"Memoranda is a strange, haunting revisiting
of the war in which Whitman dramatizes his memoir by quoting directly from
his hospital notebooks and pretending to have been present at memorable
events when he wasn’t--for example, at Ford’s Theatre during the assassination
(an exaggeration that later leaked into his Lincoln lectures). Here he
borrows from news accounts and from Doyle, who actually was in Ford’s Theatre
that night. He also gives the vague impression that he visited more than
the two battle sites of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville during the
war and witnessed actual battles. (Studies of Drum-Taps have not
sufficiently emphasized that its poems are based primarily on what the
'Wound Dresser' saw and heard in the hospitals.)"
Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself, 372-73.
"Whitman opposes textual representation to the unrepresentable traces of war in a prefatory note to Specimen Days, in which he describes the process of composing the Memoranda. The mediating term is memory, which here assumes the form of inarticulate 'associations':
I have dozens of . . . little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil'd and creas'd livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten'd with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by after the war, blotch'd here and there with more than one blood-stain . . . . Most of the pages from 26 to 81 are verbatim copies of these lurid and blood-smutch'd little note-books. (Prose Works 1892, I:2)These papers affect Whitman not so much because of their words, but because they bear traces of the violated human body which cannot be represented and thus must fail to become part of the public record of the war. The very presence of the 'blood-stain[s]' prevents Whitman from representing them; their reality thwarts textualization.
"In the face of the acknowledged impossibility of full representation, the Memoranda propose a system of the typical as the form for the historical representation of war. The basic trope of this system is synecdoche, in which a single event or experience replaces the whole of the war. (The very title of Specimen Days, in which the Memoranda were later reprinted, foregrounds synecdoche) . . . . The Memoranda [develop] arguments for a proposition only occasionally hinted at in Drum Taps--namely, that the lived experience of war will always exceed the representational capacity of any medium. Such representational absences are ideologically productive, however: by despairing of the possibility of a comprehensive history of violence, the Memoranda affirm the prosecution of the war."
Timothy Sweet, Traces of War, 48.
"Whitman’s notes on the Civil War are, of course, precious items in the national archives. . . . Compared with Whitman’s other prose, they are terse, graphic, and understated. . . . Not much interested in taking sides, the writer studies violence and suffering in themselves. So that his style and his attitude toward what he is writing entitle Whitman to be called the first of the legendary war reporters, the literary ancestor of Ambrose Bierce, Stephen Crane, and Ernest Hemingway. Many of the realistic passages in The Red Badge of Courage are anticipated in Specimen Days, and this is even truer of J. W. DeForest’s fine novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion (1867). It should be clear, however, that although the War seemed to Whitman ‘the distinguishing event of my time,’ he did not, either in his war notes or elsewhere, come to understand life in terms of violence, as did Bierce, Crane, and Hemingway. For various personal and historical reasons, his fascination with war and death was not, like theirs, overt, flamboyant, and active; it remained passive, mystical, and sacrificial. But like the later war correspondents he prided himself on being able to say, ‘I am the man , I suffer’d, I was there.’"
Richard Chase, Walt Whitman Reconsidered, 167-68.
"Tramping up and down the aisles of the hospital wards, Whitman came closer to achieving his dream of reaching the democratic masses than he would ever come through his written work. ‘It has given me my most fervent views of the true ensemble and extent of the States,’ he said of his hospital experiences. . . . Ministering to a cross section of the democratic nation, North and South, black and white, Whitman literally became the invigorator, comrade, fuser, and reconciler of the American republic he had wanted to become through his writing.
"In nursing the war wounded, Whitman found a legitimate social form in which to express his homoeroticism and his desire to mother, love, and nurture men. Describing himself to his good friend Abby Price and her family, he said: ‘You would all smile to see me among them--many of them like children, ceremony is mostly discarded--they suffer & get exhausted & so weary--lots of them have grown to expect as I leave at night that we should kiss each other, sometime quite a number, I have to go round--poor boys, there is little petting in a soldier’s life in the field, but Abby, I know what is in their hearts, always waiting, though they may be unconscious of it themselves’ (Corr., I, 162). Addressed as ‘Pa’ and ‘Uncle’ by many of the soldiers, Whitman could at least partially realize his desire to father both poems and children."
Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet, 200-01.
M. Wynn Thomas, "Fratricide and Brotherly Love: Whitman and the Civil War," 43.
". . . Lacking practiced doctors, a rudimentary ambulance corps, and even a general hospital, the Federals, one historian says, ‘entered the war with medical capabilities below those of Imperial Rome.’
". . . A few years before Lister proved the value of antiseptic surgery, doctors in blood-stained coats cut and sawed with dirty instruments, moistened sutures with saliva, plied the needle with infected fingers, and washed their hands only when they became smelly or sticky; ‘surgical fevers’--osteomyelitis, erysipelas, gangrene, and pyemia--were rampant. Survivors of field surgery were packed into dilapidated buildings, where, if not altogether neglected, they were cared for by other soldiers--convalescents, invalids, prisoners, undesirables, and ‘the ineffective under arms’--who had been pressed into a disagreeable service and were either too resentful not to do harm or too feeble to do good.
"The situation improved toward the end of the war. . . . Nursing the sick and wounded was no longer entrusted to soldiers and romantic adventurers, but it was only grudgingly recognized as a profession for women (the country did not have graduate nurses until the 1870s) and never recognized as a profession for men, even though men made up eighty percent of the nurses on both sides of the war. Redpath was only half joking when he told Whitman that the Transcendentalist ladies and gentlemen believed ‘eunuchs only are fit for nurses.’"
Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life, 278-80.
"Whitman remains essentially silent about blacks throughout the Civil War, mentioning black soldiers and nurses only briefly in Specimen Days and not including any poetry about blacks in Drum-Taps. Whitman only incorporates blacks into the Civil War experience later in 1867 with "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," a curious fifteen-line vignette about a black woman watching the march of Sherman’s troops toward the sea. That this woman is alien to Whitman and his vision of post-war America is evident not only from his representation of her--she is, after all, ‘Ethiopia,’ of whom the speaker asks, ‘Who are you dusky woman, so ancient hardly human’--but also from the syntactically awkward pattern of her speech and from the stilted rhythms and rhyming scheme so uncharacteristic of Whitman verse."
Martin Klammer, Whitman, Slavery, and the Emergence of Leaves of Grass, p. 160.
"Perhaps like many momentous events, the Civil
War deepened in importance to the Victorians after the fighting ceased.
Remembering the war became a habitual occupation, and recollections did
not have to be pleasant to become cherished intellectual possessions.
Petty quarrels about wartime decisions, for example, ran through soldiers'
memoirs as a persistent theme. William Tecumseh Sherman lit out in his
of 1875 against meddlesome politicians, particularly Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's
secretary of war. John Bell Hood wrote Advance and Retreat,
issued in 1880, in large measure to refute allegations of poor leadership
initiated by his former Confederate colleague, Joseph Johnston. In 1885,
Ulysses Grant recurred repeatedly in his memoirs to the irksome resistance
that Henry Halleck, his superior, posed to his strategies. Lew Wallace
tried hard to explain in his autobiography of 1906 why he got lost with
his troops on the way to Shiloh and missed the battle's opening day.
O.O. Howard undertook his memoir of 1907 in part to dispel suspicions that
the Freedman's Bureau was corrupt, a worry that must have disturbed his
old age nearly four decades after the agency was dissolved.
Anne C. Rose, Victorian America and the Civil War, 245-47.