Title: 'Tis But Ten Years Since [First Paper.]
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: January 24, 1874
Publication information: New York Weekly Graphic 24 January 1874: 3.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00214
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
'TIS BUT TEN YEARS SINCE.
BY WALT WHITMAN.
FROM MEMORANDA MADE AT THE TIME IN NEW YORK CITY, OR WASHINGTON, OR IN ARMY HOSPITALS, OR CAMP OR FIELD IN VIRGINIA.
Already, the events of 1863 and '4, and the reasons that immediately preceded, as well as those that closely followed them, have quite lost their direct personal impression, and the living heat and excitement of their own time, and are being marshalled for casting, or getting ready to be cast, into the cold and bloodless electrotype plates of History.
Or if we admit that the savage temper and wide differences of opinion, and feelings of wrongs, and mutual recriminations, that led to the Secession War and flamed in its mortal conflagration, may not have yet entirely burnt themselves out, still, all will acknowledge that the embers of them are already dying embers, and a few more winters and summers, a few more rains and snows, will surely quench their fires, and leave them only as a far off memory.
Different indeed our America of the present, and its position and prospects, from those murky clouds and storms, and weeks of suspense, and mortal doubt and dismay, of But 10 Years Since, reddened with gouts of blood, and pallid with wholesale death.
The present! Our great Centennial of 1876 nigher and nigher at hand—the abandonment, by tacit consent, of dead issues—the general readjustment and rehabilitation, at least by intention and beginning, South and North, to the exigencies of the Present and Future—the momentous nebulæ left by the convulsions of the previous thirty years definitely considered and settled by the re-election of Gen. Grant1—the Twenty-second Presidentiad well-sped on its course—the inevitable unfolding and development of this tremendous complexity we call the United States—our Union with restored, doubled, trebled solidity seems to vault unmistakably to dominant position among the governments of the world in extent, population products, and in the permanent sources of naval and military power.
A STEP TEN YEARS BACKWARD, AND ITS MEMENTOES.
During the war, commencing at the close of '62, and all through '63, '4, and '5, I was much around and with the wounded, both in the Army Hospitals in Virginia and on the field. From the first I found it necessary to systematize my doings, and, among other things, always kept little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances and what was specially wanted, &c. In these I noted down cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside in hospital, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Several of the sketches I propose to give in the papers following are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratched down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid these scenes. I have perhaps forty such little books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly written or told. I wish indeed I could convey to the reader a glimpse, or even a few, of the teeming associations that attach to these soiled and creased little livraisons, each composed of two or three sheets of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with a pin. I leave them yet undisturbed just as I threw them by 10 Years Since, full as they are of scrawls and memoranda, half-illegible to any eyes but mine, blotched here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action or getting ready for it, or a march. Even these days I can never take them up, or turn their tiny leaves, without the actual camp and hospital and army sights from '62 to '5 rushing like a river in full tide through me. Each page, nay each line, has its history. Some pang of anguish—some heroic life, or more heroic death, is in every one; some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote. To me, the war, abdicating all its grand historical aspects, and entirely untouched by the Slavery question, revolves around these miniature pages, and what is designated by them. They are the closest; they are not words, but magic spells. Out of them arise yet active and breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room as a write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried by wholesale in the battle-pits, or whose dust and bones have been since removed to the National Cemeteries, all through Virginia and Tennessee.
Not Northern soldiers only—many indeed the Carolinian, Georgian, Alabamian, Louisianian, Virginian—many a Southern face and form, pale, emaciated, with that strange tie of subtlest confidence and love between us, welded by sickness, pain of wounds, and little daily, nightly offices of nursing and friendly words and visits, comes up amid the rest, and does not mar, but rounds and gives a finish to the meditation.
A THOUGHT OR SO, UPON THE THRESHOLD.
But before entering on my personal memoranda of the war, I have one or two thoughts to ventilate before they are entirely out of date. Strange, that those months and years, and all that marked them, with the vividest of their experiences and impressions, should so soon pass away—as they seem already to have passed—like a dream!
Everything indeed moves in our lands and age, with such a velocity, on such a large scale, and such resistless force (altogether regardless of, and unmeasured by, the old standards, other lands, former times,) that I have to stop a moment as I now write out—January, 1874—these opening lines to some of my memoranda, and ask myself whether it is indeed so lately since we were in the midst of that thunder-roll of fratricidal fights—that deluge of ruin and death, threatening to submerge the whole Union.
SOLID LAND APPEARING—THE PEAKS OF THE FUTURE.
But is it not already dawning upon us that out of that War not only has the Nationality of the United States escaped from being strangled, but more than any of the rest, and, in my opinion, more than the North itself, the vital heart and breath of the South have escaped as from the pressure of a general nightmare, and are now to enter on a life, development, and active freedom whose realities are certain in the future, notwithstanding all the Southern vexations and humiliations of the hour; and could not possibly have been achieved on any less terms or by any other means than that war or something equivalent to it. And I predict that the South is yet to outstrip the North.
