'TIS BUT TEN YEARS SINCE.
BY WALT WHITMAN.
Different indeed our American of the present, and
its position and prospects, from those murky clouds and storms, and weeks
of suspense, and mortal doubt and dismay, of But 10 Years Since, reddened
with gouts of blood, and pallid with wholesale death.
A STEP TEN YEARS BACKWARD, AND ITS MEMENTOES.
During the war, commencing at the close of '62, and
all through '63, '4, and '5, I was much around and with the wounded, both
in the Army Hospitals in Virginia and on the field. From the first I found
it necessary to systematize my doings, and among other things, always kept
little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory
of names and circumstances and what was specially wanted, &c. In these
I noted down cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside
in hospital, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Several of the
sketches I propose to give in the papers following are verbatim renderings
from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratched down from narratives
I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid
those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little books left, forming a special
history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to
be possibly written or told. I wish indeed I could convey to the reader
a glimpse, or even a few, of the teeming associations that attach to these
soiled and creased little livraisons, each composed of two or three sheets
of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with a pin.
I leave them yet undisturbed just as I threw them by during the Ten Years
Since, full as they are of scrawls and memoranda, half-illegible to any
eyes but mine, blotched here and there with more than one blood-stain,
hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement
of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a
march. Even these days I can never take them up, or turn their tiny leaves,
without the actual camp and hospital and army sights from '62 to '5 rushing
like a river in full tide through me. Each page, nay each line, has its
history. Some pang of anguish -- some tragedy, profounder than ever poet
wrote. To me, the war, abdicating all its grand historical aspects, and
entirely untouched by the Slavery question, revolves around these miniature
pages, and what is designated by them. They are the closest; they
are not words, but magic spells. Out of them arise yet active and
breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room
as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in
camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried
by wholesale in the battle-pits, or whose dust and bones have been since
removed to the National Cemeteries, all through Virginia and Tennessee.
A THOUGHT OR SO, UPON THE THRESHOLD.
But before entering on my personal memoranda of the
war, I have one or two thoughts to ventilate before they are entirely out
of date. Strange, that those months and years, and all that marked
them, with the vividest of their experiences and impressions, should so
soon pass away - as they seem already to have passed - like a dream!
OUR SURGING POLITICS FROM 1840 TO '60.
For twenty years preceding the war, and especially
during the four or five immediately before its opening, the aspects of
affairs in the United States, though without the keenness and flash of
military excitement, presents to any man of thoughtfulness, or artistic
perceptions, more than the survey of a battle, or any extended campaign,
or series even of Nature's convulsions. In politics, what can be
more ominous, (though generally unappreciated then,) -- what more significant
than the fetid condition of everything from 1840 to '60, especially under
Fillmore's and Buchanan's administrations. Those two Presidentiads
- and perhaps one other - prove conclusively that the weakness and wickedness
of elected rulers, backed by our great parties, are just as likely to afflict
us, here, (but to be met and remedied,) as the same evils in the countries
of the old world, under their monarchies, emperors, and aristocracies.
The Slave power had complete possession of the helm, and was evidently
determined on its own tack. All the moral convictions of the best
portion of the Nation were outraged. A powerful faction, ruling the
North, was art and part of the Slaveocracy, and stood then and stands to-day,
just as responsible for the Rebellion.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN - MY FIRST SIGHT AND IMPRESSION OF HIM.
In the midst of all this excitement [missing text]
hovering on the edge [missing text] in its very midst, and [missing text]
part, appears a strange [missing text] Abraham Lincoln. It must have
been about the 18th or 19th of February, 1861. It was rather a pleasant
spring afternoon, in New York city, as Lincoln arrived there from the West
to stop a few hours and then pass on to Washington, to prepare for his
inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present
Post office. He had come down, I think, from Canal street, to stop
at the Astor House. The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in the
neighborhood, and for some distance, were crowded with solid masses of
people, many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had been
all turned off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city.
Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with some difficulty
through the crowd and drew up at the Astor House entrance. A tall
figure stepped out of the centre of these barouches, paused leisurely on
the sidewalk, looked up at the dark granite walls and looming architecture
of the grand old hotel - then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs,
turned round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance
of the vast and silent crowds - and so, with very moderate pace, and accompanied
by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico steps.
NIGHT OF APRIL 13, 1861, IN NEW YORK-NEWS OF THE FIRST GUN FIRED AGAINST THE FLAG, (AND THE END, AFTERWARDS, OF HIM WHO FIRED IT.)
The news of the first actual firing on the National
Flag - the attack on Fort Sumter - was received in New York late at night,
(13th April, 1861,) and was immediately sent out in extras of the newspapers.
I had been to the opera that night, and after the performance was walking
down Broadway, after eleven o'clock, on my way to Brooklyn, when I heard
in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing
and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously
than usual. I felt that subtle magnetic something which runs through
one, on pronounced occasions - bought an extra (10 cents), and crossed
to the Metropolitan Hotel (Niblo's), where the great lamps were still brightly
blazing, and, with impromptu, read the news, which was evidently authentic.
For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram
aloud, while all listened silently and very attentive. No remark
was made by any of the crowd, which had increased to thirty or forty, but
all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispersed. I can
almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.
THE EVE OF A LONG WAR.
I have now given out of my memoranda what may be called the overtures of the war - the first appearance of Lincoln on the scene, the firing of the first rounds by the Disunionists at Charleston, and the reception of the news in the Free States. In my next paper, after itemizing the prompt uprisal at the North, I shall bring back First Bull Run, and describe what ensued immediately and for several days in Washington City, after the shock and humiliation of that unlooked-for defeat.
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