Part journalist and, apparently, part nurse, the poet Walt Whitman spent most of the Civil War caring for wounded Union soldiers, even writing letters home on behalf of some of them.
On Tuesday at the Billings Public Library, Billings poet Dave Caserio — accompanied on the double bass by Parker Brown of Billings — gave a crowd of about 20 people a sampler of the 19th century poet’s words, taken from poems, journal and letters left behind by the author of “Leaves of Grass.”
The Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau sponsored the event, part of a look back at the 150-year anniversary of the war. The free series continues at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, with Craig Naylor’s program, “Unknown Heroes of the Civil War.”
Almost every day is a Civil War milestone. Wednesday, for example, marks the 149th anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
Although dressed in modern clothes, Caserio easily slipped into character Tuesday, reciting Whitman’s words upon seeing his hero, President Abraham Lincoln, being hustled by Pinkerton agents off a train for an appearance in New York while on his way to Washington, D.C., to be inaugurated following his 1860 election victory.
Lincoln, Whitman wrote, stared at “40,000 silent faces,” many in the crowd “hiding an assassin’s knife or pistol.” People called Lincoln “uncouth” and a “gangly ape,” according to Whitman, epithets hurled at the man who would plead with the nation to extend malice toward none and charity toward all and to pay heed to the better angels of our nature.
Whitman’s younger brother George enlisted in the Union army, but Walt — who was born in 1819 — was too old to serve. “I too, beat the alarms of war, because I was angry and full of patriotism,” Caserio said on Whitman’s behalf, “so I resigned myself to sit behind the wounded.”
Most Americans didn’t understand just how cruel and brutal the war would be. At one point during his reader’s theater performance, Caserio danced a waltz with a woman in the audience to “show how men don’t understand war,” a war that Whitman believed would never be adequately described in history books.
It was only the fallen, Whitman said, who were “fully at rest, and suffer not.” The people who suffered the most, he said, were the living, the wounded, the soldier’s wife and child and the armies that remained to fight another battle.
Ever the journalist, Whitman described what passed for hospitals in the nation’s capital — converted taverns, churches, schools, museums — “none prepared for so many wounded.”
Up to 70,000 Union soldiers were taken — many by barge — to the northern capital to try to recover from their wounds and amputations.
Washington “swelled with war profiteers,” Whitman said, “yet in the midst of all this is Mr. Lincoln. His only passion is for these United States.” Whitman called Lincoln, for whom he would later write the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” the nation’s “invisible vertebrae.”
After Caserio and Brown completed their 40-minute performance, they took questions. Brown said he’s learned to improvise his music based on the crowd’s energy and “how we are feeling.” As Caserio was describing a soldier dying, Brown decided that rather than bowing something in a minor key, he half bowed, half plucked out a passage in a more hopeful major key.
“Putting textures together is really fun,” he said. “There are liberties that I get, which can be a little frightening sometimes.”
“I hear things from Parker,” Caserio said. “If I’m a little too strident, he’ll pull me back. He helps me remember things, too.”
Even though the Civil War was fought 150 years ago, “we’re still feeling the effects of what happened during Reconstruction and during Jim Crow,” Caserio said.
When he published “Leaves of Grass” just before the war broke out, Whitman thought it would “bind North and South together,” even becoming “a new American Bible.” By 1863 he’d transformed himself into a “peacenik,” Caserio said, and his views about slavery became more in line to those of his hero, Lincoln.
Sadly, Americans are still suffering the war’s ill effects, “because slavery was a very poisonous thing,” Caserio said.
All these years later, the fight was the nation’s defining moment, he said.
“The Civil War made us a nation,” he said.