POINTS OF RELIEF ALREADY.
Already points of good unerringly begin, and will in due time overbalance the losses. Among the rest, two cases of relief are even now particularly welcome. In the Southern States, riddance of that special class forever blowing about "the South." The North and West have had, and still have, their full share of bladder humanity, but in the old Slave States there seemed to exist no end of blusterers, braggarts, windy, melodramatic, continually screaming in falsetto, a nuisance to the States, their own just as much as any; altogether the most impudent persons that have yet appeared in the history of lands, and, up to 1860, with the most incredible successes, having pistol'd, bludgeoned, yelled and threatened America into one long train of cowardly concessions.
The North, too, has now eliminated, or is fast eliminating from itself, a fierce, unreasoning squad of men and women, quite insane, concentrating their thoughts upon a single fact and idea—(in this land, of all the world the land of all facts, all ideas)—full as welcome a release here as the riddance there. By that war, exit Fire-Eaters—exit Abolitionists.
OUR SURGING POLITICS FROM 1840 TO '60.
For twenty years preceding the war, and especially during the four or five immediately before its opening, the aspect of affairs in the United States, though without the keenness and flash of military excitement, presents to any man of thoughtfulness, or artistic perceptions, more than the survey of a battle, or any extended campaign, or series even of Nature's convulsions. In politics, what can be more ominous, (though generally unappreciated then,)—what more significant than the fetid condition of everything from 1840 to '60, especially under Fillmore's and Buchanan's administrations. Those two Presidentiads—and perhaps one other—prove conclusively that the weakness and wickedness of elected rulers, backed by our great parties, are just as likely to afflict us, here, (but to be met and remedied,) as the same evils in the countries of the old world, under their monarchies, emperors, and aristocracies. The Slave power had complete possession of the helm, and was evidently determined on its own tack. All the moral convictions of the best portion of the Nation were outraged. A powerful faction, ruling the North, was art and part2 with the Slaveocracy, and stood then and stands to-day, just as responsible for the Rebellion.
(What would have been the condition of things in the United States—and what would it be now—if the secession quarrel had been compromised? which was the other name, of course, for yielding substantially to all the demands of the planters and their satellites).
It is difficult enough now to resume the anxieties and fears which at that period, amid all our material prosperity, spread like a lowering horizon over the whole land. In Europe, too, were everywhere heard underground rumblings, that died out, only to again surely return. While in the New World, the volcano, though civic yet, continued to grow more and more convulsive—more and more lurid, stormy and seething.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN—MY FIRST SIGHT AND IMPRESSION OF HIM.
In the midst of all this excitement and chaos, hovering on the edge at first, and then merged in its very midst, and destined to play a leading part, appears a strange and awkward figure.
I shall not easily forget the first time I saw Abraham Lincoln. It must have been about the 18th or 19th of February, 1861.3 It was rather a pleasant spring afternoon, in New York city, as Lincoln arrived there from the West to stop a few hours and then pass on to Washington, to prepare for his inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present Post-office. He had come down, I think, from Canal street, to stop at the Astor House. The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in the neighborhood, and for some distance, were crowded with solid masses of people, many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had been all turned off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city. Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with some difficulty through the crowd and drew up at the Astor House entrance. A tall figure stepped out of the centre of these barouches, paused leisurely on the sidewalk, looked up at the dark granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel—then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turned round for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds—and so, with very moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico steps.
The figure, the look, the gait, are distinctly impressed upon me yet; the unusual and uncouth height, the dress of complete black, the stovepipe hat pushed back on the head, the dark brown complexion, the seamed and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, the black, bushy head of hair, the disproportionately long neck, and the hands held behind as he stood observing the people.
It was, indeed, a strange scene. All was comparative and ominous silence. The new comer looked with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces returned the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of something almost comical. Yet there was much anxiety in certain quarters. Cautious persons had feared that there would be some outbreak, some marked indignity or insult to the President elect on his passage through the city, for he possessed no personal popularity in New York and not much political. No such outbreak or insult, however, occurred. Only the silence of the crowd was very significant to those who were accustomed to the usual demonstrations of mass New York in wild, tumultuous hurrahs. The present was a great contrast to the deafening tumults of welcome and the thunder shouts of packed myriads along the whole line of Broadway receiving Hungarian Kossuth4 and Filibuster Walker.5
(I saw Lincoln often the three or four years following this date. He changed rapidly and much during his Presidency—but this scene and his portrait, as he looked, and moved, and stood in it, as above given, are indelibly stamped upon my recollection.)
But of Abraham Lincoln, (the thought, as I had a good sight of him there in Broadway, from the top of an omnibus, driven up one side and blocked in, was dim and inchoate, but received its negative even then, and has now come out clear and definite enough,) four sorts of genius—four mighty and primal hands will be needed to the complete limning of his future portrait—the eyes and brains and finger touch of Plutarch6 and Eschylus7 and Michel Angelo,8 assisted by Rabelais.9
NIGHT OF APRIL 13, 1861, IN NEW YORK—NEWS OF THE FIRST GUN FIRED AGAINST THE FLAG, (AND THE END, AFTERWARDS, OF HIM WHO FIRED IT.)
