Now the Drum of War

Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2008 Robert Roper
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1553-1

Chapter One

THE SCENT OF pennyroyal, crushed by soldiers' shoes, remained intense as a false twilight came. A large force of Union troops had been stymied all day by rebels holding the high ground, and as the sun set early behind the wooded Maryland ridge, a shadowy time of error and anxiety arrived.

A Union brigade under Colonel Edward Ferrero, a former New York dancing instructor, spent the afternoon of September 14, 1862, in fair safety, downslope from the fighting in a cornfield. Three hundred yards away, some of the fiercest exchanges of musket fire yet heard in the Civil War rattled and clacked. Yet here in the cornfield, and in the nearby woods, Ferrero's men lay around and waited, their only job the guarding of nearby artillery. It was the Lord's day. Some Ohio troops had assembled that morning in an outdoor prayer session, led by a chaplain in a recitation out of Psalms: "Bow down thy ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy ... In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee ..." For most, though, the day had little of a Sabbath character. One of Ferrero's most battle-hardened units, the 51st New York Volunteers, grumbled as they waited: Orders had come to leave their knapsacks in the bushes, so as not to be encumbered when they entered the fight. At Second Bull Run two weeks before, they likewise had been made to leave their packs behind, and they had never recovered them.

Clean drawers, socks, tobacco, writing materials ... the articles lost were much prized, and hard to replace on the march. The knapsack belonging to one young lieutenant, George Washington Whitman, of Brooklyn, probably contained a letter written by his mother, Louisa, on September 7 and another from his younger brother, Jeff, written September 8. Whitman treasured letters from home and begged for them with a frank desperation ("Mother why the deuce don't some of you write to a fellow"). He confessed to intense bouts of homesickness that made him "think quite strange." Given the uncertainties of mail delivery to soldiers on the march, he understood that more letters were probably being written than he received, yet his fierce longing led him to fantasize about his family back in Brooklyn ("ile bet now, that Mother is makeing pies ... Mat is putting up shirt bosoms by the deuce ... Sis is down stairs helping Mother mix the dough, Walt is up stairs writing, Jeff is down at the Office, Jess is pealing potatoes for dinner, and Tobias has gone down cellar for a scuttle of coal").

Although homesick and often afraid, George Whitman was living the adventure of his life. Battle thrilled him. In situations of mortal peril he became calmly intent. Other men followed him into combat willingly, even eagerly. Hardly more than a year into a savage war, Whitman and his fellows in the 51st New York had seen as much close-quarters fighting as any unit in the Federal army. Yet, on this temperate, blue-skied Sunday, the true darkening and deepening of their experience of war was about to begin.

Around seven P.M., Ferrero received orders to move his brigade uphill. A kind of darkness had fallen along the rugged north-south ridge called South Mountain. By clever maneuvering and brilliant fakery, a numerically inferior Confederate force had defended the mountain's passes all day. Rebel artillery had rained grape and canister downslope, and the Federal units now struggling uphill saw several surgeons at work at outdoor operating tables, with piles of severed feet and arms accumulating in the trampled corn and pennyroyal. Ferrero's brigade, numbering around two thousand men, included three veteran regiments plus one rank green one, the 35th Massachusetts. This being his largest unit (eight hundred men), Ferrero sent the 35th uphill first, and the sight of the Union wounded stumbling back downslope and of the field surgeries had an unsettling effect.

In this sector of the battle, near a mountain pass called Fox's Gap, rebel and Federal troops had exchanged close-range fire all day. There were many dead and maimed. A narrow lane along the summit, called the Wood Road, was full of bodies, and the soldiers of the 35th trod around them and through their copious blood. Enemy musket fire had lessened as twilight came. As they ranged over the pass and down into a forest to the west, the men of the 35th became separated into small groups of confused, noisily thrashing shadow figures. Sensing peril, their officers ordered them back uphill, closer to their supporting units.

Ferrero's more experienced forces, including Whitman's 51st New York, moved into position along the Wood Road meanwhile, sheltering in a field. As the disoriented 35th began straggling up out of the woods-still making noise and, at one point, lighting a lantern to show the way, despite the nearness of rebel sharpshooters-Union major general Jesse L. Reno, commander of 9th Corps, Ferrero's superior by several orders of rank and a beloved leader to the men, came up the road on a horse. One of the more competent Union generals, Reno was curious to see the disposition of forces at the end of this bloody day. Soldiers who recognized him in the dusk said he looked thoughtful. His escort consisted of two orderlies plus a staff surgeon, also on mounts. Reno rode just slightly ahead of the others, peering into the gloom.

