Battle of Chancellorsville—lithograph, color, 1889 (Library of Congress)

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was instituted after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers and was first celebrated on May 30, 1868. The first Memorial Day order said in part: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), who volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War, offers here his meditation on war and sacrifice—the odor of blood, the “faces, varieties, postures beyond description” in a church-turned-military hospital. —Ed.

 

A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown

by Walt Whitman

 

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown,

A route through a heavy wood with muffled steps in  the darkness,

Our army foil’d with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating,

Till after midnight glimmer upon us the lights of a dim-lighted building,

We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building,

‘Tis a large old church at the crossing roads, now an impromptu  hospital,

Entering but for a minute I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made,

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch stationary with wild red flame and clouds of smoke,

By these, crowds, groups of forms vaguely I see on the floor, some  in the pews laid down,

At my feet more distinctly a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death (he is shot in the abdomen),

I stanch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily,)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene fain to absorb it all,

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead,

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood,

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms, the yard outside also fill’d,

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating,

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls,

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of  the torches,

These I resume as I chant, I see again the forms, I smell the odor,

Then hear outside the orders given,

Fall in men, fall in;

But first I bend to the dying lad, his eyes open, a half-smile he gives me,

Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness,

Running, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,

The unknown road still marching.

 

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