1861 | Virginia

Recording an Inkling of Civil War

Walt Whitman sees the blackness of the human heart.

In one of the late movements of our troops in the valley (near Upperville, I think) a strong force of Moseby’s mounted guerillas attack’d a train of wounded and the guard of cavalry convoying them. The ambulances contain’d about sixty wounded, quite a number of them officers of rank. The rebels were in strength, and the capture of the train and its partial guard after a short snap was effectually accomplish’d. No sooner had our men surrender’d, the rebels instantly commenced robbing the train and murdering their prisoners, even the wounded. Here is the scene or a sample of it, ten minutes after. Among the wounded officers in the ambulances were one, a lieutenant of regulars, and another of higher rank. These two were dragg’d out on the ground on their backs, and were now surrounded by the guerillas, a demoniac crowd, each member of which was stabbing them in different parts of their bodies. One of the officers had his feet pinn’d firmly to the ground by bayonets stuck through them and thrust into the ground. These two officers, as afterwards found on examination, had receiv’d about twenty such thrusts, some of them through the mouth, face, etc. The wounded had all been dragg’d (to give a better chance also for plunder) out of their wagons; some had been effectually dispatch’d, and their bodies were lying there lifeless and bloody. Others, not yet dead, but horribly mutilated, were moaning or groaning. Of our men who surrender’d, most had been thus maim’d or slaughter’d.

At this instant a force of our cavalry, who had been following the train at some interval, charged suddenly upon the secesh captors, who proceeded at once to make the best escape they could. Most of them got away, but we gobbled two officers and seventeen men in the very acts just described. The sight was one which admitted of little discussion, as may be imagined. The seventeen captur’d men and two officers were put under guard for the night, but it was decided there and then that they should die. The next morning the two officers were taken in the town, separate places, put in the centre of the street, and shot. The seventeen men were taken to an open ground, a little one side. They were placed in a hollow square, half-encompass’d by two of our cavalry regiments, one of which regiments had three days before found the bloody corpses of three of their men hamstrung and hung up by the heels to limbs of trees by Moseby’s guerillas, and the other had not long before had twelve men, after surrendering, shot and then hung by the neck to limbs of trees, and jeering inscriptions pinn’d to the breast of one of the corpses, who had been a sergeant. Those three, and those twelve, had been found, I say, by these environing regiments. Now, with revolvers, they form’d the grim cordon of the seventeen prisoners. The latter were placed in the midst of the hollow square, unfasten’d, and the ironical remark made to them that they were now to be given “a chance for themselves.” A few ran for it. But what use? From every side the deadly pills came. In a few minutes the seventeen corpses strew’d the hollow square. I was curious to know whether some of the Union soldiers, some few (some one or two at least of the youngsters), did not abstain from shooting on the helpless men. Not one. There was no exultation, very little said, almost nothing, yet every man there contributed his shot.

Multiply the above by scores, aye, hundreds—verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford—light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the light of burning farms and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.


Walt Whitman

From Specimen Days in America, the poet’s recollection of his travels during the Civil War. Whitman served as a “psychological nurse” in Washington’s Army hospitals.