Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During The War: Written On The Spot 1863-65, edited by Peter Coviello
This book made me feel very uncomfortable as a reader. That does not make it a bad book but there are plenty of reasons why someone would consider this book to be cringeworthy one. It is also not surprising that this book was initially released only to a small insider audience, considering that the book contains material that would have earned him some serious and well-earned scrutiny had it been wider known. I can’t help but thinking that the author’s writing would have gone off badly considering the way that he refers to wounded soldiers as being loving and affectionate. There is homoeroticism aplenty to be found in this book and if you don’t appreciate reading about a closeted gay man in the 1860’s writing devoted notes about ten years after the fact about those wounded soldiers he found attractive, you will probably not enjoy this book too much. There is definitely some value here in looking at this as a Civil War memoir of sorts from a historically significant person, but there are reasons why this book is not nearly as familiar as some of the other writings of the period.
This book is a short one at a bit more than 150 pages and it has an interesting history, to be sure. The book begins with acknowledgements and an introduction about Whitman’s war experience by the editor that made this reader feel increasingly uncomfortable about the purpose of this edition of the book. Whitman’s war experience was, to put it the most charitably, an embarrassment and highly immoral. After that the memoranda begin in chronological order as the author talks about the relationship between civil and military authorities and the larger number of wounded. Although Whitman’s brother quickly recovers (he is later captured and imprisoned and this leads the author to be upset about the arithmetic of attrition), Whitman finds plenty of men to care for over the course of 1863-1865, the book ending somewhat abruptly when the last hospitals close in the capital with the wounded sent home to recover. After this main part of the book is done there are notes, some notes by the editor, and then some additional material including writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln (i), some selected poems (ii), and a letter to the parents of Erastus Haskell. The book has some illustrations as well.
Indeed, the whole writing of this work seems odd. Although this book purports to be a memorandum written from 1863 to 1865, the account itself was not actually written until more than ten years later as the United States faced the divisive and controversial election of 1876 where massive election fraud made discovering the actual winner at this point a difficult task. But why was it written? What would the author have to gain from incriminating himself writing about his affection in wounded soldiers from both the north and south? Was he trying to use his account of caring for injured soldiers as a way of helping with the national reconciliation effort as it became obvious that Reconstruction was a done deal and that there would end up being a sort of alliance between Northern and Southern whites to forget that the Civil War happened and not make any progress on improving the status of free blacks? The author clearly has a lot to say about white soldiers of both the North and South but he appears not to have been the sort of person who was highly motivated by a desire to do justly by America’s blacks. This just adds to the people who would likely be offended by this book, though.