The first key to understanding Whitman’s point in “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” is to remember the context and physical setting of the poem. In placing a poem that tells of a “hospital tent” in a cycle of poems about the United States Civil War, Whitman expected that his readers would understand that the poem is on some level about the war and that the three dead men are victims of the great conflict. As stated earlier, the same blanket covers all three casualties of the war; the sides they fought for in life are insignificant in the shadow of their shared fates. Union and Confederate soldiers alike are victims to the human tendency to kill other humans.
The ages of the fallen men are also significant. The first man uncovered, the “elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair,” is old, and the reader is to understand that war destroys the old. The next unveiled is a “child and darling,” a “sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming.” War, and all that it stands for—violence, lack of compassion, vengeance—also destroys the young. The third member of the deceased soldiers, with a face neither “child nor old,” shows that war destroys those in the full bloom of life.
In the face of this destruction, the narrator asks the first two casualties, “who are you?” In part this signifies the loss of identity that violent death results in; the corpse’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs are all lost. Perhaps the repetition and vehemence of the questions, however, must cause the reader to ask “Who am I?” Who are humans, that they could perpetuate such violence upon one another again and again over the ages? Who are these Americans of the Civil War era, who, while considering themselves enlightened and civilized, feel justified in holding others slaves and are content to destroy each other in a war?
The number of forms on the stretcher is made important by the narrator’s assertion that the third man is “Christ himself.” The number three has Christian significance; in this case, the number not only calls to mind the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but also recalls the fact that two other men were crucified on Calvary with Christ. Although Whitman was not...
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