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On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South

ISSUE:  Spring 2005


O magnet-South! O glistening perfumed South! my South!
O quick mettle, rich blood, impulse and love! good and evil! O all dear to me!

— Walt Whitman


I. The New South

A few years ago I was interviewed for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—a newspaper whose slogan used to be “Covering Dixie Like the Dew”—and later, when the article appeared, the headline read, “Poet Digs at Secrets in Her South.” Not long after that, I received several e-mail and phone messages from a marketing representative who wanted to get a few lines from me about “my South.” In the messages, he said it wouldn’t take long and that his firm couldn’t pay me for my comments. Well, I was busy, and besides that, I figured he didn’t want to hear what I really think about the South. Most likely, he probably wanted some sound-bite clichés about how I like my grits, sweet tea, or barbecue, about how we southerners like sitting on porches and after-church visiting.

Some time after that, I started seeing advertisements for Turner South Network on the sides of buses all around Atlanta. Usually the ads featured a photograph of a man or woman next to a quote about his or her South. The text suggested the kinds of things I suspect that marketing representative was looking for when he tried to contact me; and though I don’t know whether it had been the network calling me or not, I couldn’t help thinking that there might be some connection. Not only were these images of the New South appearing on buses, they were showing up in some clever and entertaining television commercials too.

In one commercial, a long-haired teenager is driving fast down a dusty road—until he gets pulled over by a police officer. The officer appears menacing behind his metallic aviator sunglasses, and he has the kind of belly and demeanor that are reminiscent of some country sheriff straight out of Hazzard County. Approaching the car, the police officer stands—almost threateningly—for a moment, then says, lifting his shades, “Son, don’t forget to pick your sister up from ballet.” This is the new South—a riff on the stereotypes of the not-so-new South—and the message is certainly one of change. It’s a comforting thought—if not completely true. Watching it, I thought of Walt Whitman and his South: how even his love for this place is underscored by something we’ll never see in these commercials or on buses rolling through Atlanta.

The South of Whitman’s time was not without its stunning beauty or its stunning cruelty. Writing “O Magnet South” in 1860, Whitman praised the landscape—its rivers, lakes, trees, the native flora and fauna:

O the cotton plant! The growing fields of rice, sugar, hemp!
The cactus guarded with thorns, the laurel tree with large white flowers …

His love for the South, however, was complex, and in the poem he acknowledges, too, the darker side of it—“the piney odor and the gloom, the awful natural stillness.” When he goes further to mention “the fugitive” and his “conceal’d hut,” it is hard not to think of fugitive slaves. Whitman’s take on the South is much like my own; it is a love/hate relationship. Later, he would write: “I would be the last one to confuse moral values—to imagine the South impeccable. I don’t condone the South where it has gone wrong—its Negro slavery, I don’t condone that—far from it—I hate it.” Because of his open-armed enthusiasm, his inclusiveness and celebration of everyone, even the lowliest prostitute or degraded slave, Whitman’s work has come to represent a poetics of democracy, a humane tradition of antiracism. Even now, there is much more to be learned from him, and from his conflicted relationship to his subject matter—especially as Americans near and far are still fighting, ideologically, the Civil War.

II. The Lost War

E. O. Wilson has written, “Homo Sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, particularly in relation to all the panels I have been on at conferences on contemporary southern literature and culture. I began to notice, after several of these panels, that someone in the audience almost always raised a question about the psyches of southern writers—why we write the way that we do. It seemed to me that just as often, someone on the panel would answer that question by saying something like, “We southerners write the way that we do because, after all, we lost the war.” Each time I’ve heard this I’ve had to say, “My South didn’t lose the war.” On each of these occasions, the other panelists—most likely unintentionally—had responded to the question in a manner that seemed to suggest they had forgotten I was there, and that seemed to define the southern psyche and the southern experience as if they were monolithic. In a sense, their responses echo a type of erasure that has affected the documenting of public history and the dedication of public monuments and has continued to affect our public memory. I’m sure my fellow panelists never meant to exclude me when they said “we.” I am a southerner too, but these occurrences are evidence of the public memory of the war and its aftermath that still makes outsiders of black Americans—even as nearly 200,000 fought for freedom in the Civil War—and leaves out many narratives which would give us a fuller, richer understanding of our American experience.

A champion of American experience—the diversity of its people and their labors—Whitman feared that the “real war” would not get written. He believed that war existed in the alternative narrative that might be offered by so many anonymous soldiers—most dead and buried, often in unmarked graves—whose stories would never be told. Whitman’s Specimen Days becomes a kind of monument to the common soldier—the harsh facts of war recorded in his honest language. And yet, there is still little written of black soldiers, though he mentions tending to them as well: “Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them.” This is only a slight acknowledgment from the poet who wrote with great inclusiveness of blacks in such poems as “I Sing the Body Electric” and “Song of Myself.” Perhaps a more telling poem, however—one that suggests the complexity of Whitman’s conflicted relationship to the South and all her citizens—is “Reconciliation.”

