Student And Teacher
In the spring of 1862, the young teacher heard of the brilliant feats
of Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson; he well remembers the first
pictures of him in Harper's Weekly. As no one then knew how Grant
looked, and as a picture of him must be had, evidently reasoning that
to have achieved what he had, he must be a giant, they represented
him as over six feet tall -- a fierce-looking, black-bearded hero.
John Burroughs was out in the fields at the Old Home boiling sap
those early April days of 1862 when he saw a neighbour, John Smith,
coming rapidly across the fields through the deep snow. Jumping his
horse over the fences, Smith rushed up and announced the news of the
Battle of Shiloh, the terrific losses of the Confederates, and the
death of their gallant General Johnston. The sap-boiling and other
farm work continued, but an undercurrent of unrest, to which letters
from Allen (in Washington) contributed, was bearing our young' friend
on toward more eventful times and scenes.
Allen urged Burroughs to come on there and make his fortune; all it
needed, he declared, was that one should be active, shrewd, and
impudent. He suggested that until something better offered, he come
and, with carpet-bag full of necessary articles for the soldiers,
make frequent journeys to the nearby camps, supplying the boys
withthings not carried by the sutlers.
To the would-be writer this huckstering did not appeal, and so he
wrote his friend, who lectured him mildly for his pride, pointing out
that many men he knew in exalted social positions were condescending
to do that very thing. Though not impressed with this, Burroughs did
have a longing to get near the scene of action, even to take a hand
at soldiering; his wife's dependency upon him, however, gave him pause.
Allen wrote of hearing Emerson lecture, and Artemus Ward; of the
interesting people he was meeting; of the stirring scenes in the
streets, the marching men, the officers in their splendid uniforms,
the lines of white-covered baggage wagons, and an occasional band of
rebel soldiers being marched through the busy streets. He expatiated
on the high cost of living -- "You cannot get board for less
than six dollars a week! " [sic!] But assuring his friend that,
even at that, he was prospering for the first time in years, he urged
him to bestir himself, to hasten there and look for work, and stay no
longer in the country to vegetate:
You must have active life; that keeps the channels of the brain
unclogged. You'll get to be a cabbage if you stop long in the rural
districts. You ought to be here where you can see Art and human nature....
And he urged John to come for his [Allen's] sake also:
I need you to be my intellectual poker, to stir up my mental grate,
create a draught, and make the sparks fly. The fire is smouldering. I
am afraid it will go out.
The letters from Washington came frequently to the worker on that
dairy farm in the Catskills, grubbing away at seventy-five cents a
day, besides making some agricultural ventures on his own account. If
not in danger of turning into a cabbage, as his friend feared, he was
at least turning to onions for a season: he tried to raise some on a
little patch of ground allotted him, to reap only regrets and
disappointment. The crop proved a failure, not one in a hundred
coming up, and the seed had cost him a sum he could ill afford. The
venture was a severe blow to him, and brought down severer criticism
on his head.
Here are some extracts from Allen's letters of that period:
February 28, 1862
I dash you off another hasty note to let you know of the Army
movements here ... the papers are forbidden to publish anything with
regard to military movements under pain of suppression....
Great events hover, and soon you will hear of a decisive conflict.
The Great Advance is commencing, in fact, has already commenced.
Night before last and yesterday thousands of troops marched quietly
through the streets to the depot on their way to the upper Potomac.
Gen'l. McClellan has already gone up to Banks's column with ten of
his aides. Yesterday one of his staff was in the store and bought
rubber and wool blankets and other camp equipments.
The whole army is under marching orders and expects to move at any
hour.... An officer in the Regular Army told me to-day that he and
the other officers would have to carry their own baggage, an unusual
thing for officers. Every man is to carry three days' ration in his
haversack. Some of them think they will move toward Occoquan and
attack the right wing of the rebels, while Banks hammers away on
their left. The officers don't know themselves, only surmise. Banks
crossed the river three days ago, and I have no doubt is fighting
now. This morning about fifty ambulances went down the avenue on a
run. They were terribly suggestive of mangled men, and blood, and
There are two hundred thousand armed men here on the banks of the
Potomac, exclusive of Banks's and Wool's divisions. It is one of the
finest armies the world ever saw, composed of men, hardy, true, and
brave, well drilled and well equipped. They have been longing for
action for some time and now are jubilant at the prospect of a
battle. They will strike blows that will make the traitors quail. The
rebel rascals will be unearthed at Manassas, and if our boys get them
in the open field, God help them!
I hear this afternoon that about a hundred secessionists have been
arrested at Alexandria, and now are in the old Capitol prison. They
are all spotted in that city and will be summarily dealt with. . . .
