Ellicott’s Mills was divided during the Civil War. Some families quietly sent their sons south to join the Confederates and defended their henhouses from hungry Union soldiers. Others hotly supported the Union and fed the troops from their doorsteps.
The Fourth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers rode into town in June 1863. The Volunteers’ records read, “The whole population turned out to give us welcome, and cheer us on. National banners were displayed from every house we passed. Loyal-hearted men gathered in groups, and gave loud expression to their sympathies, while beautiful ladies clapped their hands for joy, and loadedus down with choice flowers. The heart of this loyal villagewas stirred, and we were deeply grateful for this sudden and unexpected ovation. We encamped near by, serenaded the ladies, and enjoyed the substantial hospitalities of our new made friends until a late hour of the night.”
Whether the population’s sentiments ran Confederate or Union, the war exacted a brutal toll on the country. New statistics estimate that 750,000 people died in the Civil War, whether from battle wounds or disease or soldiers’ predatory acts on civilians.
Poet Walt Whitman knew about the suffering first-hand. In December 1862, Whitman read in the New York Herald that his brother was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg.
The poet traveled from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., to search the hospital wards for his missing brother, found barely harmed. But the trauma Whitman witnessed prompted him to stay for three years visiting the wounded, writing letters for them, bringing them candy and fruit, and writing notes for poems in a book he labeled, “Walt Whitman, Soldiers’ Missionary.”
In this poem, Whitman’s speaker lifts the rough wool from the faces of three dead soldiers, an old man, a boy, and a young man. Usually full of exuberance and exaggeration, Whitman here writes a straightforward, stately poem in keeping with the sight of death.
“A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” ends with a quiet grief and empathy that transforms death into a sacred confirmation of brotherhood, and an acknowledgment of the soldiers’ sacrifice.
A Sight in Camp in Daybreak Gray and Dim
by Walt Whitman
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim, As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless, As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent, Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying, Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket, Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all. Curious I halt and silent stand, Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket; Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes? Who are you my dear comrade? Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling? Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming? Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory; Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.