A Night Battle

(1971)

"A Night Battle" is the first song of Rorem's War Scenes song cycle, which sets five texts of Walt Whitman relating to his experiences of the Civil War.

[Note: The song begins with "what scene is this," found in the third paragraph.]

Drawing: Gallant Charge of Humphrey's Division at the Battle of Fredericksburg, 1863, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: ppmsca 22479

A Night Battle

A Night Battle
by Walt Whitman


May 12. -- There was part of the late battle at
Chancellorsville, (second Fredericksburgh,) a little over a week ago, Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday, under Gen. Joe Hooker, I would
like to give just a glimpse of -- (a moment's look in a terrible storm at sea -- of which a few suggestions are enough, and full details
impossible.) The fighting had been very hot during the day, and after an intermission the latter part, was resumed at night, and kept up with furious energy till 3 o'clock in the morning. That afternoon
(Saturday) an attack sudden and strong by Stonewall Jackson had gain'd a great advantage to the southern army, and broken our lines, entering
us like a wedge, and leaving things in that position at dark. But
Hooker at 11 at night made a desperate push, drove the secesh forces
back, restored his original lines, and resumed his plans. This night
scrimmage was very exciting, and afforded countless strange and
fearful pictures. The fighting had been general both at
Chancellorsville and northeast at Fredericksburgh. (We hear of some
poor fighting, episodes, skedaddling on our part. I think not of it. I
think of the fierce bravery, the general rule.) One corps, the 6th,
Sedgewick's, fights four dashing and bloody battles in thirty-six
hours, retreating in great jeopardy, losing largely but maintaining
itself, fighting with the sternest desperation under all
circumstances, getting over the Rappahannock only by the skin of its
teeth, yet getting over. It lost many, many brave men, yet it took
vengeance, ample vengeance.


But it was the tug of Saturday evening, and through the night and
Sunday morning, I wanted to make a special note of. It was largely in
the woods, and quite a general engagement. The night was very
pleasant, at times the moon shining out full and clear, all Nature so
calm in itself, the early summer grass so rich, and foliage of the
trees -- yet there the battle raging, and many good fellows lying
helpless, with new accessions to them, and every minute amid the
rattle of muskets and crash of cannon, (for there was an artillery
contest too,) the red life-blood oozing out from heads or trunks or
limbs upon that green and dew-cool grass. Patches of the woods take
fire, and several of the wounded, unable to move, are consumed --
quite large spaces are swept over, burning the dead also -- some of
the men have their hair and beards singed -- some, burns on their
faces and hands -- others holes burnt in their clothing. The flashes
of fire from the cannon, the quick flaring flames and smoke, and the
immense roar -- the musketry so general, the light nearly bright
enough for each side to see the other -- the crashing, tramping of men
-- the yelling -- close quarters -- we hear the secesh yells -- our
men cheer loudly back, especially if Hooker is in sight -- hand to
hand conflicts, each side stands up to it, brave, determin'd as
demons, they often charge upon us -- a thousand deeds are done worth
to write newer greater poems on -- and still the woods on fire --
still many are not only scorch'd -- too many, unable to move, are
burn'd to death.


Then the camps of the wounded -- O heavens, what
scene is this? -- is this indeed humanity -- these butchers' shambles?
There are several of them. There they lie, in the
largest, in an open space in the woods, from 200
to 300 poor fellows -- the groans and screams -- the
odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night,
the grass, the trees -- that slaughter-house! O well is
it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them --
cannot conceive, and never conceiv'd, these things. One man is shot by
a shell, both in the arm and leg -- both are amputated -- there lie
the rejected members. Some have their legs blown off --
some bullets through the breast -- some indescribably horrid wounds in
the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out -- some
in the abdomen -- some mere boys -- many rebels, badly
hurt -- they take their regular turns with
the rest, just the same as any -- the surgeons use them just the
same. Such is the camp of the wounded -- such a
fragment, a reflection afar off of the bloody scene --
while over all the clear, large moon comes out at times softly,
quietly shining. Amid the woods, that scene of flitting souls
-- amid the crack and crash and yelling sounds -- the
impalpable perfume of the woods -- and yet the pungent, stifling smoke
-- the radiance of the moon, looking from heaven at intervals so
placid -- the sky so heavenly -- the clear-obscure up
there, those buoyant upper oceans -- a few large placid stars beyond,
coming silently and languidly out, and then disappearing
-- the melancholy, draperied night above, around. And
there, upon the roads, the fields, and in those woods,
that contest, never one more desperate in any age or land -- both
parties now in force -- masses -- no fancy battle, no semi-play, but
fierce and savage demons fighting there -- courage and scorn of death
the rule, exceptions almost none.


What history, I say, can ever give -- for who can know -- the mad,
determin'd tussle of the armies, in all their separate large and
little squads -- as this -- each steep'd from crown to toe in
desperate, mortal purports? Who know the conflict,
hand-to-hand -- the many conflicts in the dark, those
shadowy-tangled, flashing-moonbeam'd woods -- the
writhing groups and squads -- the cries, the din, the
cracking guns and pistols -- the distant cannon -- the
cheers and calls and threats and awful music of the oaths -- the
indescribable mix -- the officers' orders, persuasions,
encouragements -- the devils fully rous'd in human hearts
-- the strong shout, Charge, men, charge -- the flash of the naked
sword, and rolling flame and smoke? And still the broken, clear and
clouded heaven -- and still again the moonlight pouring
silvery soft its radiant patches over all. Who paint the scene, the
sudden partial panic of the afternoon, at dusk? Who paint the
irrepressible advance of the second division of the Third
corps, under Hooker himself, suddenly order'd up -- those rapid-filing
phantoms through the woods? Who show what moves there in the shadows,
fluid and firm -- to save, (and it did save,) the army's name, perhaps
the nation? as there the veterans hold the field. (Brave Berry falls
not yet -- but death has mark'd him -- soon he falls.)


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