March 6, 1862
I am sorry I have no place ready for you yet. . . . About two months
ago we started a store in Alexandria, and if you had been on the spot
you might have had a chance to conduct it, but it was necessary to
have a man immediately. . . .
As for the Army, John, don 't think of it. It is a miserable life.
Officer's life is bad enough, but a private's life is terrible. Mud,
slush, hunger, cold, toil, typhoid fever, measles, small pox, is what
he has to go through with. But worse than that is the ennui
superimposed by inactivity and confinement in camp. A private has got
to herd with all sorts of men, sixteen in a tent. He loses all
individuality, and becomes a mere machine to be ordered hither and
thither at the will of some upstart to whom, often, he is far
superior in intellect and social position. A position on some
General's staff is about the only active military position I would
like, but first seats in the kingdom of heaven are about as easy to
get as that. Every government position comes through favouritism. As
for an office in the regular army, that is equally hard to obtain. I
have a number of friends in the army of all ranks, from lieutenants
to Brigade Officers, and although they look very fine on the streets
in their uniforms, they lead a rough life. So give up the idea of
soldiering. I'll keep my eyes open for you here. . . .
While I write I hear the sound of music. It is the funeral of the
brave old General Lander passing down the avenue. I drop my pen to
see the procession. . . . It was a beautiful sight. The procession
was not long, some two or three thousand men, but they looked fine.
First came a regiment of infantry marching with their arms reversed
and treading slowly to the mournful music, the platoons reaching
across the breadth of the avenue. The men looked finely in their dark
blue suits. Then came an artillery company, the men mounted and gay
with scarlet braid and plumes; then a squadron of lancers with gay
pennons flaunting from their lances. Then a caisson with the coffin
upon it shrouded in the Stars and Stripes. The dead warrior's horse,
a beautiful creature, was led behind the caisson, the whole
surrounded by a number of stalwart sharp-shooters, with their
telescopic rifles on their shoulders. Then came carriages with
McClellan, McDowell, and other distinguished militaires. Lastly
another regiment of infantry. These are no Sunday soldiers, but
fighting men who have seen battles and expect before another week is
gone to see them again. . . .
You should see some of the regiments marching in a storm just at
nightfall, the men shuffling along with great knapsacks on their
backs, their trousers tucked in their boots, covered with mud and
soaked with rain. It would take all the romance out of you. Sometimes
they have to lie down in the mud after a day's march, and sleep in
the rain. Their tents are often pitched where the mud is six inches
deep-worse than our Beaverkill experience.
The preparations for an advance are still going on. . . .
I wish you were here, you would get some good ideas and might write
some telling things about war and philosophy. . . .
May 1, 1862
MY DEAR JOHN,
If you were here now I should be happy, for you are my twin-spirit.
We are like two lovers, are we not? Do you remember how we used to
lie on the rock by the brook in the twilight? You ought to be a
woman, John, or I. In this soft, sweet air of spring, when the bloom
of the peach tree, and the white blossoms of the other trees are
snowed down on the grass, and the golden stars of the dandelions
shine out in green nooks, and sweet earthy scents fill the air, I
seem to see your spirit in all these things. You are so associated in
memory with the spring and summer, your nice observation of the
phenomena of nature, and your fine appreciation of the Beautiful as
it is gradually unfolded over the hills and valleys, has so
identified you in my mind with these sweet seasons, that I cannot
help thinking of you when I feel the dreamy influences of spring, and
long to be with you. I imagine you exclaiming to yourself at this
point, "Why Allen has made a mistake in directing this to me-it
is a love letter to some fair friend of his!"
Even if I had not got your letter the other day I should have written
just the same, for I know, my dear boy, that you are out of the world
of men, and I am among the busy things, hearing and seeing much that
would interest you. . . .
. . . I'll have to knock down your theory of McClellan going to
Fredericksburg. . . . There are no signs of our forces leaving the
Peninsula. Our intrenchments are thrown up within six hundred yards
of the enemy's works. A new regiment of French Zouaves, called Les
Enfants Pardus, marched through the avenue to-day on their way to
Yorktown. They looked finely in their picturesque uniforms with their
Enfield rifles and bright sabre-bayonets.
I was talking this afternoon with a chaplain who came to-day from
Fredericksburg. He says our force there is thirty thousand. We do not
occupy the town but are encamped on the heights opposite. Pontoon
bridges are being built so the whole force can be thrown over at
once. Our soldiers are not allowed to go over, for if they did, they
would certainly pillage, as for the past few weeks they have had a
hard time of it, and are deprived of many comforts and even
necessities. There seems to be a desire on the part of the commanders
to conduct the War in such a manner that no charges of outrageous
conduct may be laid to our soldiers.
