Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Cavalry Crossing a Ford questions.

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In the summary below, the word "enormity" should not be interpreted as "immoral" or "terrifically bad" but rather "very large." This could create some confusion given that we are dealing with a description of cavalry. The focus here is on the grandeur of the cavalry rather than any immoral acts performed by its members.

Perspective in

As he does with the speaker in several of his Civil War poems--"Bivouac on a Mountain Side," "An Army on the March," and "By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame"--Whitman employs the immediacy of a first-person speaker (or, in "Crossing," implied first-person), one who is both present within and apart from the actions of the army he is observing.  Whitman is, in short, in the poem.   In "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," the speaker observes the action of a cavalry unit from a distance, but close enough to catch the sounds and details of the movement:

They take a serpentine course, their/ arms flash in the sun--hark to the musical clank. . . .

The speaker's perspective--a middle distance--allows him to take in the totality of the scene and, at the same time, to focus on the sounds, sights, the postures, and even the sun-burned faces of the troopers as they cross the river.  His perspective, then, moves him into the scene so that sensory details emerge--"the splashing horses loitering, stop to drink"--but he creates a word-picture of the cavalry unit's complete movement from the first troopers across to those waiting to cross who, as tired cavalry troopers do, "rest on the saddles."

And, also as is typical of Whitman, he places himself, or his speaker, solidly into the poem by commanding the reader to pay attention:

Behold the silvery river . . . Behold the brown-faced men. . . .

This is an implied first-person speaker who stands next to us and shouts that we need to be looking at particular images, as if we are standing beside him while he directs our attention to the details that will allow us to understand what sounds and sights accompany a cavalry unit crossing a ford.  He is not writing a poem, and we are not reading it--he is, and we are, experiencing a moment in the life of a Civil War unit.

With this commanding tone and immediate perspective, he places us, as he has placed himself, in the world of this anonymous cavalry unit as it goes about the business of war.  It is not reaching to argue that Whitman's skill as a poet derives, in part, from his ability not only to create masterful poems that touch our senses but also to take his readers into his poems--even if he has to nudge us to pay attention to certain sights and sounds.

A Possible Source for

A researcher in Alabama, Betty Barrett, has uncovered a possible source for Whitman's poem "Cavalry Crossing  a Ford."  It is a certainty, of course, that Whitman could not have observed at first hand the scene he depicts in the poem, but the sensory detail with which he paints his word-picture of the scene may have been inspired by a dispatch published in the New York Herald.

Before the Battle of Ten Islands Ford on July 13, 1864,  two hundred cavalry troops under the command of Union Major General Lovell H. Rousseau made a night crossing by ferry of the Coosa River to provide security for the main body of cavalry that began its crossing on July 14.  In the early morning hours of July 14, the main body of Rousseau's cavalry crossed the Coosa River at Ten Islands Ford to support the first group, which had already begun to skirmish with the Confederate cavalry under General James H. Clanton.

An unsigned dispatch by a Union correspondent to the New York Herald described the crossing of the Union cavalry:

. . . the long array of horsemen winding between the green islands and taking a serpentine course across the ford. . . . 

Whitman appears to have taken this description--perhaps inspired by the image of the troopers' serpentine course--and created his wonderful word-picture of the crossing with sensory details of sight and hearing, focusing on the human aspect of the event--the "brown-faced men" who are seen to be leaning "negligent" over their saddles as they wait to cross the ford.

If, as seems likely, the anonymous dispatch inspired the poem, then we have a concrete example of a poet who takes a few details of a scene and creates, with sensory detail upon detail, a complete picture of men at war.  More important, perhaps, is that Whitman chooses a rather mundane, rather than spectacularly heroic, image as his subject to depict the every-day life of these anonymous soldiers--they are engaged in a work-a-day, very typical, cavalry movement, not a glorious charge with sabers rattling.  His readers, far from the war, can then see the cavalry troopers not as exotic fighting men in glorious array but as ordinary men, sunburned and tired,  in extraordinary circumstances.