I was leafing through the “Drum-Taps” section of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass a few years ago and reread many of the poems in this section, including “Come Up From The Fields Father.” As had happened many times before, I was moved by the compassion and tenderness that is present throughout this section of Whitman’s famous volume, and noted with interest that the action in “Come Up From The Fields Father” occurs in Ohio. “Drum-Taps” is the portion of Leaves of Grass centered on the trauma of the Civil War, and it contains some of Whitman’s most famous poems, and what is certainly one of his greatest: “When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom’d,” Whitman’s breathtakingly powerful elegy for Abraham Lincoln.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855. The book was his life’s work, and he continued to add to it until his death in 1892. Whitman, born in 1819 on Long Island, worked as a printer, schoolteacher, and journalist before publishing his famous collection. He was forty-one when the war began in April of 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter. Whitman did not rush to the colors when war began, although there were men of his age who did, but when his brother George was wounded at Fredricksburg, Virginia in 1862, Whitman went to the battlefield to find him. After several frantic days of searching Whitman finally located his brother, wounded but in good condition. Whitman also discovered how awful the situation was in Washington, D.C. for the Union’s sick and wounded. A nation with a feeble medical infrastructure and primitive treatments for wounds and sickness encountered the full brunt of savage modern weaponry, poor sanitation, and widespread disease.
Whitman was appalled at the suffering and decided to volunteer in the area’s hospitals. The poet made a great contribution to the war effort. During the next two years he spent long hours comforting the wounded and aiding doctors and nurses. He wrote letters for the men, visited with them, and procured candies, fruits, tobacco, preserves, writing paper, and other treats and items to cheer the wounded soldiers.
Whitman wrote articles, worked at the Army Paymaster’s Office and later took a clerk’s job in the Department of the Interior to help support himself and earn additional money to purchase items for the sick and wounded. In addition, he asked friends for contributions so he could purchase additional gifts. Whitman was a vibrant man whose presence cheered many of the soldiers and sailors in the Washington hospitals. Although only in his early forties, his hair and beard were already grey. Whitman radiated vitality when he entered the wards, and with with his thick grey beard (soon to become a snowy Santa Claus white in the coming years), and ruddy complexion he was a kind of father or grandfather figure to the young men and boys he encountered. He often wrote letters home for them. The men he met who survived never forgot him, and some corresponded with Whitman in the years after the war, sharing news of their lives and photos of their families.
Whitman met his fair share of Ohio soldiers in the hospitals of Washington, D.C. The men of the Buckeye State had gone eagerly to the fight in 1861 when Lincoln called for volunteers to help put down the rebellion. Lincoln asked for 13,000 volunteers from Ohio. The state responded with 30,000 enlisting for the Union, which created a huge strain on the state’s resources available for arming, equipping and housing so many men. The Ohio adjutant general in December of 1864 listed Ohio as having 346,326 men in Union service at that time, although there may have been even more. Among the “men” was drummer boy Johnny Clem, born in 1851 in Newark, Ohio. He served throughout the war and was present at the Battle of Chickamauga in Tennessee. He eventually became a career soldier.
According to historian George Knepper in his book Ohio And Its People (1989), “By whatever standard used, Ohio provided the third largest number of troops to the Union, exceeded only by the more populous states of New York and Pennsylvania. However, in proportion to state population, Ohio’s contribution ranked number one. A considerable number of Ohioans also served in the Confederate armies. Seven became Confederate generals, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of Ohio boys served in Confederate units. Given the strong southern element in the state, this is not surprising. Both Indiana and Illinois, which shared Ohio’s southern legacy, had the same experience.”
Knepper also writes that “it is commonly accepted that 34,951 Ohioans died in the service. Of these 11,237 died of battle wounds and 23,354 of disease. Approximately 30,000 Ohio veterans bore severe wounds for the remainder of their lives.”
War also came to Ohio. The state was attacked by Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan and his men on a raid that began in Kentucky and continued through Indiana and Ohio until Morgan and his men were captured near the West Virginia border in July, 1863. Morgan and some of his officers were placed in the Ohio State Penitentiary, but made a daring escape and returned to the south.
The state was also roiled by the activities of “Peace Democrats” or “Copperheads:” Northern people who wanted to sue for peace with the south and who believed the Confederacy had a right to secede. Their number included Clement Vallandigham, a former governor of Ohio. He was a particularly noxious annoyance for Abraham Lincoln, who eventually had Vallindigham arrested and sent behind southern lines. Lincoln had plenty of problems without a former northern governor stirring up pro-Confederate sentiment.
Whitman published Drum Taps along with a twenty-four page insert entitled Sequel To Drum Taps in October, 1865. The book was eventually incorporated into Leaves of Grass. Throughout the war Whitman was also busy jotting down notes of his impressions of people, places and situations. Much of this material appeared in a book called Memoranda During The War (1875) and was later incorporated in another collection of Whitman’s prose called Specimen Days and Collect (1882).
“Come Up From The Fields, Father” takes a look at the worst kind of experience on the home front in the Civil War. It is autumn. The poem is rich with autumn imagery: apples, grapes, buckwheat. The farm is fertile. It looks like a good harvest this year. But then a letter arrives.
When the histories of wars are written, they often deal very little with the long aftermath that follows in the lives of those who have lost their family members and friends in wartime. The kind of scene in this poem played out many times during the course of this war and in those to follow. It happens today.
There is a famous song from the Civil War called “The Vacant Chair.” This song is a poem set to music. The poem was inspired by the loss of Union Lieutenant John William Grout at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October of 1861 and the subsequent pain of his family confronting the loss at Thanksgiving. The chorus of the song goes like this: “We will meet, but we shall miss him/ There will be one vacant chair/We will linger to caress him/ As we breathe our evening prayer.” The vacant chair is a simple but striking symbol of loss and bereavement. The family in Whitman’s poem has come face to face with this kind of suffering, and their story is one told too often.
Maybe one day there will be an end to war. Sure seems worth trying for to me.
Here is the poem:
Come up from the fields father, here’s a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here’s a letter from they dear son.
Lo, ‘tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio’s villages with leaves fluttering in the mod-
Where apples ripe in the orchard hang and grapes on the trellis’d
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vine,
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the rain, and with
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful, and the farm prospers well.
Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter’s call,
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son’s writing, yet his name is sign’d,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother’s soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish,
taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Ah now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.
Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay’d,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be better,
that brave and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch’d, then at night fitfully sleeping, often
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
Ohio and Its People by George Knepper. The Kent State University Press: Kent, Ohio and London, England. 1989.
The Better Angel: Walt Whitman In The Civil War by Roy Morris, Jr. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2000.
Complete Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman. Edited With An Introduction And Glossary by James E. Miller, Jr. A Riverside Edition—Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1959.
Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan. A Touchstone Book—Simon and Schuster, Inc., New York, 1980.
I have always enjoyed this performance of “The Vacant Chair” by Kathy Mattea. This performance is from a Ken Burns PBS special on the songs of the Civil War that appeared in the early 1990s.