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About "The Last of the Sacred Army"

"The Last of the Sacred Army" was first published in the March 1842 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, often referred to simply as The Democratic Review. It was the fifth of nine Whitman short stories that were published for the first time in the journal—the eight others being "Death in the School-Room. A Fact" (August 1841), "Wild Frank's Return" (November 1841), "Bervance: or, Father and Son" (December 1841), "The Tomb-Blossoms" (January 1842), "The Child-Ghost; A Story of the Last Loyalist" (May 1842), "A Legend of Life and Love" (July 1842), "The Angel of Tears" (September 1842), and "Revenge and Requital; A Tale of a Murderer Escaped" (July/August 1845).

The Democratic Review, jointly founded by John L. O'Sullivan and Samuel D. Langtree, promoted liberal democratic politics and became a prestigious literary magazine of the time. In addition to publishing articles on national policy and playing an important role as an organ of the Democratic Party, The Democratic Review formed longstanding publishing relationships with well known nineteenth-century fiction writers and poets, thereby building its reputation for literary excellence.1 The editors published works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and Henry David Thoreau, among others. Whitman was in his early twenties when his stories began appearing in The Democratic Review. The journal also published "A Dialogue [Against Capital Punishment]" (November 1845) and, later, a review of Leaves of Grass titled "Walt Whitman And His Poems" that he wrote himself (September 1855).2 Whitman was only twenty-two years old when he published "Death in the School Room. A Fact." in the journal. The Democratic Review's prestige may help explain why two stories published in the journal—"Death in the School-Room. A Fact." and "A Legend of Life and Love"—became Whitman's most often reprinted tales. In fact, "The Last of the Sacred Army" is among the five most often reprinted pieces of short fiction by Whitman, and four of those five stories were first published in The Democratic Review. It is also the only one of Whitman's stories to be printed twice in The Democratic Review. According to Thomas L. Brasher, the journal published the story a second time without change in November 1851.3

"The Last of the Sacred Army" is a dream narrative in which the story's narrator witnesses a crowd holding a ceremony intended to honor the last surviving Revolutionary War soldier who served under George Washington. The soldier has a medal that was presented to him by Washington himself, and the crowd is in awe of it, in part because the letters "G. W." are written on it. Seven months after the publication of the story in the Democratic Review, Whitman altered parts of this dream sequence and included them in chapter 20 of his temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate. A Tale of the Times.4 In the novel, Franklin Evans dreams that he is watching "the last vassal of the Snake-Tempter" or the last inebriate (rather than the last soldier who served under General Washington).

On May 27, 1869, portions of "The Last of the Sacred Army" were reprinted as part of a newspaper article titled simply "Decoration Day" that appeared in The Auburn Democrat (Auburn, NY).5 The Democrat did not attribute the article to Whitman, acknowledge that the words were taken from a piece of fiction, or cite the earlier printing in The Democratic Review. The editor, instead, labeled the article as having been written "For the Democrat," presumably for Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day.6

In 1885, when Whitman was living on Mickle Street in Camden, his story was reprinted, this time as a piece of fiction and attributed to Whitman, in the Camden Democrat (Camden, NJ), where it was published on the front page. The second page carried a brief article announcing, "On our first page will be found a patriotic tribute to the soldiers of the Sacred Army of the Revolution, written by a now venerable and highly respected citizen of this city, and published some forty years since. He will no doubt be surprised to find this production of his youthful days resurrected for the edification of the present generation, but we feel assured that it will be read now with the same interest that was felt at the time of its original publication."7

After Whitman's death on March 26, 1892, the publication history and circulation of "The Last of the Sacred Army" is very similar to that of his story "The Tomb-Blossoms."8 On May 28, 1892, during the Memorial Day weekend, an advertisement for the upcoming features of the Sunday edition of the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) promised that the Sunday issue would contain several "SPECIAL FEATURES," including "THE LAST OF THE SACRED ARMY. A sketch written in 1842 by the late Walt Whitman, now first published. Illustrated."9 The story was reprinted in the May 29, 1892, issue of the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) and the Salt Lake City Tribune (Daily) (Salt Lake City, UT) and in the Salt Lake Weekly Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT) on June 2, 1892. In these reprints, some of which are published in the same newspapers as the illustrated version of "The Tomb-Blossoms," the story is also accompanied by two illustrations, a larger image of the last revolutionary soldier surrounded by a crowd of onlookers and a much smaller image near the title that appears to be a medal with the head of George Washington engraved on the front.10

At the same time as the illustrated versions were published, the story was reprinted without illustrations under the title of "Dream of Patriotism" in The Sundary Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI) on May 29, 1892, and as "A Dream of Patriotism" in The Weekly Sentinel and Wisconsin Farm Journal (Milwaukee, WI) on June 2, 1892.11 In early June, the story was also reprinted at least three times in Indiana newspapers as "An Artistic Sketch. A Hitherto Unpublished Story by Walter Whitman. He called it 'The Last of the Sacred Army,' and He Named It Well—The Noble Warriors of Our Freedom" with only the illustration of the last revolutionary soldier in this version.12 The illustrated versions of the story, as well as the repeated insistence that the later reprints were offering readers a short story by Whitman that had not been previously published, merit further exploration.

Whitman did not choose to include the story in the "Pieces in Early Youth" section of Specimen Days and Collect (1882), in which he reprinted a selection of his short stories.

"The Last of the Sacred Army"

Walter Whitman The Last of the Sacred Army The United States Magazine and Democratic Review March 1842 10 259–264 per.00322


1. Susan Belasco Smith, "Democratic Review," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998), 175–176. [back]

2. Smith, "Democratic Review," 176. [back]

3. See "The Last of the Sacred Army," The United States Magazine and Democratic Review 29 (November 1851): 463–466. See also Thomas L. Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 95–100. Hereafter, EPF. [back]

4. Patrick McGuire, "Last of the Sacred Army, The (1842)," in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, 351. [back]

5. For full citations and further information about this and other reprints of "The Last of the Sacred Army," see Whitman's Fiction: A Bibliography. See also Stephanie M. Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 30 (2013): 209–214. [back]

6. "Decoration Day," The Auburn Democrat, May 27, 1869, [2]. [back]

7. Walter Whitman, "The Last of the Sacred Army," Camden Democrat, January 24, 1885, [1]; See also the untitled announcement on the second page of this issue. [back]

8. For the publication history of "The Tomb-Blossoms," see "About 'The Tomb-Blossoms.'" [back]

9. "The Last of the Sacred Army," Rocky Mountain News, May 28, 1892, 4. [back]

10. For a more detailed description of the various illustrated reprints, see Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," 209–214. [back]

11. See Walter Whitman, "Dream of Patriotism," The Sunday Sentinel (The Milwaukee Sentinel), May 29, 1892, 22; Walt Whitman, "A Dream of Patriotism," The Weekly Sentinel and Wisconsin Farm Journal, June 2, 1892, 2. [back]

12. For a more detailed description of this subset of illustrated reprints, see Blalock, "Bibliography of Walt Whitman's Short Fiction in Periodicals," 213. [back]

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