A young soldier of the 35th, emerging from the woods, cried, "Rebel cavalry!" at the sight of the four horsemen. He leveled his musket and discharged it. Several other shots crackled almost simultaneously-the fire came from nearby, possibly from rebel troops about to counterattack. Reno slid from his horse. Moments before, he had told some soldiers he met to stack arms and brew coffee-the fighting appeared to be over for the night, and they deserved a rest. Now he understood that he was badly wounded, indeed, that he was dying. "Willcox," he said to a friend, General Orlando Willcox, a few minutes later, having been carried back from the woodside ambuscade, "I am killed. Shot by our own men."

In a newspaper dispatch he wrote soon afterward, George Whitman said of Reno's death, "[It] caused every one to look sad and melancholy, and many to shed tears. It could hardly be realized by the boys, even for days after." Now, as rebel skirmishers again opened a concentrated fire, the 51st New York found itself pinned down in the dark field. "Our regt was ordered to lie close and not fire a shot untill the enemy advanced out of the woods," Whitman wrote his mother the next week. "The regts on our right and left had a regular cross fire on the enemy and kept pouring the lead into them like rain. I had command of our Company ... and I had mighty hard work to keep some of them from getting up and blazing away as they said they did not like to lay there like a lot of old women and be shot without fighting back."

At last, "the order was given for us to open fire and you never saw men go to work with a better relish." Night had now fallen truly. Rifle flashes invited return fire, and there was much dying. The young recruits of the 35th Massachusetts, having mostly escaped the woods full of reenergized rebels, circled back behind the 51st New York and the other veteran units and, in a bid for glory, lustily opened fire, endangering the Union soldiers in front of them. "Cease firing! Cease firing!" roared the veterans, threatening to turn their guns backward, and eventually the rookies of the 35th crept away, to shelter in a nearby wood.

The next morning, September 15, 1862, "I took a walk over our part of the battle field," Whitman wrote his mother. "In some parts of the feild the enemys dead lay in heaps and in a road for nearly a quarter of a mile they lay so thick that I had to pick my way carefully to avoid stepping on them ... I think judging from what I saw that the enemys loss was fully 8 times as great as ours and I am told that the slaughter was equally great" elsewhere on the mountain. Ferrero's brigade had lost 150 men in only the last act of the fighting, lasting less than forty-five minutes. In two more days they would be at Antietam, for the bloodiest twenty-four hours in American history.

Chapter Two

A SOLDIER WHO FOUGHT with Whitman at South Mountain, Corporal Elmer Bragg, of the 9th New Hampshire, later wrote, "You can form no idea of the harass of the Battlefield. It was only through excitement that I endured it."

Whitman also seems to have endured through excitement. His many letters home, treasured and saved by his poet brother, are written in a vivid, pell-mell style, especially their accounts of actual combat. Describing an earlier battle (Roanoke Island, coastal North Carolina), George Whitman wrote, "We struck directly into the woods and soon heard the firing comence on the right of the first Brigade we were in a wagon path and all around us was a thick wood ... we kept on, the first Brigade driving the enemy untill we got into a thick swamp where the mud and water was over the top of my boots ... it was mighty trying to a fellows nerves as the balls was flying around pretty thick ... As soon as our regt got sight of the [enemy gun emplacement] Gen Renno who is our Brigadeer General gave the order to charge and away we went the water flying over our heads as we splashed through ... I heard the order to charge [and] when I reached the Battery our colors and the flag of the 9th New York and the 21st Mass were planted there ours were there first however."

Aged thirty-two at the time of this fight, Whitman made some signal discoveries about himself. "I was as calm and cool during the whole affair as I am at any time," he wrote home, "and I was perfectly surprised to see how well our troops acted." Moreover, "it is a miracle to me that our loss was so small when I think how the bullets wized around our heads. The enemy had a great advantage in knowing the ground and could pick his position while we had to follow without knowing ... they thought they would toll us up to the Bateries and then slaughter us ... they did not think we would go in that water and fight."

He was able to stand the fear and stress and still perform-a good thing to know about himself. Also, "it was rather a sickening sight to see the wounded brought along the road but I expected sutch things so that it did not effect me mutch and after a while we would pass them lying in the bushes and think nothing of it." "So Mammy," he concluded, "I think we done a pretty good days work yesterday marching 15 or 16 miles and fighting with boots filed with water for 4 hours ... I wish Walt if he is home, or Jeff would send me some papers often it is a great treat to get a sight of a New York paper I should like one giveing a discription of the battle."

A carpenter by trade, George Whitman enlisted soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861. The rebellion was expected to last only a few weeks, and troops leaving New York marched down Broadway with lengths of rope attached to their rifle barrels-rope with which to tie up naughty Rebs and bring them north to justice. Whitman's first term of enlistment, with the 13th Regiment of New York Militia, was for one hundred days. Having seen scant action in that time, at the end of the summer he joined a New York infantry regiment then forming, for a period of service-three years-that by itself suggests a new estimate of Confederate power.

