Like most of the unprepared, naïve Americans who believed the Civil War would consist of a few short battles and little casualties, who then after the war reached it's second year truly saw the Civil War for what it really was- the bloodiest in America's history; Walt Whitman's "Drum Taps" represents this ideal from start to finish. From the war's first battle in 1861 when Whitman saw the endeavor as a chance for the North to put to rest all of the turmoil the South created, to the see-saw battles and first hand knowledge of the detriments war could create, the poet's attitude evolved. Though many poems in "Drum Taps" is indicative of this development, "The Wound Dresser" is the best example of the author looking back upon his own initial opinions of the war, while stationed at a field hospital carrying his latest and final thoughts regarding what he held as an unnecessary encounter.
However, to understand the contrasts between his first, then ultimately conclusive belief, one must delve into his earlier works. In the first poem of "Drum Taps", "First O Songs For A Prelude" the poem indicates to the reader that Whitman is staunchly enthusiastic towards the first battle:
The tumultuous escort, the ranks of policemen preceding,
clearing the way, The unpent enthusiasm, the wild cheers
of the crowd for their favorites...War! Be it weeks, months,
or years, an arm'd race is advancing to welcome it.
As we can see, like most Americans, Whitman was proud of the engagements to come because at the time, war was only viewed by those who had never seen the ugly side of it.
Like a diary of prose, "Drum Taps" follows the war and the attitudes that accompany such an event. A further example of the author's excitement for war and take no prisoners attitude can be read in "Beat! Beat! Drums!"
Beat! Beat! Drums!- blow! Bugles! Blow!
Make no parley- stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid- mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child's voice be heard, nor the mother's entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting
Again we can see Whitman's encouragement to begin something that he will later wish never happened.
Eventually, Whitman finds himself working in a field hospital during the second half of the Civil War and through his writings, takes a self-reflexive view concerning his former wartime mentality. Though most of his Civil War poems following 1862 demonstrate the authors matured viewpoint, no better work describes this evolution or contributes to the overall theme of "Drum Taps" better than "The Wound Dresser."
This poem describes Whitman working for the Union Army and questioning his earlier, incognizant attitude. The unique asset of this poem is it's ideal involvement of self reflection:
Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge
But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the
This passage in the poem demonstrates the authors discontent for his earlier feelings, and ultimate realization of the role he has taken to aid in the war effort.
Another guise of "Drum Taps" this work embodies is Whitman's unyielding compassion for the soldiers involved in the war effort:
...With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes-poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.
This display of pity is common throughout "Drum Taps."
Like most wars, and in particular the Civil War was a war of attrition. The side that had the most to spare usually won for reasons of sheer numbers. Because of this style of fighting, shotgun hospitals were constructed near the fields of battle in order to receive the uncountable casualties. Because Whitman held the position of wound dresser, he encountered first hand the atrocities that took place during battle:
On, on I go...The crushed head I dress...
The neck of the cavalry- man with the bullet through and through
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
struggles hard...From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter
and blood...I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
As one can tell, war is not pretty. After reading "Drum Taps" it was plain to see why his attitude so dramatically changed. Like so many people who view life from the sidelines, it is easy to form a glamorized opinion when there is no first hand knowledge of the situation.
Walt Whitman's "Drum Taps" and more specifically "The Wound Dresser" offered an unintentional case study into how one's wartime paradigm can change when faced with the situation first hand. Because "The Wound Dresser" is so indicative of the larger work, one would only have to read the poem in order to catch the gist of the entire collection of "Drum Taps".
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