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Counting from One to a Million, Whitman and the Civil War Dead   2 comments

Whitman Event Ed_2015 05 07_0686_edited-3 blogEd Folsom presenting “Counting from One to a Million, Whitman and the Civil War Dead” — Image by kenne

For the 24th year the Writers in Performance series at Lone Star College – Montgomery celebrated the birthday of Walt Whitman. For the last several years the celebrations has been in two parts, one a lecture on campus in the afternoon, the second part an evening gathering of poets at a local pub or cafe.

This year’s lecture featured Dr. Ed Folsom recognizing the sesquicentennial of the publication of Dram Taps, most of which Whitman wrote while serving as a hospital volunteer tending wounded and dying soldiers. Whitman felt that a poet’s voice was needed to document the war and help make sense of such a travesty.

This year’s Birthday Celebration for Walt Whitman took place May 7th, which I thought would be appropriate to delay posting till this Memorial Day, 2015. (Post Note) — The holiday originally was called Decoration Day and was a day of remembrance for Union soldiers who died in the American Civil War.

kenne

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The Gathering of Poets at Dosey Doe Music Cafe, Conroe Texas — Images by kenne

The following passage from Dram Taps includes the longest sentence ever written by Whitman.

The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up — The Unknown (from Memoranda During the War)

THE DEAD in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

And everywhere among these countless graves—everywhere in the many soldier Cemeteries of the Nation, (there are now, I believe, over seventy of them)—as at the time in the vast trenches, the depositories of slain, Northern and Southern, after the great battles—not only where the scathing trail passed those years, but radiating since in all the peaceful quarters of the land—we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word

UNKNOWN.

(In some of the cemeteries nearly all the dead are unknown. At Salisbury, N. C., for instance, the known are only 85, while the unknown are 12,027, and 11,700 of these are buried in trenches. A national monument has been put up here, by order of Congress, to mark the spot—but what visible, material monument can ever fittingly commemorate that spot?)

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