Drum-Taps: Summary and Analysis

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First O Songs for a Prelude - Summary
Whitman begins this section, which is devoted to the Civil War, with a rousing portrayal of New York City and the Union preparing for war. The poet describes regiments of soldiers marching through Manhattan as exuberant crowds line the streets, cheering on their heroes. Men from all occupations rush to volunteer while women sign up to serve as nurses.

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To the drum-taps prompt,
The young men falling in and arming,
The mechanics arming, (the trowel, the jack-plane, the black-smith’s hammer, tost aside with precipitation,)
The lawyer leaving his office and arming, the judge leaving the court
The driver deserting his wagon in the street, jumping down, throwing the reins abruptly down on the horses’ backs,
The salesman leaving the store, the boss, book-keeper, porter, all leaving…

The onlookers and the new recruits have yet to experience the horrors of war, and there is nothing but “unpent enthusiasm” as artillery and cannons “bright as gold” move along the crowded streets. War fever has gripped the city and the Union, and Whitman sums up the nation’s mood:

War! an arm’d race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning away;
War! be it weeks, months, or years, an arm’d race is advancing to welcome it.

Eighteen Sixty-One - Summary
Whitman compares this “hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted” Civil War year, 1861, to a Union soldier: a “strong man erect” who is clothed in blue and carrying a rifle on his shoulder. “No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you,” the poet writes about this year of armed conflict between the American states. He goes on to describe the working men from around the country who became soldiers, marching with “sinewy limbs” and “determin’d voice” during the year that “suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp’d cannon…”

The Centenarian’s Story - Summary
On a “splendid and warm” summer afternoon, a young Union soldier assists an old Revolutionary War veteran up a small hill in Washington Park, Brooklyn. On the field below them, a Union regiment exercises and drills in preparation for battle. A crowd has gathered to cheer on and applaud the soldiers.

As the old veteran watches the soldiers on the field, he trembles with emotion. He recalls his service in the Revolutionary War, and he remembers a day when General Washington read the Declaration of Independence aloud to the assembled troops. English warships, the old man says, had just arrived in the New York harbor. A few days later, after the English troops came ashore, a fierce battle ensued between the Americans and the British, and many lives were lost.

It sickens me yet, that slaughter!
I saw the moisture gather in drops on the face of the General.
I saw how he wrung his hands in anguish.

The Centenarian goes on to describe the battle and subsequent defeat of the Americans. In spite of the setback, however, General Washington remains determined to keep on fighting.

The young soldier reflects on the old man’s story; he realizes that “the past and present, have interchanged” and that he is now the symbol of the country’s “great future.”

The Wound-Dresser - Summary
An old man, who had once “beat the alarum” and urged “relentless war” now finds himself ministering to the wounded and dying on a battlefield in the Civil War.

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground…

The old man describes, in graphic detail, the injuries and suffering of the wounded young soldiers who lie on the grass and in dirty hospital tents. The “appealing eyes” of one of the wounded cause the old man to wish he could trade places with him, and he thinks “I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that/would save...

(The entire section contains 1579 words.)

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