Representations of the Civil War in American Culture
The Civil War (1861-1865) was a significant and crucial experience for the still young nation of the United States. As a logical consequence, it immediately became a very important topic in American literature and culture. In this essay, I am going to compare two poems by Walt Whitman in order show the transformation in the perception and the resulting representation of the Civil War in American culture. Across all areas of culture, there is a development in the way the war is depicted. Whitman's own transformation from celebration to mourning is typical for the change undergone by the entire nation. Both poems are part of Whitman's collection Drum-Taps which was published in 1865, after the end of the war. However, they were created at different times. The first poem I am going to look at, First O songs for a prelude, was written in 1861 after the first battle at Fort Sumter and the resulting outbreak of the Civil War. The date of the second poem, The Wound-Dresser, is not exactly known, but Whitman certainly created it after 1862. That was the year where he found out that his brother was missing and then set out to look for him around the battlefields. So by the time The Wound-Dresser was written, Whitman had actually experienced war and undergone a comprehensive transformation, just as the whole nation. I will come back to this later on.
As already mentioned, Whitman created First O songs for a prelude just after the news of the outbreak of the Civil War reached his hometown of New York. The poem is also a response to the first parade of troops that went through Manhattan in order to board ships bound for the South. The overall tone of this poem is a celebration of war and a tremendous feeling of excitement and joy. Actually, you could summarize the whole poem in the world glory. This is typical for early literary responses to the war. The horrors of war had not yet been lived, the pain had not yet been felt, no victims were to be mourned – war was not a reality, but rather an abstract concept that was celebrated, by some for its 'just' cause, by others for the very idea of war itself. Whitman was part of the latter group and this becomes obvious by the fact that he never once mentions anything about the reason for the war throughout this poem. Many authors celebrated the war for its cause – the abolition of slavery, freedom, the indestructible unity of the Union – but there is no word to find about this in Whitman's poem. The reader gets the impression that it does not matter what the reason is; it is war that is celebrated, not its cause. There is no attempt to justify war or to explain why it necessary. As a matter of fact, the reader almost gets the feeling that this poem is not about the Civil War in particular, that it actually does not matter what the war is about or who the opponent is – war is glorious and to be welcomed.
This excitement about the business of war runs like a thread through the entire poem. It is a sign of a hero culture: peace is treated with contempt, while war is seen as a glorious opportunity for men to be brave, to prove their manhood, and to emerge as heroes. This disregard for peace becomes evident in lines like “how you threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand” – there is absolutely no hesitation to exchange peace for war. Peace is not considered a desirable state, while war is connected with very positive emotions: rather pensive in times of peace, now at war Manhattan smiles “with joy.” There is “unpent enthusiasm” and the crowd is cheering. The celebration of war goes even further. Not only is peace not desirable, but is actually implied that it is only for the faint heart, for those who are not brave or strong enough to face war because the utmost goal is to be “truer than steel” and to be strongest “in the hour of danger.” So it comes as no surprise that Whitman is delighted about the outbreak of the war. Several times he mentions the “forty years” he has been watching parades that were just a show, but now, finally, they are “in earnest, no mere parade now.” It seems as if everybody has been waiting for this and that is exactly what Whitman is trying to convey. This idea is evident in his list of all the people who are taking up their arms to be part of the war: “the young men […], the mechanics […], the lawyer […], the driver […], the salesman […], the boss, book-keeper, porter, all leaving.” Additionally, they are not only taking part voluntarily, but eagerly. They cannot wait to go to war, as can be seen in expression such as “the blacksmith's hammer, tost aside with precipitation” or “the driver […] throwing the reins abruptly down.” Again, peace seems undesirable.
Another motive becomes obvious in the lines just mentioned: war as a common cause. Everyone is part of the war effort. Whitman considers it to be very positive that all citizens unite for a common cause, “by common consent.” He praises the spirit of community and unity. There are flags everywhere and even churches are part of the patriotic war effort. So war is not only an opportunity for men to prove themselves, but also an opportunity for a community and a nation to draw closer together and unite for a common cause. In this spirit, Whitman even looks favorably upon very young recruits as a sign that the whole people stand together, across all generational divides. This last point highlights Whitman's idealistic outlook. Actually, he has absolutely no idea about war, about its consequences, about fatigue, destruction, and death. In his enthusiasm he paints an almost naive picture of what is to come. In his imagination “white tents cluster in camps” and a “manly life in the camp” awaits the soldiers. This sounds like an agreeable gathering of men who will have the chance to prove their manhood. Evidently, Whitman does not know anything about the actually harsh conditions in a war camp. War is abstract concept and the author does not realize its disagreeable reality. Wherever unpleasant facts are alluded to, it is always with a positive overtone. Describing the parading soldiers, Whitman mentions in passing that they are “sweaty” and “cover'd with dust,” but for him, this is a sign of belligerent beauty and the embodiment of a certain warrior ideal of manhood (“how good they look […] How I love them!”). Even the cannons are considered beautiful, “bright as gold,” and as heroic themselves, a “work for giants.” The very own business of war, killing, is only alluded to in a euphemism: “the red business.” The poem culminates in two lines which again show this idealistic and unrealistic idea about war: “War! an arm'd race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning away; War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm'd race is advancing to welcome it.” Whitman believes it to be irrelevant whether the war is going to last for weeks, months, or even years. It is always to be welcomed and the people will always be armed and ready. This exemplifies the outlook of many early literary and cultural responses, the widespread enthusiasm and celebration of war.