Weekly Whitman: Jottings on an Execution

Walt Whitman was able, by his very presence in Union hospitals and army camps, to write about parts of the war that were little reported. Below is a description of a young Union soldier who deserted, and whom Lincoln failed to pardon. It is jottings in Whitman’s Memoranda that make me question whether or not “the real war” got into the books. I think it did.

While all the gaud and tinsel shines in people’s eyes amid the countless officers’ straps, amid all this show of generals’ stars and the bars of the captains and lieutenants—amid all the wind and puffing and infidelity—amid the swarms of contractors and their endless contracts and the paper money—and out from all this stalks like a phantom that boy, not yet nineteen years of age, boy who had fought without flinching in twelve battles (no veteran of old wars was better or steadier)—stalks forth, I say, that single, simple boy, out of all this huge composite pageant, silently, with a bandage over his eyes—the volley—the smoke—the limpsey falling body and blood streaming in strains and splashes down the breast.

Illustration of a deserter being executed by a firing squad at the Federal Camp in Alexandria during the American civil war. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

3 Responses to Weekly Whitman: Jottings on an Execution

  1. who was this boy? what were the 12 battles he fought in? seems incredibly cruel to execute him for deserting prior to the 13th battle. How was it Lincoln overlooked him? was it an affirmative decision of Lincoln to execute him?

    1. That’s a good question. I wonder who the young soldier was too. So young to be that battle hardened. Probably had PTSD from all that stress of so much combat, although there was no understanding of it at the time. His “soldier’s heart” may have caused him to just walk away when he could not take it anymore. He certainly deserved a pardon. A sad ending to such a young life.

  2. Hi Meg. Do you have any more information about this? Is there a title to this “jotting” of Whitman’s?

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