One hundred and fifty years ago the first major battle of the American Civil War (1861-65) took place at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on 17 September 1862. In his tribute to Abraham Lincoln, assassinated the year the war ended, Walt Whitman’s evocatively titled poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” reminds us of all that was lost.
Walt Whitman (1819-92) had little formal education. He started as an office boy, and later worked as a printer, itinerant school-teacher and contributor to or editor of various magazines and newspapers. He travelled widely on the frontiers of the expanding American states and then wrote Leaves of Grass (1855), twelve poems in praise of the United States, American poets, and the American language. In a rambling Preface, Whitman set out his credo:
“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem… not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations… Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men… re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency… The American bard shall delineate no class of persons nor one or two out of the strata of interests nor love most nor truth most, nor the soul most, nor the body most… and not be for the eastern states more than the western or the northern states more than the southern.”
It was a statement that echoed the leading political themes of the day: unification, solidarity and the abolition of slavery. There was considerable political and social opposition. During 1860-61 eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed a confederacy precipitating a civil war in which over 600,000 people died. Whitman’s faith in America was severely tested. His brother George, a Union soldier, was wounded in battle and Whitman visited him at a camp near Washington, DC. He remained there for the duration of the war, comforting and helping to nurse the wounded. It was a traumatic experience as he witnessed the suffering and death of hundreds of soldiers.
The American Civil War was long, exhausting and bitter. It destroyed families and friendships and its impact can be traced down to the present-day. At its end, just as the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, the nation’s popular, charismatic president, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth to avenge the defeat of the Confederates. Lincoln’s embalmed body lay in state in the White House before being taken to the Capitol where, according to newspaper reports of the time, 60,000 spectators watched a parade of 40,000 mourners.
The lilac-strewn casket containing Lincoln’s body was taken by special train to Springfield, Illinois, for burial, stopping in several cities on the way for public viewing. Every mile of the 1,700 was attended by bonfires, children on the shoulders of grandparents, citizens draped in black, and everywhere the lilac trees were just coming into blossom. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” became a threnody not just to Abraham Lincoln but to the horrors of the Civil War:
“I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
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,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.”