“Who shall tell the story?”


Walt Whitman, Manuscript fragment of “A Night Battle, Over a Week Since,” ca. May 1863.
Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature (MSS 3829-i)

This brief manuscript inspired this exhibition’s title. Written soon after Whitman witnessed the Battle of Chancellorsville and its bloody aftermath, it is an early version of an essay published in Specimen days (1882). In this draft and in the final piece, Whitman grapples with the juxtaposition of Virginia’s natural beauty, the valor of both Union and Rebel soldiers, and the unspeakable suffering of both that exemplified the Civil War’s battlefields. He—and this exhibition—ask:

Who shall tell the story? … We talk I say of stories of this war—have histories of this war already; and shall have books of full detail, hundreds of them. In printed books, full histories of this war will come. O heavens! What book can give the history of this war?

Simplified transcription reflecting additions and deletions in Whitman’s hand

What book & who shall write, who will ever know—for who can ever know, the mad, the savage tussle of the armies there in the wilderness? in all their separate large & little squads, each steeped from crown to toe in desperate mortal purports? Who know the conflict hand-to-hand—who know the scenes there in those dark, those moon-beam’d woods, those shadowy tangled woods, those groups & squads—hear through the woods the cries, the din, the wild confusion, the cheers & the oaths, who smell the smell of smoke & breathe the powdery smoke? the indescribable mix, hear the officers orders, persuasions, encouragements, the devils roused in the men’s hearts, the strong word Charge, men, charge, the flash of the unsheathen sword—and still the clouded heaven, & still again the moonlight calm and silvery, pouring soft and radiant, pouring, pouring over all.

Who can tell, who, I demand—who describe that scene of regiments of our forces, retreating in the afternoon in wild disorder, rapidly a panic, spreading, rushing, dastardly, growing like magic, when the commander in chief orders up his own old division the 2nd of the 3rd Army Corps when they advance, fluid as surges but firm as the rocks, rapid-filing phantoms through the woods. Who paint what moves slow through the shadows of the falling night, to save the army’s name—who paint the hours that followed—that stern impassive fight, that hurried stemming fight so full of glory—brave Berry falls not yet, but death, invisible death, had marked him & hovered & so he must fall as soldier loves to fall. The corps stood undismayed, ‘twas there amid the night they so far conquered—amid the dewy night, under the silent moving moon, the veterans held the field. No panic-soldiers they, but heroes native—of scenes like these, I say, and such as these, who writes—who e’er can write—the story? … Of many a score, aye thousand more than scores, of unknown heroisms & unwrit heroes and impromptu desperations, who tells? None tells…