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly Softly wash again,
        and ever again, this soil’d world;
… For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near;
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

Here, Whitman suggests the reunion of the nation, men on opposite sides of the war drawn together beneath the banner of reconciliation. However, in the final image of the dead, “white-faced” in the coffin, Whitman leaves out the reality of so many dead soldiers whose faces were not white. And further, according to historian David Blight, the poem highlights—in the “kinship” of the dead white brothers—“the ultimate betrayal of the dark-faced folk whom the dead had shared in liberating.” This kind of erasure would continue to dominate Civil War memory as monuments to only part of the story inscribed a narrative on the American landscape—particularly in the South. The lost war, then, is the narrative of black Americans whose stories were often subjugated, lost, or left out of public memory and the creation of public monuments.

III. Memory and Forgetting

Just off the coast of my hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, is a series of barrier islands—Cat, Horn, Deer, and Ship—that separate the dirty waters of the coastal area, with its dead fish and debris, from the clearer waters out in the Gulf. Ship Island is a Civil War site, and during the warmer months, anyone can buy passage on one of the small cruisers making daily trips out there and take a brief tour offered by the National Park Service.

The island’s history is an interesting one. The first regiments of the Louisiana Native Guards were mustered into service in September, October, and November of 1862—the 1st regiment thus becoming the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army, and the 2nd and 3rd made up of men who had been slaves only months before enlisting. During the war, the fort at Ship Island, Mississippi, called Fort Massachusetts, was maintained as a prison for Confederate soldiers—military convicts and prisoners of war—manned by the 2nd regiment. In his wartime reminiscences, Whitman pointed out that “few white regiments [made] a better appearance on parade than the 1st and 2nd Louisiana Native Guards.” And yet, visitors to the fort today will learn almost none of this history. Instead, they will see first the plaque placed at the entrance by the Daughters of the Confederacy listing the names of the Confederate men once there. Nowhere is a similar plaque memorializing the names of the Native Guards, and if tourists don’t know to ask about the history of these black soldiers, most likely the park ranger will overlook this aspect of the fort’s history in his tour, mentioning only that this was a fort taken over by Union forces and that Confederate prisoners were kept there. Even the brochures leave out any mention that the troops stationed on the island were black. This omission serves to further the narrative that blacks were passive recipients of the freedom bestowed upon them by white “brothers” who fought and died in the Civil War.

Monuments all around the South serve to inscribe a particular narrative onto the landscape while at the same time subjugating or erasing another. Fortunately, there are several organizations and historians trying to restore the history of the role of black soldiers to the public memory through monuments. Last February, in the Vicksburg National Military Park, the first monument of its kind in a national park was erected, though not without certain omissions. According to the Jackson Advocate, during the earlier ground-breaking ceremony, “Park Superintendent Bill Nichols and Park historian Terry Winschel begrudgingly labeled the black regiments as ‘supply guards’ in the text on display rather than giving the men their full measure of respect as the fully-recognized infantry, artillery and cavalry units that they were.”

That a more inclusive history of black soldiers is not given on Ship Island or in the Vicksburg Military Park, and that certain facts are often left out of local historical narratives and (perhaps until most recently) were likely to be given only a small part in larger histories, is emblematic of ideological contests about how to remember the Civil War, how we construct public memory with its omissions and embellishments. As David Blight asserts in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, “Deflections and evasions, careful remembering and necessary forgetting, and embittered and irreconcilable versions of experience are all the stuff of historical memory.” Though Whitman had acknowledged black soldiers in his letters and reminiscences, ultimately he often left blacks out of his larger concerns: “When the South is spoken of,” he wrote, contrasting the roles of the ruling class and the masses, “no one means the people, the mass of freemen.” Here Whitman is referring to the free white masses, even as his language reminds us of the invisible “freedmen” all around the South. In fact, according to Daniel Aaron in The Unwritten War:

the Negro did not figure significantly in his calculations for America’s future, the Grand Plan of History; and it is just as mistaken to confuse Whitman’s prose opinion of the Negro and the poetic use he made of him in Leaves of Grass as it is to identify his antislavery position with abolitionism.

At the ground-breaking ceremony for the new monument, historian Jim Woodrich’s words seemed to echo Whitman’s more-than-a-century-old prediction that the real war would not get into the books: “By being here today,” Woodrich began, “we acknowledge the valor and honor” of the black Union troops. Their story, he said, “yearns to be known.”

IV. “The Real War Will Not Get into the Books”

William Faulkner has said, “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” All around us debates about the memory of the Civil War and its aftermath continue to shape contemporary concerns. In many states, the battle over the meaning of the Confederate flag is ongoing, with revisionist versions abounding. Here in Georgia, the battle connects us not only to the Civil War but also to public opposition to desegregation. In Mississippi, my home state, the flag still flies on the beach between Gulfport and Biloxi as a monument to only part of our shared history, whereas an equally significant history is overlooked—that of other southerners, black former slaves who were stationed at Ship Island and who fought for their own freedom and citizenship in contests not far away, thus helping the nation come a bit closer to realizing the full democratic potential outlined in the Constitution. These issues are, ultimately, fights about remembrance—how we see ourselves as Americans within the context of history.

