I’ve dreamed enough to have a drink.—François Rabelais, 1546
May 12—A night battle, over a week since.
We already talk of histories of the war (presently to accumulate)—yes—technical histories of some things, statistics, official reports, and so on—but shall we ever get histories of the real things?…There was part of the late battle at Chancellorsville (second Fredericksburg), a little over a week ago, Saturday, Saturday night, and Sunday, under General Joe Hooker, I would like to give just a glimpse of—(a moment’s look in a terrible storm at sea—of which a few suggestions are enough, and full details impossible). The fighting had been very hot during the day, and after an intermission, the latter part was resumed at night and kept up with furious energy till three o’clock in the morning. That afternoon (Saturday) an attack sudden and strong by Stonewall Jackson had gained a great advantage to the Southern army and broken our lines, entering us like a wedge and leaving things in that position at dark. But Hooker at eleven at night made a desperate push, drove the secesh forces back, restored his original lines, and resumed his plans. This night scrimmage was very exciting, and afforded countless strange and fearful pictures. The fighting had been general both at Chancellorsville and northeast at Fredericksburg. (We hear of some poor fighting, episodes, skedaddling on our part. I think not of it. I think of the fierce bravery, the general rule.) One corps, the Sixth, Sedgewick’s, fights four dashing and bloody battles in thirty-six hours, retreating in great jeopardy, losing largely and maintaining itself, fighting with the sternest desperation under all circumstances, getting over the Rappahannock only by the skin of its teeth, yet getting over. It lost many, many brave men, yet it took vengeance, ample vengeance.
But it was the tug of Saturday evening, and through the night and Sunday morning, I wanted to make a special note of. It was largely in the woods, and quite a general engagement. The night was very pleasant, at times the moon shining out full and clear, all nature so calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the trees—yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying helpless, with new accessions to them, and every minute amid the rattle of muskets and crash of cannon (for there was an artillery contest, too) the red lifeblood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass. The woods take fire, and many of the wounded, unable to move (especially some of the divisions in the Sixth Corps), are consumed—quite large spaces are swept over, burning the dead also—some of the men have their hair and beards singed—some, splatches of burns on their faces and hands—others holes burned in their clothing…The flashes of fire from the cannon, the quick flaring flames and smoke, and the immense roar—the musketry so general, the light nearly bright enough for each side to see one another—the crashing, tramping of men—the yelling—close quarters—we hear the secesh yells—our men cheer loudly back, especially if Hooker is in sight—hand-to-hand conflicts, each side stands to it, brave, determined as demons, they often charge upon us—a thousand deeds are done worth to write newer greater poems on—and still the woods on fire—still many are not only scorched—too many, unable to move, are burned to death…Then the camp of the wounded—O heavens, what scene is this?—is this indeed humanity—these butchers’ shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from five hundred to six hundred poor fellows—the groans and screams—the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees—that slaughterhouse!—O well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them—cannot conceive, and never conceived, these things…One man is shot by a shell, both in the arm and leg—both are amputated—there lie the rejected members. Some have their legs blown off—some bullets through the breast—some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out—some in the abdomen—some mere boys—here is one, his face colorless as chalk, lying perfectly still, a bullet has perforated the abdomen—life is ebbing fast, there is no help for him. In the camp of the wounded are many rebels, badly hurt—they take their regular turns with the rest, just the same as any—the surgeons use them just the same…Such is the camp of the wounded—such a fragment, a reflection afar off of the bloody scene—while over all the clear, large moon comes out at times softly, quietly shining.
Such, amid the woods, that scene of flitting souls—amid the crack and crash and yelling sounds—the impalpable perfume of the woods—and yet the pungent, stifling smoke—shed with the radiance of the moon, the round, maternal queen, looking from heaven at intervals so placid—the sky so heavenly—the clear-obscure up there, those buoyant upper oceans—a few large placid stars beyond, coming out and then disappearing—the melancholy draperied night above, around…And there, upon the roads, the fields, and in those woods, that contest, never one more desperate in any age or land—both parties now in force—masses—no fancy battle, no semiplay, but fierce and savage demons fighting there—courage and scorn of death the rule, exceptions almost none.
What history, again I say, can ever give—for who can know, the mad, determined tussle of the armies in all their separate large and little squads—as this—each steeped from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports? Who know the conflict hand-to-hand—the many conflicts in the dark, those shadowy-tangled, flashing-moonbeamed woods—the writhing groups and squads—hear through the woods the cries, the din, the cracking guns and pistols—the distant cannon—the cheers and calls, and threats and awful music of the oaths—the indescribable mix—the officers’ orders, persuasions, encouragements—the devils fully roused in human hearts—the strong word, Charge, men, charge—the flash of the naked sword, and many a flame and smoke—and still the broken, clear, and clouded heaven—and still again the moonlight pouring silvery soft its radiant patches over all?…Who paint the scene, the sudden partial panic of the afternoon, at dusk? Who paint the irrepressible advance of the Second Division of the Third Corps, under Hooker himself, suddenly ordered up—those rapid-filing phantoms through the woods? Who show what moves there in the shadows, fluid and firm—to save (and it did save) the army’s name, perhaps the nation? And there the veterans hold the field. (Brave Berry falls not yet—but death has marked him—soon he falls.)
Of scenes like these, I say, who writes, who e’er can write, the story? Of many a score—aye, thousands, North and South, of unwrit heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible, impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells? No history, ever—no poem sings, nor music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds. No formal general’s report, nor print, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings. Indeed, no picture gives them. Likely, their very names are lost. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands) crawls aside to some bush clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death shot—there, sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass, and soil with red blood—the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by—and there, haply with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed), the last lethargy winds like a serpent around him—the eyes glaze in death—none recks—perhaps the burial squads, in truce, a week afterward, search not the secluded spot—and there, at last, the bravest soldier crumbles in the soil of mother earth, unburied and unknown.
From Memoranda During the War. In 1862, Whitman left his bohemian life in New York to search for his brother George, a Union soldier whose name he had read in a list of casualties; he feared the worst but found him in Virginia nursing only a wounded cheek. Whitman decided to offer his services in field hospitals and to document some of the war’s “interior history,” writing to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1863, “This thing I will record—it belongs to the time, and to all the states—(and perhaps it belongs to me).”