“This dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”
– Walt Whitman, May 1865.
This poetic eulogy, titled by its first line, of Abraham Lincoln written in the month following his murder by America’s premiere poet Walt Whitman. It was one of a number he wrote about Lincoln on his death and the terrible Civil War in that time period, including “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” “Hushed Be the Camps,” and his most popular, “O Captain! My Captain!”
Whitman was a journalist who covered the war, but more impactfully, he volunteered as a nurse to attend to the wounded in hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., throughout the war. In that way, he was a precursor to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and other literary giants who followed with their own blistering indictments of the unspeakable horrors of war as they viewed them from efforts at treating the wounded and, in far too many cases, the dying.
It was about the maiming and the dying of the young, mostly young men not by their own error but at the command of their military superiors, their country leaders, their fathers, who drove them onto the battlefields with no option but to inflict pain, to wound or kill or to be wounded or killed. The greatest mastery of words, whether in novels by Hemingway and others or poems by Whitman or music by Benjamin Britten (his choral “War Requiem”), have spoken to the tragedy, and often also, yes, in some cases of the horrid necessity of war.
The Great War (1914-1918), known as World War I, and the half century of death and chaos that came in its wake, was not born of necessity, but was sparked and tolerated by three cousins of the House of Queen Victoria – the king of England, the chancellor of Germany and the czar of Russia – who agreed to depopulate an entire generation of modern democracy’s educated and empowered potential rivals to their ruling elites. When the dust began to clear after the second phase of that war finally ended in 1946, over 200 million were dead.
Baritone and tenor solos in Britten’s “War Requiem” told the story of Abraham and Isaac, the event from which it is claimed the birth of modern western civilization stems. Called to slay his son, Abraham unlocks the future gains of his tribe by harkening to the last-minute heavenly command to spare Isaac in favor of a sacrificial ram. But while that marked the overthrow of an irrational patriarchy as the precondition for all that was to follow in the Biblical history of a righteous people of God, in the case of The Great War, Britten’s oratory intones, Abraham does not defer to slay the ram, but instead, “The old man would not so, but slew his son — and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Yes, half the sons of Europe were slain.
Concerning the Civil War earlier, Walt Whitman saw the terrible necessity of that war, and the ultimate claim it made on Lincoln, too. It was because, as the says in “This Dust Was Once the Man,” that saving “the Union of these States” was required to repel “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age.”
To Whitman, and to whose who fought and died to preserve the Union of the States, the Southern Confederacy and its secession from the Union in defense of the institution of slavery marked “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age.”
In this age, it is past due time that we as an American people revive that proper attitude toward the Civil War and the 600,000 American lives that were lost in it, which had to be fought to preserve the Union, end slavery and establish the preconditions for Lincoln’s notion of “a more perfect Union” that would ultimately lead the world in the fight for equality and democracy for all.
Hail to all who now recognize the Confederate evil and fight it.
Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]