Worthwhile Memorial Day Reading

I love a barbecue and a sale at Old Navy the same as anyone, but I ran across this piece (referenced by the NYT here) by Walt Whitman and thought it was worth re-posting here. It’s long, but worth it.

From Specimen Days, by Walt Whitman
100. The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up

The Civil War Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery

THE DEAD in this war — there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battlefields 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 degredations, 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 the 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 train 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, NC, 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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2 thoughts on “Worthwhile Memorial Day Reading

  1. Were the parantheses part of the poem or your own thoughts? I assumed they were in the poem until that last one. Regardless that wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I recall Whitman being. 🙂

    1. All punctuation, emphasis, words, etc. are Whitman’s. At least, they’re original to my source, anyway. 🙂 They’re not mine.

      You should try Whitman again now that you’re an adult and (presumably) more comfortable with yourself.

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