‘An Army Corps on the March’ by Walt Whitman was published in the Sequel to Drum-Taps on October 28, 1865, along with seventeen other poems not published in the previous collection, Drum-Taps. The sequel includes one of Whitman’s most popular poems, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’ Like all other poems published in this collection, this poem deals with the marching soldiers that took part in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The tone of most of Walt Whitman poems from this collection is patriotic, idealistic, and expressive. Whitman viewed the Civil War as the inevitable price that they had to pay for America.
An Army Corps on the March by Walt Whitman With its cloud of skirmishers in advance, With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley, The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on, Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust-cover'd men, In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground, With artillery interspers'd—the wheels rumble, the horses sweat, As the army corps advances.
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This free-verse poem depicts a Civil War scene. Whitman uses words like “toiling” and “dust cover’d men” to illustrate how much the soldiers were devoted for the sake of America. The spectator watches the corps march towards their victory as if it is inevitable. The overall tone of the poem is fatigued and exhausted, yet filled with a nationalistic vigor. The spectator views the war with a settled conviction that will keep going for a long time. That is why Whitman ends the piece with the statement, “As the army corps advances.”
‘An Army Corps on the March’ is an emotional account of the Civil War. The speaker is a mere observer watching the troops train in the heat. They are tired and covered in dirt. Only the dedication and honor of duty help them see through their sufferings till the end. The spectator seems to understand that. In some ways, Whitman achieves a dynamic flow in this poem which replicates the view of the spectator that this war was far from coming to an end. Using phrases like “toiling under the sun” is a simple yet profound observation the spectator makes. He calls them “men” (not “soldiers”) who are covered in soil and sweating, but they are still doing their drills. This shows their dedication and honor for their duty, which often gets lost in historical accounts.
Overall, Whitman’s storytelling and imagery resulted in a great historical record of the Civil War. The tone of the poem is an anxious and fatigued one – which mirrors the feelings of the soldiers as they advanced towards war.
‘An Army Corps on the March’ has nine considerably long, tedious lines. It has no stanza division or line breaks. The poem is written in free-verse form since there is no rhyme scheme or a set metrical pattern. Whitman wrote the poem from the point of view of a spectator that describes the army train. However, he does not take part with the soldiers actively. He tries to step on with their energy mentally. The tone of the poem is filled with a speaker’s exhaustion, tiredness, and fatigue. Yet, at the same time, it reflects the speaker’s and the soldiers’ dedication to the cause.
Whitman uses the following poetic devices to keep the flow of the poem ‘An Army Corps on the March’ dynamic.
- Simile: In the line, “With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip,” Whitman compares the sound of a bullet to the sound of a whip that is loud and terrifying.
- Anaphora: The speaker begins the first and the second lines with the word “With,” which refers back to the unity of America. Whitman roots for the American cause throughout his poetry collections Drum-Taps and Sequel to Drum-Taps.
- Alliteration: In the line, “With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip,” there is an alliteration of the “s” sound.
- Assonance: There are repetitions of the ‘i’ and ‘u’ sounds in the line, “Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust-cover’d men.”
- Consonance: The ‘l’ (consonant) sound is repeated in the lines, “Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust-cover’d men,/ In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,/ With artillery interspers’d—the wheels rumble, the horses sweat.”
- Repetition: The poet uses this device in the line, “The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on.” This makes the entire scene seem never-ending and unbroken.
With its cloud of skirmishers in advance,
With now the sound of a single shot snapping like a whip, and now an irregular volley,
At the beginning of ‘An Army Corps on the March,’ Whitman describes how the army advances towards the enemy troop. He uses auditory imagery (related to the sense of hearing) to enhance the visualization of the Civil War scene. He says that a sound of a single bullet is heard first as a declaration of the battle. Then haphazard sounds of multiple bullets are heard. Whitman sets an anxious, fearful, and suspenseful mood through the first two lines as the “skirmishers” advance towards their goal.
