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Chapter 4: scenes from soldier life


Bivouac on a mountainside

This picture, aside from the beautiful touches at the close, is to be prized for the record it affords of the large soul of Walt Whitman. He witnessed little of life at the front, but he saw all of the horror of war in the hospitals at Washington, and exhausted his splendid vitality in comforting and aiding the wounded and dying. Yet into his poetry crept no word of bitterness or sectionalism.

I see before me now a traveling army halting,
Below, a fertile valley spread, with barns and the orchards of summer,
Behind, the terraced sides of a mountain, abrupt, in places rising high,
Broken, with rocks, with clinging cedars, with tall shapes dingily seen,
The numerous camp-fires scattered near and far, some away up on the mountain,
The shadowy forms of men and horses, looming, large-sized, flickering,
And over all the sky—the sky! far, far out of reach, studded, breaking out, the eternal stars.

The bivouac in the snow

The representative woman singer of the Confederacy here furnishes a picture in full contrast with the preceding. She was the daughter of the eminent Presbyterian clergyman, Dr. George Junkin, who was from 1848 to 1861 president of Washington College. On the outbreak of the war he resigned and returned North, but his daughter, who in 1857 had married Professor J. T. L. Preston, founder of the Virginia military Institute, warmly championed the cause of her husband and of the South.


: to illustrate the poem by Whitman
The encampment of the Army of the Potomac at Cumberland Landing is a scene strikingly similar to that described by Whitman. With the shadowy soldiers in the foreground one can gaze upon the Camp that fills the plain. The ascending smoke from the camp-fires drifts about in the still air, while the horses stand at their fodder and the men await the evening meal. Away to the left the low ground is covered with a pool of water formed by the rain that has fallen most of that day. To-morrow the wagon-trains in the distance will again move slowly along the heavy roads, and the soldiers will trudge forward toward Richmond. This picture shows a scene in the famous Peninsula campaign, when the boys in blue were jubilantly responding to the demand of the North, ‘On to Richmond.’ When this view was taken the army had covered more than half the distance. The soldiers' hopes rise with the smoke of the camp-fires all over the peaceful plain.

Halt!—the march is over,
Day is almost done;
Loose the cumbrous knapsack,
Drop the heavy gun.
Chilled and wet and weary,
Wander to and fro,
Seeking wood to kindle
Fires amidst the snow.

Round the bright blaze gather,
Heed not sleet nor cold;
Ye are Spartan soldiers,
Stout and brave and bold.
Never Xerxian army
Yet subdued a foe
Who but asked a blanket
On a bed of snow.

Shivering, 'midst the darkness,
Christian men are found,
There devoutly kneeling
On the frozen ground—
Pleading for their country,
In its hour of woe—
For its soldiers marching
Shoeless through the snow.

Lost in heavy slumbers,
Free from toil and strife,
Dreaming of their dear ones—
Home, and child, and wife—
Tentless they are lying,
While the fires burn low—
Lying in their blankets,
'Midst December's snow.

Cavalry crossing a ford

A line in long array where they wind betwixt green islands,
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun,— hark to the musical clank,


‘The shadowy forms of horses’ These scenes from a bivouac of McClellan's army, in 1862, reveal, in much the same spirit as Whitman's poem, the actual life of the soldier. At the end of a hard day's march, officers and men were tired, and horses and mules were willing to be unhitched and to nibble on the fodder by the wagon-tongue, or in the rear of the vehicle. The teamsters, meanwhile, were gathered about the twinkling camp-fires that Whitman brings before our eyes. Night will soon fall, and the army will pass into the land of dreams. Little it realizes the dangers of the road to Richmond.

Behold the silvery river, in it the splashing horses loitering stop to drink,
Behold the brown-faced men, each group, each person, a picture, the negligent rest on the saddles,
Some emerge on the opposite bank, others are just entering the ford—while,
Scarlet and blue and snowy white;
The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.


