territories won by the United States raised new tensions over the bounds of slavery. The Mexican War also nourished ambitions for a generation of military officers, including West Pointers U.S. Grant and R.E. Lee.
When the War broke out in 1846, Mexico had been independent from Spain for 25 years, but had not yet recovered from the collapse of the colonial system. Internal factionalism and social and economic instability weakened her.
The United States, meanwhile, was gripped by the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by journalist John L. O’Sullivan. Manifest Destiny held that the American people had a sacred duty to redeem the rest of the continent with the spread of democracy and virtue. The belief had its sincere adherents, including Walt Whitman, but for many it cloaked a hunger for land — and for a coast-to-coast slave market. James K. Polk, U.S. president from 1845 to 1849, believed completely and aggressively in Manifest Destiny, and that included taking Mexican territory.
The pretext for war with Mexico was easy enough to come by. Mexico did not recognize the 1845 annexation of Texas to the United States, and the subsequent U.S. military presence along the Rio Grande kindled animosity. President Polk pushed Mexico not only to recognize Texas as part of the United States, but also to sell lower California. He pushed hard, and to his surprise Mexico pushed back. The two nations went to war.
Although Manifest Destiny is often presented as a sentiment held uniformly by the people of the United States, many citizens were indifferent if not outright hostile to expansion and considered the war on Mexico an outrage. “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the [annexation of Texas],” said U.S. Grant in his memoirs, “and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.” Grant, at least in hindsight, considered “the occupation, separation and annexation [of Texas], from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union.”
Walt Whitman opposed slavery, but he not only fiercely supported war with Mexico, he advocated the annexation of “the main bulk of that republic.” Disclaiming a “lust of power and territory,” his opinion is a textbook illustration of Manifest Destiny: “We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching, only inasmuch as it will take off the shackles that prevent men the even chance of being happy and good….” (Years later, during the American Civil War, Whitman thought differently. On pondering what he considered “the united wish of all the nations of the world that [the United States’] union should be broken,” he reflected “Mexico, the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong, [is] now the only one who prays for us and for our triumph, with genuine prayer.”)
The United States won the Mexican War, gaining what would later be nearly all of the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, and parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. The United States — the southern United States — now reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The new acquisitions rocked the already uneasy and forced balance of slave and free states and territories.
Victory left some of its winners floundering. Ulysses S. Grant resigned from the army a few years later, only to fail at one business venture after another, including farming his in-laws’ property with the use of slave labor. Robert E. Lee stayed in — the alternative was to be a plantation master at his wife’s ancestral property, Arlington, a role that he detested — but he chafed at military assignments that offered little hope of promotion.
The Civil War revived ambition and gave it scope. Mexican War veterans who achieved fame and the rank of general in the Civil War include Confederates P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, Joseph E. Johnston, James Longstreet, George Picket, and Edmund Kirby Smith; and Federals John C. Frémont, Joe Hooker, George McClellan, George Meade, Winfield Scott, and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Generals R.E. Lee and U.S. Grant first met each other not on a Civil War battlefield, but in Mexico, as Grant famously recalled when they met again at Appomattox, Virginia. Peace would never have advanced these men to the prominence they achieved in the Civil War.
Grant, U.S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Whitman, Walt, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11 and June 6, 1846, via nationalhumanitiescenter.org. “Attitude of Foreign Governments during the War,” in Specimen Days, via The Walt Whitman Archive
A line in Walt Whitman’s poem (today known as) “I Sing the Body Electric” appeared only in the first (untitled) 1855 edition:
Framers bare-armed framing a house . . hoisting the beams in their places . . or using the mallet and mortising-chisel
Until the mid-19th century, houses had no framework at all, as in a log cabin, or they were timber framed (post-and-beam construction).
The “skeleton” or frame of a timber-framed house has vertical beams, or posts, usually only at the corners, and horizontal beams, or girts. Each post and girt runs the height or length of an entire section of the house and therefore has to be massive enough to support walls, floors, contents, and roof. During Walt’s youth, such timber became hard to find as people, industry, and railroads devoured trees for fuel and building.
Nails would pull out under the load of post-and-beam construction, so mortise-and-tenon joints held together posts and girts. The mortise (a slot or square / rectangular hole in the timber) and the tenon (a protrusion to fit into the mortise) were made “using the mallet and mortising chisel.” The joinery demanded the skill of a master carpenter, for mortise and tenon had to fit snugly to ensure the stability of the house.
Balloon framing, an 1830s innovation from Chicago, rapidly superceded timber framing as being cheaper, easier, and faster. A balloon frame uses multiple smaller timbers to support the building. (To an unschooled eye, a balloon frame looks pretty much the same as today’s platform frame (stud-and-deck construction). Because the load is distributed, ballon frames do not depend on massive timbers, and the studs (vertical) and joists (horizontal) can be nailed together rather than joined. The process lent itself to a more “assembly-line” labor dynamic with fewer skilled workers needed. Materials were cheaper, since studs and joists could be milled offsite to uniform dimensions for any number of buildings, and nails were no longer hand-wrought but “cut” by machine.
“There are certain characteristics of balloon-frame construction that are a giveaway, a tattle-tale if you will, from the outside that should alert us to the presence of balloon-frame construction. Things such as window and door openings from first to second floor, all lining up vertically. Tall wall heights for two-story structures are fairly common. Also what looks to be a very old appearance with clapboard siding and usually roof rafters that are in some cases exposed and appear to be much smaller dimensional material than later conventional construction.” The wall heights can be contrasted with the markedly low ceilings typical of many timber framed dwellings.
* * * Civil War (New York Times) articles by Jean Huets: | The Iron Brigade | The Union Dead (includes quotes from Whitman) | Blood in the Carolina Hills | The Fall Line’s Fault | Boxers, Briefs and Battles | Killing Time: Playing Cards in the Civil War | * * *
Walt Whitman’s father, a master carpenter, moved his family from Huntington, Long Island to Brooklyn in 1823. He hoped to profit from the housing boom there, but he never established himself comfortably. Balloon framing hadn’t yet taken hold when the family moved back to Long Island in 1833. National financial downturns and a personal lack of business acumen defeated Walter Whitman, Sr.. By 1855, though, when the first edition of Leaves of Grass came out, balloon framing had made obsolete Walter Whitman’s artisanal methods.
The old-time timber framers had another home, though, in “Song of Myself”:
Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out bet-
ter in myself—bestowing them freely on
each man and woman I see,
Discovering as much, or more, in a framer framing
Putting higher claims for him there with his
rolled-up sleeves, driving the mallet and
The deification of the framers had a personal and poignant meaning to Walt. Walter Whitman died, ending a long decline, on July 11, 1855, only about a week after the first edition of Leaves of Grass was issued. In that edition, the poem that would be titled “I Sing the Body Electric,” asks, “Your mother . . . . is she living? . . . . Have you been much with her? and has she / been much with you?” In the next edition, published in 1856, the poem asks after the father, too: “Your father — where is your father?” Walt surely spent many thoughts on that question.
SOURCES: Francis D.K. Ching, Building Construction Illustrated; quote on balloon frame characteristics Long Beach Fire Department; Photo by William Henry Jackson; The National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
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.
My article on the terrain of Fredericksburg, The Fall Line’s Fault is up at New York Times Disunion. Here’s a little gallery of photos I’ve taken at Fredericksburg on several visits. Other Fredericksburg posts on Leaves of Grass are Whitman and the Witness Tree and Two Fredericksburg Churches.
More (and better) pics of the re-enactment of the pontoon crossing at the National Guard Facebook page.