The Reality of War


Aroused and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d—
I have been on the battle-field among the wounded, the faint and the bleeding,
Have seen war-life, the real article,
War’s grim game to sight and ear in earnest.
Sad were the shows around me with deafening noises of hatred and smoke of war,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure.

Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled?
In these hours supreme, no poem proud, I chanting bring,
But a cluster containing night’s darkness and blood-dripping wounds,
And psalms of the dead.

Spirit of many a solemn day and many a savage scene—electric spirit,
Spirit of dreadful hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as death next day,
Touch my mouth, leave me your pulses of rage,
Bequeath them to me—fill me with currents convulsive,
(The war itself, with the temper of society preceding it, can indeed be best described by that very word convulsiveness,)
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants when you are gone,
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.

Lo, where the arm’d men hasten—the sword came, and the bayonet,
Lo, mid the clouds of dust the glint of bayonets,
I hear the cracking of the guns, rifle-volleys cracking sharp,
And the cannon respond, with long procession,
The cannons ope their rosy-flashing muzzles—
I see the grime-faced cannoneers, I mark the rosy flash amid the smoke,
The hurtled balls scream, cannons’ thunder-crash and many a curse and groan and yell,

Sounds from distant guns with galloping cavalry,
By swift horses, the cavalry on high-pomel’d saddles.

I take part, I see and hear the whole—
Angry curses, awful music of the oaths, the devils fully rous’d in human hearts,
Moving masses as wild demons surging, and lives as nothing risk’d;
Red battles with their slaughter, bloody gashes, screams of wounded,
The whizz of limbs, heads, stone, wood, iron, high in the air,
The gash’d bodies on battle-fields, the wounded groaning in agony,
The red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass,
The ambulanza slowly passing trailing its red drip.

I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc’d with missiles I saw them,
In powder-smoke the banners torn but flying,
Bunting, to tatters torn upon splinter’d staff,
Not the beautiful flag with stainless white, spangled with silver & gold,
But the old rags just adhering to the staff,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs,
Or clutch’d to some young color-bearer’s breast with desperate hands,
Savagely struggled for, for life or death, (and all in silence.)
Long yet your road, fateful flag—long yet your road, and lined with bloody death,
Many a good man have I seen go under, for thy mere remnant, grimed with dirt and smoke and sopp’d in blood.

The battle rages with many a loud alarm and frequent advance and retreat,
Soon the fight grows deeper,
Fought out through wrath, fears, dark dismays, and many a long suspense.
Again the attacking cannon, mortars,
Again to my listening ears the cannon responsive,
Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,
He gasps through the clot, Mind not me—mind—the entrenchments.

A mournful wail and low sob I fancied I heard through the dark,
In a lull of the deafening confusion, the death-howl.
The limpsy tumbling body
crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death-shot—there sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass, and soil with red blood,
And there, haply with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him.
Now the corpse tumbles curl’d upon the ground,
Sleeping soundly at this moment,
Cold, cold in death.

The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on,
Rhythmic tramp of the armies sternly confronting death.
Who do you think that was marching steadily,
Ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching?
It was the brigade of the youngest men, two thousand strong.
They take a serpentine course, their arms flash in the sun,
Murderous artillery from the hills plays upon them,
O from the hills the cannon thinning and thinning them!
Rank after rank falls,
Baptized that day in many a young man’s bloody wounds.

No women looking on nor sunshine to bask in, it did not conclude with applause—
Nobody clapp’d hands here then.
In death, defeat, and sisters’, mothers’ tears, the sobs of women,
Death-messages given in charge to survivors.
(I can tell of the long besieged city,
I was in its last bombardment,
No need of a reveille from the drummers that morning.)

A strong force of mounted guerillas attack’d a train of our wounded, and the guard of cavalry convoying them. The capture of the train and its partial guard after a short snap was effectually accomplish’d. No sooner had our men surrender’d, the enemy instantly commenced robbing the train and murdering their prisoners, even the wounded.
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay together,
The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt, some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away,
These were despatch’d with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of muskets.

After a battle, they left a great many wounded on the ground, mostly within our range. Whenever any of these wounded attempted to move away by any means, generally by crawling off, our men without exception brought them down by a bullet. They let none crawl away, no matter what his condition.
At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies.

In the height of the roar and carnage of the battle, all of a sudden, from some unaccountable cause, the whole fury of the opposing armies subdued—there was a perfect calm.
It lasted almost a minute—not a gun was fired—all was petrified,
It was more solemn and awful than all the roar and slaughter.