Those bad Johnnys had decidedly not been dragged home at the ends of ropes. The embarrassing rout of Union forces in the war's first major battle, Bull Run, July 21, 1861, gave evidence of something that looked disturbingly like tactical ability on the part of some rebel commanders, in particular General P. G. T. Beauregard and General Thomas J. Jackson, who stood "like a stone wall" to check the Union advance. The ordinary soldiers, of North and South alike, had shown themselves ill prepared and prone to confusion, but game enough for a fight. No, it was the Northern commanders, Lincoln included, who had pushed too soon for a kill-shot victory, one that proved beyond them, leading to widespread panic in Washington, only thirty miles from the rebel lines.

"Resolution, manliness, seem to have abandoned" the capital, Walt Whitman wrote of the battle's aftermath. "The principal hotel, Willard's, is full of shoulder-straps ... There you are, shoulder-straps!-but where are your companies? where are your men? ... Sneak, blow, put on airs there in Willard's sumptuous parlors and bar-rooms ... no explanation shall save you. Bull Run is your work; had you been half or onetenth worthy of your men, this would never have happen'd."

He continued, "One bitter, bitter hour-perhaps proud America will never again know such an hour ... Those white palaces-the dome-crown'd capitol there on the hill, so stately over the trees-shall they be left-or destroy'd first? For it is certain that the talk among certain of the magnates and officers and clerks and officials ... for twenty-four hours in and around Washington after Bull Run, was loud and undisguised for yielding out and out, and substituting the southern rule, and Lincoln promptly abdicating."

George Whitman, who did not fight at First Bull Run, was made sergeant major in his new regiment. He was older than most of the other recruits, and his three monthhs' prior service qualified as experience. He also simply looked like a soldier. Physically more robust than the average Civil War infantryman, who stood about five foot seven and weighed 147 pounds, he was large and thick boned and unhurried in his movements. As a devoted niece said of him later, he "possessed the power of silence." His piercing, pale blue-gray eyes had a benign but measuring cast: They seemed to see all, and to see things as they were.

War made sense to George. "I went down to one of their Batteries this afternoon," he wrote after storming the Confederate fortifications at Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862, "and was surprised to see how large and well aranged it was it was made of turf the parapet which shields the gunners being about 15 ft thick and 8 or 9 feet high with embrasures to rain the guns out it mounted 10 guns 2 of them being 32 pound Parrot guns rifled and the others heavy smoothe bore guns." Often he walked a battleground after the fight was over, to comprehend the complex interplay of influences that had led to a discrete outcome. His letters home to his mother-a poorly educated, stay-at-home woman whom Whitman biographers have woefully mischaracterized as ignorant, incurious, and "almost illiterate"-are peppered with military terms of art that George, himself, must only recently have learned. The old mother back in her Brooklyn kitchen understood everything-this was the first fact of the Whitman family-Mrs. Whitman's power of understanding-and the reason why George addressed his detailed reflections on military strategy, his confessions of fear, his exaltations in victory, when he and his comrades did "terrible execution" upon the bodies of their enemy, to her.

All to her, and all through her. This soldier's letters assumed a strong-minded, unsanctimonious personage as correspondent, someone able to see to the marrow of things. The Victorian "angel in the home," the morally strenuous, socially anxious female paragon subject to fainting spells, was not here being addressed. By the same token, that other remarkable body of letters written by a whitman son during the Civil War-Walt's-was addressed mainly to her as well, and assumed the same special qualities. The poet's most intimate correspondent for most of his life, until her death in 1873, Mrs. Whitman was his touchstone, his anchor. Her quicksilver intelligence and unostentatious decency made her invaluable as someone to whom he could describe in detail the perturbations of his Civil War-which, like his brother's, was physically dangerous, morally disorienting, and deeply thrilling.

Washington June 30 1863

Dearest Mother,

Your letter with [sister Hannah's] I have sent to George, though whether it will find him or not I cannot tell, as I think the 51st must be away down at Vicksburgh ... Mother, I have had quite an attack of sore throat & distress in my head for some days past ... I have been about the city same as usual ... to the Hospitals, &c ... I am told that I hover too much over the beds of the hospitals, with fever & putrid wounds, &c. One soldier, brought here about fifteen days ago, very low with typhoid fever, Livingston Brooks, Co B 17th Penn Cavalry, I have particularly stuck to, as I found him in what appeared to be a dying condition ... I called the doctor's attention to him, shook up the nurses, had him bathed in spirits, gave him lumps of ice ... he was very quiet, a very sensible boy, old fashioned-he did not want to die.


Excerpted from Now the Drum of Warby ROBERT ROPER Copyright © 2008 by Robert Roper. Excerpted by permission.
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