The swarming ranks press on and on, the dense brigades press on,
Glittering dimly, toiling under the sun—the dust-cover’d men,
In columns rise and fall to the undulations of the ground,
In the following line, the spectator describes the army and its brigades as if it was a continuous stream of people going on unstoppably. This also replicates the internalized fear existing in Whitman’s heart that this war would continue for a long time.
In the next line, the tone of the poem shifts from an anxious one to a more tired one. These lines describe how the weather being so hot, the military drills of the army continue uninhibitedly. This shows the never-ending exhaustion that war brings to soldiers. The use of phrases like “toiling under the sun” captures the essence of the deep fatigue the poem portrays.
The last line contains a metaphor. Here, Whitman depicts the rising and falling of the corps to the undulating waves. As the ground is not even, the army needs to follow the curvatures in order to march forward. It seems like a fleet of battleships going forward, slashing the turbulent waves at sea.
With artillery interspers’d—the wheels rumble, the horses sweat,
As the army corps advances.
In ‘An Army Corps on the March,’ the last two lines serve as a sort of antithesis to the preceding lines. This is because the natural thing to do after being racked by exhaustion is to take a rest. However, it is not the case for the army. The army corps have to fight the war, even if the artillery wheels rumble on uneven ground and the horses sweat in enervation. They have a duty towards their nation. Hence, they must have to see through their bodily pain and exhaustion. In this way, Whitman picturesquely explains the condition of the soldiers during the Civil War in a few words throughout the poem.
‘An Army Corps on the March’ taps on the themes of the reality of war, patriotism, and determination. Whitman’s account of the Civil War records the emotional aspects of the “humans” involved. It serves as an antithesis to every glamorized story of a war that boasts on the strength and brilliance of one side over the other. This unadulterated, realistic account of the American Civil War exists not to take sides but rather to paint a truthful picture of the conditions of the soldiers fighting for a collective cause.
In this poem, the army corps are described as mere “men” covered in sweat and dirt. Whitman emphasizes the fact that these people train every day in the smothering heat to fend off the other faction and to protect their people. This poem embodies that it is the rite of duty that is glamorized. It is considered sacred, but the journey of its fulfillment is not that gratifying.
Walt Whitman’s ‘An Army Corps on the March’ was published as part of the poetry collection, Sequel to Drum-Taps, on October 28, 1865. Formerly, in that year, Whitman published the collection, Drum-Taps. The success of his poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ led to the publication of its sequel, along with seventeen new poems. This entire collection reflects on the American Civil War, fought between the Union or the “North” and the Confederacy, known as the “South.” The cause of this war was to eliminate slavery in America. Until 1860, 4 million out of 32 million Americans were enslaved black people who resided mostly in the South.
Walt Whitman’s poem ‘An Army Corps on the March’ is about the army corps tirelessly marching towards their goal. Whitman picturesquely draws the scene of the Civil War by utilizing imagery and metaphors in this poem.
The poem is written in free-verse without any specific rhyme scheme. However, Whitman makes use of a number of internal rhymes. The text consists of a total of seven tediously long lines that are grouped together into a single stanza.
The poem is based on the American Civil War (1861-1865). Whitman describes a war scene in this poem where skirmishers are advancing in the front. Readers can imagine what a battlefield looks like with sweating, tireless soldiers marching forward, and incessant bombardment every now and then.
The tone of the poem is anxious, inspired, and fatigued. Through the tone, Whitman aptly portrays the mental and physical condition of the soldiers fighting on the battlefield. A spectator recounts a Civil War scene in this poem.
The poem is still relevant today because it shows the human suffering caused by war. Whitman addresses the soldiers as “men” covered in dust and sweat. He emphasizes that everyone involved in the war is still human at the end of the day, no matter how motivated they are for the cause.
The following list contains a few poems that tap on similar themes present in Walt Whitman’s poem ‘An Army Corps on the March.’
- ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ — This poem is a commentary on the Civil War and its all-encompassing and negative aspects.
- ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ — Whitman wrote this elegy, saddened by the results of the war and in memory of Abraham Lincoln.
- ‘For the Union Dead’ by Robert Lowell — This poem explores the past and the present and changing idealism.
You can also explore these haunting war poems.