April 15, 2017
Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”
This date in history President Abraham Lincoln died after being shot the night before while he and Mary were watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The Civil War over which he had overseen a bloody victory had essentially ended just four days earlier.
Earlier still in the War of Rebellion as the Union forces called the Civil War, or the War of Secession as the Confederate forces called it, the good grey poet Walt Whitman had written Drum-Taps, a collection of war poems, Here is “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”:
A SIGHT in camp in the day-break grey and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen
Grey 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-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the
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 of
yours is the face of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he
In this elegy, written well before the death of Lincoln, Whitman mourns three soldiers who died just hours before. He states rather clearly that their martyrdom is comparable to that of Christ. Obviously the words were to take on even more meaning after the events that night at Ford’s Theatre.