The Return of the Heroes, stanza 6
I saw the day the return of the heroes,
(Yet the heroes never surpass’d shall never return,
Them that day I saw not.)
I saw the interminable corps, I saw the processions of armies,
I saw them approaching, defiling by with divisions,
Streaming northward, their work done, camping awhile in clusters of
No holiday soldiers–youthful, yet veterans,
Worn, swart, handsome, strong, of the stock of homestead and workshop,
Harden’d of many a long campaign and sweaty march,
Inured on many a hard-fought bloody field.
A pause–the armies wait,
A million flush’d embattled conquerors wait,
The world too waits, then soft as breaking night and sure as dawn,
They melt, they disappear.
Exult O lands! victorious lands!
Not there your victory on those red shuddering fields,
But here and hence your victory.
Melt, melt away ye armies–disperse ye blue-clad soldiers,
Resolve ye back again, give up for good your deadly arms,
Other the arms the fields henceforth for you, or South or North,
With saner wars, sweet wars, life-giving wars.
-Walt Whitman, 1865
On May 23 and 24, 1865, Walt Whitman witnessed the momentous Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, D.C. He watched as the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, past a reviewing stand in front of the White House where President Andrew Johnson (having just slightly more than a month prior taken up the role after Lincoln’s assassination), General Ulysses Grant and others saluted the troops. The experience made a deep impression on Whitman, and he wrote many poems about the return of the heroes and the event that symbolically marked the end of the Civil War. He wrote so many, in fact, I found it difficult to choose which to here quote.
In Specimen Days, his autobiographical work, he recorded his impressions of the Grand Review in prose, “For two days now the broad spaces of Pennsylvania avenue along to Treasury hill, and so by detour around to the President’s house, and so up to Georgetown, and across the aqueduct bridge, have been alive with a magnificent sight, the returning armies. In their wide ranks stretching clear across the Avenue, I watch them march or ride along, at a brisk pace, through two whole days—infantry, cavalry, artillery—some 200,000 men. Some days afterwards one or two other corps; and then, still afterwards, a good part of Sherman’s immense army, brought up from Charleston, Savannah, &c.”
Whitman was no stranger to the horrors of war. Having come to Washington in 1862 in search of his brother, George, who was reported wounded after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman was so moved by the suffering he saw in military hospitals that he chose to remain in the capital. He secured a low paying job as a government clerk and spent much of his time over the next two years volunteering as a nurse in army hospitals. He had no medical experience. Little was needed. He found he could be most comforting to the sick and wounded through the most simple of tasks…writing letters home for them, bringing them a morsel of food, keeping them engaged through conversation. He estimated that during his time in Washington, he made some 600 visits to various hospitals.
It is no wonder, then, that the Grand Review made such an impression on him. The suffering he had witnessed so closely was at an end. And Whitman understood that the victory lay not on the “red, shuddering fields” of battle but in the faces of the blue-clad soldiers, “youthful, yet veterans.”
He also understood that these men had a difficult transition to make. In his “The Artilleryman’s Vision” he writes a haunting account of what we would today call post-traumatic stress disorder. In “How Solemn as One by One,” another poem about the Grand Review, he writes how the soldier’s faces appear as masks, but, knowing something of their experiences, he feels he can “see behind that mask, that wonder, a kindred soul.”
His “Return of the Heroes,” part of which is quoted above, goes on for several stanzas, more than I could really include here. The primary theme is his hope that soldiers of the North and South will take up different tools, “Toil on heroes! Toil well! Handle the weapons well!…Well-pleased America thou beholdest…With these and else and with their own strong hands the heroes harvest. All gather and all harvest, Yet but for thee O Powerful, not a scythe might swing as now in security, Not a maize-stalk dangle as now its silken tassels in peace. Under thee only they harvest, even but a wisp of hay under thy great face only…Or aught that ripens in all these States or North or South, Under the beaming sun and under thee.”
Poetry purists will please forgive me for butchering a poem by excerpting it in such a fashion. The point being, Whitman exulted in the notion of veterans going home, living in peace and laboring under the skies of a re-united America.
The masthead for this blog has long featured the painting “Veteran in a New Field” by Winslow Homer, picturing a veteran just home from the Civil War. His coat and accoutrements are discarded and he has picked up the scythe, just as Whitman describes, toiling on. I can’t help but wonder if the painting was somehow motivated by Whitman’s poem.
Nowadays, we do not have Grand Reviews. But the gratitude for those who sacrificed so much for our freedom and safety nonetheless runs strong. Once a year, in countless cities and towns across the country, our veterans do parade and we have an opportunity to thank them. I don’t possess the eloquence of Whitman to sum up such gratitude, and the small-town parade in which I participated today was a far cry from the Grand Review of Washington, D.C. But I will always value any such opportunities to salute our heroes.