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The “Hell of War” – Walt Whitman and American Antiwar Literature

20 July 2010 No Comment

Cynthia Wachtell

Cynthia Wachtell

“As America continues its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I often find myself thinking of what Whitman wrote, and then re-wrote, in his Civil War journal.

It was mid-way through a steamy summer in Washington DC, and I was happy to be in a cool room at the Library of Congress doing research for War No More, my book on American antiwar writing.

“ ‘O the hideous horrid hell of war,’ ” so wrote Walt Whitman.  Or at least, so he wrote initially. ”

The pages of Whitman’s journal from late 1862 lay open in front of me, and I loved the fact that I was looking at Whitman’s own handwriting.  I felt I was witnessing, in some sense, Whitman’s initial reaction to war, to the reality of war.

I knew that Whitman had rushed to Virginia from his home in Brooklyn, New York as soon as word arrived that his brother George had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg.   Luckily, Whitman found his brother still alive, recovering smoothly from a gash in the cheek.  But the intense suffering Whitman witnessed in the field hospitals and the lurid sights that he encountered profoundly shocked him.  He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening” under a tree in front of an improvised hospital.  He saw discolored and bloated corpses of soldiers left, as yet, unburied.

So, there the words were on the page of Whitman’s private journal – “O the hideous horrid hell of war” – appearing near the end of the draft of a poem he had titled “A Battle.”  Those were the words that Whitman first wrote, but I saw he had made a change.  He had drawn a line through “horrid,” a thick line that looked more determined and darker than anything else on the page.  And above it Whitman had written a new word.  That word was “damned.”

“War is hell,” General Sherman is famous for proclaiming to Civil War veterans.  But Walt Whitman acknowledged it first.  At least he acknowledged it in the privacy of his Civil War diary.

Originally, I set out to study all of American antiwar literature.  I looked at works ranging from early Quakers writings from the seventeenth century to poetry and memoirs of the Gulf Wars.  But the more I read, the more I became fascinated with the period stretching from the start of the Civil War to the start of World War I.

Walt Whitman is only one of many of America’s most famous authors from the period who expressed their abhorrence of war.  For example, Mark Twain wrote, “It seemed … that all war must be … the killing of strangers against whom you feel no personal animosity.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “Set men face to face, with weapons in their hands, and they are as ready to slaughter one another now … as in the rudest ages.”  And Herman Melville darkly commented, “The whole matter of war … smites common sense and Christianity in the face.”  As I show in the pages of War No More, these literary giants – among many other writers – wrestled with the issue of war and morality during a period in which combat itself was becoming ever more mechanized, modernized, and deadly.

I know war advocates like to say that folks who write against war and who question war lack patriotism.  But who is more American than Whitman or Melville or Hawthorne or Twain?  Yet these writers all were profoundly disturbed by war.

As America continues its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I often find myself thinking of what Whitman wrote, and then re-wrote, in his Civil War journal.  It seems like a secret warning to us all, “O the hideous damned hell of war.”


Cynthia Wachtell is the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914 and an assistant professor of English at Yeshiva University.

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