When the Daughters of the Confederacy mounted the plaque at Ship Island, they were working to inscribe their exclusive version of history into the public memory, leaving out the other population on the island. C. Vann Woodward, in his preface to Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights, asserts that during the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two of the 20th it was “white ladies … who bore primary responsibility for the myths glorifying the old order, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy.” Woodward is referring, specifically, to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of Pilgrims, and Daughters of Colonial Governors; they were considered “guardians of the past.” “Non-daughters,” he writes, “were excluded.” The efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy extended beyond the erecting of monuments and the naming of roads; indeed, they commissioned the history textbooks written for southern schools and oversaw the material contained within them in order to control the narrative of the South’s role in the war—that is, to tell a story that was rife with omissions and embellishments, that sought to cast the causes of the war only in terms of states’ rights and not at all in terms of the matter of slavery.

It would seem that Whitman, in his conflicted attitudes toward the roles of both North and South, toward slavery and black suffrage (he hated slavery but did not believe blacks capable of exercising the vote), could foresee such one-sided narratives and the need for a fuller understanding of the roots of the conflict—a history more inclusive than what would be told and written for several generations: “But what of the main premonitions of the war?” he asked. Decades later, W. E. B. DuBois would begin to answer him—furthering Whitman’s own ideas about the war’s origins—and in so doing, point out the embellishments and omissions in the history put forth by a generation of scholars. In his essay “The Propaganda of History,” DuBois would take to task American historians, asserting that among the profession “we have too often made a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans.”

Whitman knew all too well that the real war he feared would not get written was not a pleasant one. Referring primarily to the “seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes,” he nonetheless foreshadows another backdrop—the narratives of blacks relegated to the margins of public memory. “Long, long hence,” he anticipated, “when the grave has quenched many hot prejudices and vitalities, and an entirely new class of thinkers and writers come to the argument, the complete question, can perhaps be fairly weighed.”

V. What Would Whitman Do?

On billboards around the South and on church marquees proclaiming the theme of upcoming sermons, a frequent question stands out: What Would Jesus Do? I ask, instead, what would our earthly father—father of modern American poetry, father of the poetry of a democratic vision—what would our Whitman do? OK, so this question is overly speculative. I can hear the voices out there saying that people are products of their historical moment. The defenders of Thomas Jefferson as well as his detractors are getting their guard up. I’m not interested in arguing the omissions of the past, only the restoration of those omissions in the present. Perhaps not restoration: acknowledgment is a better word. When Robert Penn Warren returned to his South to write Segregation, he was a man in the midst of change—he was rethinking his position as a contributor to the anthology I’ll Take My Stand. The nation was changing, and he was changing along with it.

When Whitman took on the task of setting down on paper some of his thoughts about the Civil War, its causes and its aftermath, he probably did not have the image of the black soldier in the foreground of his thinking. Though his wartime reminiscences would consider regiments of black troops, his poem “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” focuses on a “dusky woman, so ancient hardly human,” and not black soldiers who were participants in the war rather than bystanders. However, the omissions, inherent even in his later writings about the war, underscore the questions of historical memory with which future generations would contend:

Probably no future age can know, but I well know, how the gist of this fiercest and most resolute of the world’s warlike contentions resided exclusively in the unnamed, unknown rank and file; and how the brunt of its labor of death was, to all essential purposes, volunteered.

Here, Whitman directs us to the unnamed, unknown rank-and-file whitesoldier and, inadvertently, to black soldiers as well—the legions of runaway slaves and freedmen who flocked to Union camps, first as contraband and then later as men (and women) eager to enlist—whose story has been left out of public memory of the Civil War and has only begun to be inscribed onto the man-made, monumental American landscape.

VI. Coda

A lot of things have changed since Whitman declared his love for the South and her contradictions. Some have not. Contradictions abound in this landscape of beauty and ugliness, this cauldron of nostalgic remembrances and willed forgetting. In Mississippi and Alabama, lawyers and concerned citizens are continuing to work to bring to trial the perpetrators of heinous crimes—Byron de la Beckwith; the bombers who blew up a church in Birmingham, killing four little girls; the men responsible for the murders of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman. An exhibit about the history of lynching is touring the country, even as opponents of this necessary remembering here in Atlanta opine in letters to the editor that some things are best left buried, forgotten. I live with the ghosts of the past every day; when Halloween comes around, I see in the decorative skeletons hanging from my neighbors’ trees the specter of lynching. And even worse, I encounter the specter of what put real bodies in trees still lingering in the kind of willed forgetting and intolerance we haven’t yet overcome. From where I stand, it’s easy to feel the kind of contradictions evident in Whitman’s work, those things he revealed both intentionally and inadvertently.

Like him, I love my South. And I hate it too.


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