The Real War Will Never Get in the Books

"The Real War Will Never Get in the Books" is the fifth and final song of Rorem's War Scenes cycle, which sets five texts of Walt Whitman relating to his experiences of the Civil War.

[Note: Rorem omits a great deal of this text, though he does begin the song with the opening of the text.]

Date: 1971Composer: Ned RoremText: Walt WhitmanSong Collection: War Scenes

Print vitals & song text


The real war will never get in the books
by Walt Whitman

And so good-bye to the war. I know not how it may have been, or may
be, to others — to me the main interest I found, (and still, on
recollection, find,) in the rank and file of the armies, both sides,
and in those specimens amid the hospitals, and even the dead on the
field. To me the points illustrating the latent personal character and
eligibilities of these States, in the two or three millions of
American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in those
armies — and especially the one-third or one-fourth of their number,
stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the
contest — were of more significance even than the political interests
involved. (As so much of a race depends on how it faces death, and how
it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions
under emergencies, and the indirect traits and asides in Plutarch, we
get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black
infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the
official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great
battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not1. The
real war will never get in the books. In the mushy influences of
current times, too, the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those
years are in danger of being totally forgotten. I have at night
watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not
live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he raised
himself and recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and
mutilations of the corpse afterward. (See, in the preceding pages, the
incident at Upperville — the seventeen kill’d as in the description,
were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d
them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for
the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.)

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its
interior history will not only never be written — its practicality,
minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The
actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his
incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his
fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and
animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of
camp, I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not

The preceding notes may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life,
and into those lurid interiors, never to be fully convey’d to the
future. The hospital part of the drama from ’61 to ’65, deserves
indeed to be recorded. Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden
and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of
despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable
campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green
armies, the drafts and bounties — the immense money expenditure, like
a heavy-pouring constant rain — with, over the whole land, the last
three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of
women, parents, orphans — the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in
those Army Hospitals — (it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest
of the land, North and South, was one vast central hospital, and all
the rest of the affair but flanges) — those forming the untold and
unwritten history of the war — infinitely greater (like life’s) than
the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think
how much, and of importance, will be — how much, civic and military,
has already been — buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

Sheet Music

War Scenes

Composer(s): Ned Rorem

Song(s): 1. A Night Battle
2. A Specimen Case
3. An Incident
4. Inauguration Ball
5. The Real War Will Never Get in the Books

Voice Type: Medium

Buy via Boosey & Hawkes

Support us and help us grow

Dear friends, Thank you for helping us build a comprehensive online archive of American song. Your gift is greatly appreciated.