Corporal Green!’ the Orderly cried;
‘Here!’ was the answer loud and clear,
From the lips of a soldier who stood near,—
And ‘Here!’ was the word the next replied.

‘Cyrus Drew!’—then a silence fell;
This time no answer followed the call;
Only his rear-man had seen him fall:
Killed or wounded—he could not tell.

There they stood in the failing light,
These men of battle, with grave, dark looks,
As plain to be read as open books,
While slowly gathered the shades of night.

The fern on the hillsides was splashed with blood,
And down in the corn, where the poppies grew,
Were redder stains than the poppies knew,
And crimson-dyed was the river's flood.

For the foe had crossed from the other side,
That day, in the face of a murderous fire
That swept them down in its terrible ire;
And their life-blood went to color the tide. [137]

‘Killed or wounded-he could not tell’ As a companion to the sad lines of the poem Roll call, this Confederate soldier, fallen on the field of Spotsylvania, speaks more clearly than words. He is but one of 200,000 ‘killed and died of wounds’ during the war; yet there is a whole world of pitifulness in his useless trappings, his crumpled hat, his loosened straps and haversack. Here the young soldier lies in the gathering twilight, while his companions far away answer to their names. The empty canteen will never more wet the lips of the upturned face, nor shall the long musket dropped in the moment of falling speak again to the foe.


‘There they stood in the failing light these men of battle, with grave dark looks’: burial party, old Vermont brigade, Camp Griffin, near Washington, 1861. The spirit of Shepherd's somber poem, Roll call, lives in this group—from the spadesmen whose last services to their comrades have been performed, to the solemn bearers of the muffled drums. Many more such occasions were to arise; for these soldiers belonged to the brigade that suffered the greatest loss of life of any one brigade during the war; 1,172 of its men were either killed in battle or died of wounds. The same five regiments that lay in Camp Griffin when this picture was taken in 1861 marched together in the Grand Review on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, in 1865. When their term of enlistment expired in 1864, they had all reenlisted and preserved the existence of the brigade. It was famous also for being composed entirely of troops from one State. It contained the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Vermont Infantry, and later the First Vermont Heavy Artillery. It was in this respect conspicuous in the Union army, which did not adopt the Confederate policy of grouping regiments from the same [139] State in brigades. The gallant record of the Vermont brigade was nowhere more conspicuous than in the Wilderness campaign. The first five regiments lost in the battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, 195 killed, 1,017 wounded, and 57 missing, making a total of 1,269. Within a week its loss had amounted to 58 per cent. of the number engaged. The words of the poet are therefore no merely fanciful picture of frightful loss in battle. There were a dozen battles in which the Federal armies alone lost more than 10,000 men, enough in each case to populate a city, and it has been estimated that the totals on both sides amounted to more than 700,000 killed and wounded. When it is recalled that most of these were young men, who in the natural course of events had many years of usefulness yet to live for their country, the cost to the American nation is simply appalling. This is entirely aside from the many sorrowing mourners for the heroes of the Old Vermont Brigade and for many others who failed on any battlefield to answer ‘Here’ at roll-call.


Herbert Cline!’—At the call there came
Two stalwart soldiers into the line,
Bearing between them this Herbert Cline,
Wounded and bleeding, to answer his name.

Ezra Kerr!’—and a voice answered ‘Here’
Hiram Kerr!’—but no man replied.
They were brothers, these two; the sad wind sighed,
And a shudder crept through the cornfield near.

Ephraim Deane!’—then a soldier spoke:
‘Deane carried our regiment's colors,’ he said,
“When our ensign was shot; I left him dead,
Just after the enemy wavered and broke.

‘Close to the roadside his body lies;
I paused a moment and gave him to drink;
He murmured his mother's name, I think,
And Death came with it and closed his eyes.’

'Twas a victory, yes; but it cost us dear:
For that company's roll, when called at night,
Of a hundred men who went into the fight,
Numbered but twenty that answered ‘Here!’

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