Multiply the above by scores, aye hundreds—light it with every lurid passion, the wolf’s, the lion’s lapping thirst for blood—the passionate, boiling volcanoes of human revenge for comrades, brothers slain—with the hiss and crackle of flames, the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smouldering black embers—the blacken’d ruins, the embers of cities—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.

At night, the clear, large moon comes out at times softly,
Shining sweetly over all, shining down quietly, so unearthly bright,
Where we dig the trenches and gather the heaps.
The brief truce after battle, grim burial-squads,
And the deep-fill’d trenches of gather’d dead, hurriedly heap’d by the corpse-thousands,
Those hecatombs of battle-death.
Look down fair moon and bathe this scene,
Pour softly down night’s nimbus floods on faces ghastly, swollen, purple,
On the dead on their backs with arms toss’d wide,
Formless stacks of bodies and bodies by themselves, mainly unknown.

O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship.

Vigil strange I kept on the field one night,
When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side,
One look I but gave which your dear eyes return’d with a look I shall never forget,
One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the ground.

Then on the earth partially reclining by your side,
Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you,
Found you in death so cold dear comrade—
Vigil final for you brave boy, vigil of silence, love and death,
Vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night.

Long, long I gazed, but not a tear fell, not even a long-drawn sigh,
Till just as the dawn appear’d,
My comrade I wrapt in his blanket, envelop’d well his form,

My son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited,
Ending my vigil strange with that,
Vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget, how as day brighten’d,
I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket,
And buried him where he fell.

Every fact, and war itself, with all its horrors, serves,
Now, or at any time, each serves the exquisite transition of death—

I think we shall surely meet again.

At the foot of a tree the grave of a soldier,
On a tablet scrawl’d and nail’d on the tree by the grave:
Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.
The grand soldiers are not comprised in those of one side, any more than the other;
Was one side so brave? the other was equally brave.
Each side stands up to it,
Each steep’d from crown to toe in desperate, mortal purports—brave, determin’d as demons.

My enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
With light fingers I from the face just lift the blanket,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin,
A face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory.
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies,
I draw near, bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Then I turned aside and mused on the unknown dead,
The thousands of unknown young men in the ranks,
The dead that return no more.
I thought of the unrecorded, the young men—
Where are the unreturned, the sons of the mothers?
The bravest press’d to the front and fell, unnamed, unknown,
Volunteers who, bravely fighting, fell silent, to fill unmention’d graves.
The heroes never surpass’d shall never return,
I find in them the real precious and royal ones.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
They lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Their priceless blood reddens the grass—
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them.
I saw the camp-graves everywhere, the squads of graves, the single graves in the woods, or out in a field, or by the road-side,
The corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged,
The tufts of hair, the  shreds and fragments of clothing and rusty buttons,
The debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war.

But I saw they were not as was thought.
The dead, our young men, so handsome, so joyous, taken from us,
The dead we left behind, there they lie, embedded low, already fused by nature,
The son taken from the mother, the brother from the brother, the husband from the wife,
the dear friend from the friend—
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not.
The living remain’d and suffer’d,
The mother suffer’d, and the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d.

Crouching over a grave the crape-veil’d mother and the daughters,
An ancient sorrowful mother, with thin form presently drest in black,

Lean and tatter’d seated on the ground,
Her old white hair drooping dishevel’d round her shoulders,
Long silent, she too long silent, mourning her shrouded hope and heir—
The only son is dead,
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor maybe needs to be better, that brave and simple soul.)
But the mother needs to be better,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping, often waking.
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and withdraw,
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.

The armies that remain’d suffer’d,
Every one of the soldiers, to a man, wants to get home.
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks—
I saw the interminable corps, I saw the processions of armies, their work done,
Fighters from battle wearied, wearied, harden’d of many a long campaign and sweaty march,
Inured on many a hard-fought bloody field,
Youthful, yet veterans, young, yet very old, worn, marching, noticing nothing.

Camping awhile in clusters of mighty camps,
Here they wait, day after day, perhaps week after week, wretched and heart sick, disappointed and tired out;
The crowds of poor, sick, pale, tattered soldiers, are awful, 
Their own mothers would not recognize them.

One’s heart grows sick of the hell of war, after all, when you see what it really is,
It sickens me yet, that slaughter.
Alas the ghastly ranks, the armies dread,
That hell unpent and raid of blood, fit for wild tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reasoning men,
It seems to me like a great slaughterhouse, the men mutually butchering each other. 

To see what I see so much of, puts one entirely out of conceit of war—still for all that I am not sure but I go in for fighting on—the choice is hard on either part—but to cave in the worst.

NEXT: Nursing the Wounded and Dying