The news of the first actual firing on the National Flag—the attack on Fort Sumter—was received in New York late at night, (13th April, 1861,) and was immediately sent out in extras of the newspapers.10 I had been to the opera that night, and after the performance was walking down Broadway, after eleven o'clock, on my way to Brooklyn, when I heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual. I felt that subtle magnetic something which runs through one, on pronounced occasions—bought an extra (10 cents), and crossed to the Metropolitan Hotel (Niblo's), where the great lamps were still brightly blazing, and, with a small crowd of others, who gathered impromptu, read the news, which was evidently authentic. For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listened silently and very attentive. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increased to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispersed. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.
The ball had been opened, then! Not only the first gun had been fired—and as if to show that it was no mere freak of passion, deliberately by an aged, highly educated, and wealthy Southerner—but continued rounds from well-organized batteries.
(Said first gun was fired by Edmund Ruffin, a prominent Virginian, seventy years of age. To anticipate a little I will give the gloomy conclusion of this enthusiastic personal episode, as it took place in less than five years. Soon after the surrender of General Lee and the collapse of the rebellion Mr. Ruffin committed suicide, June '65, at his residence in Amelia county, Virginia, near Mattaox. He was seventy-four-years old. The Richmond Whig, a couple of days after, gave the following account: "It is now said that Mr. Ruffin's mind had been very perceptibly affected since the evacuation of Richmond and the surrender of the Confederate armies. For a week previous to terminating his life, Mr. Ruffin kept his chamber, busily employed in writing what subsequently turned out to be a history of his political life. He also wrote letters, and in one of them he left directions as to the disposal of his body. He bathed himself, put on clean under and outer clothing, and directed that his body should be buried in the habiliments he had put on, without shroud or coffin. He then seated himself in a chair, put a loaded musket to his mouth, and, leaning back, struck the trigger with his hickory stick. The first cap did not explode, and he replaced it by another, which discharged the musket, the charge of ball and buck blowing off the crown of the venerable old gentleman's head, and scattering his brains and snowy hair against the ceiling of the room. When the family, alarmed by the report, reached Mr. Ruffin's room he was found lying back in his chair, the gun leaning against him, and life gone. A paragraph in the letter left for the perusal of family and friends explained the tragic deed. It reads: 'I cannot survive the loss of the liberties of my country.'")
THE EVE OF A LONG WAR.
I have now given out of my memoranda what may be called the overtures of the war—the first appearance of Lincoln on the scene, the firing of the first rounds by the Disunionists at Charleston, and the reception of the news in the Free States. In my next paper, after itemizing the prompt uprisal at the North, I shall bring back First Bull Run, and describe what ensued immediately and for several days in Washington City, after the shock and humiliation of that unlooked-for defeat.
(To be Continued.11)
1. Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868 and reelected in 1872. [back]
2. A term in Scottish law indicating the indirect participation in a crime by being an accomplice. [back]
3. On February 18–19, 1861, President-elect Lincoln made a series of brief speeches around New York, including one at the Astor House. For the text of these speeches, see The Writings of Abraham Lincoln: 1858–1862, ed. Arthur Brooks Lapsley (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1906), 223–235. [back]
4. Louis Kossuth, Regent-President of Hungary, was exiled in 1849 after a failed attempt at achieving independence from Austria. Hailed as a freedom-fighter, he received much attention for his tours of Britain and the United States in 1851. [back]
5. William "Filibuster" Walker was a doctor, lawyer, and newspaper editor whose nickname stemmed from his attempts to create colonies in Mexico and Central America, a process then known as "filibustering." Most notoriously, Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua after a revolution in 1855. He was overthrown in 1857 and executed in Honduras in 1860. [back]
6. Plutarch (46–120 AD) was a Greek essayist and historian. His most famous works, Plutarch's Lives and Moralia, influenced writers from Shakespeare to Thoreau. [back]
7. Eschylus (525-455 BC, alternately Aeschylus) is one of three ancient Greek playwrights whose tragedies survive, the other two being Euripedes and Sophocles. The authorship of one of his most famous works, Prometheus Bound, is disputed. [back]
8. Michaelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) was an Italian painter and sculptor of the Renaissance period. He is famous for such works as the Statue of David and his painting of the ceiling of Rome's Sistene Chapel. [back]
9. Francois Rabelais (1494–1553) was a French writer and humanist of the Renaissance period. [back]
10. The battle at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor (South Carolina, April 12–14, 1861) marked the beginning of the Civil War. Confederate Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter. When Major Robert Anderson, Union commander of the fort, refused, the Confederates opened fire; the battle ended in Confederate victory. [back]