The holding of the town is of little consequence, so long as we
command it . . . if the Stars and Stripes were raised there, the
rebels who are in sight of the hills opposite would shell the place
and cause a fearful waste of life and property, so it is out of mercy
to the inhabitants that the town is let alone, but when we are ready,
down comes their flag!
General McDowell occupies the fine mansion of a Mrs. L-, who went
across the river to get away from the detested "Hessians."
She sent her coloured woman over to the General with the request that
the playing of Yankee Doodle be discontinued as it was very
distasteful to her ear. It is needless to say that the melody was
more prevalent than ever.
I met Gen. McDowell with three of his aides on the avenue Sunday
afternoon, taking terrific strides, their sabres clanking loudly on
the sidewalk. They looked somewhat dilapidated, evidently just from
the field. The General is a noble-looking fellow, tall and
broad-chested, with a bronzed face and a nose that looks as if it had
been struck across the bridge with a club. He has a square forehead,
and a very pleasing expression. I am told he is a very courtly
gentleman. I saw him catch his spurs in a lady's dress one day and
come near falling, but he recovered himself very gracefully and
begged the lady's pardon.
The other Mae, the "little George," is a very
different-looking person. He looks like a well-to-do butcher-boy, the
kind that "kills for Keyser, and can whip his weight in
bull-dogs." He is short and thickset, with a beefy face and bull
neck. His pictures give an impression of dark eyes, eyebrows, and
moustache; on the contrary, they are all light. I stood beside him at
the President's reception one evening and observed him well. He
seemed very diffident and wished to avoid the gaze of the many eager
eyes fixed upon him. It was with difficulty his lady friends induced
him to take a promenade through the East Room, and he got away as
soon as possible. I saw him a short time after in the little
Reception room talking with some friends near the President, who was
pumping the hands of his visitors in a very jovial manner. The
President, seeing the people hurrying by him, turned to seethe cause.
"Ah! General," said he, "are you here?" And the
tall, good-natured Abe put his arm around the short, quiet George,
saying, "Come, General, step up in line, they all want to see
you." "George" shook hands for a short time, but soon
retired and I saw him afterward in a remote corner talking with Cameron.
Our good President is the homeliest and the best-natured looking man
I ever saw. There is something so kindly about his face that I like
to look at him. He looks awkward in white gloves and a dress coat,
and you would laugh to see him do the "extensive" with the
ladies. He was missed a short time, and while walking through one of
the halls, I saw him emerge from a door and make his way back to the
Reception room with a peculiar sliding step, keeping close to the
wall. He looked very funny. A short time after a lady friend was
talking to him and I heard the word "boots" mentioned. I
looked down and saw that he had on slippers. The poor man had been
suffering the pangs of purgatory in tight boots. . . .
Mrs. Lincoln is as round as a dumpling and dresses gorgeously, in
low-necked dresses, showing very plump shoulders.... She looks as if
she made the excellent Abe stand around....
I saw John Hay, the author of "Ellsworth" in the Atlantic,
on the street the other day; he is the President's private secretary....
Since I read that poem of Gen'l Lander's I have thought tenderly of
the man. Calling at a friend's house the other evening where he often
visited, I saw a photograph of him taken on the prairie. There he
stood on the trampled grass, the vast prairie stretching away to the
horizon behind him. He was dressed in hunting costume, leaning on his
rifle. It was a noble form and face, tall and erect, his slouched hat
thrown back from his high forehead, his dark eyes beaming large and
full, a Grecian nose and Oriental beard. . . . He was brave and true,
and, from his poem, full of tenderness. But I am told he seemed rough
sometimes, and cursed frequently.... I wish I had known him.... Fltz
James O'Brien, his aide, is dead, too. I am sorry, for he was a poet.
If it were not for my mother and sister I think I should throw my
little life in the breach against our country's foes. I think
sometimes that I would like to slip out of this life . . . to free
the spirit which is chafing this body. It is unmanly, I know, but you
feel so sometimes, do you not, my dear friend?
Then, commenting on his friend's clouded skies, he concludes:
. . . Forward, my dear friend! you will yet be heard in the land!
Slow and sure, like Emerson, Hawthorne, and all true geniuses, you
will reach the heights. . . .
Little wonder that young Burroughs's war fever ran high that summer
and fall, with such letters as these, together with the delays and
disappointments connected with the Army on the Potomac, and the talk
of drafting to take place. After Pope's defeat at the second battle
of Bull Run, John Burroughs wrote his wife, away on a visit, that it
was time every man, married or single, shouldered a musket; that
unless she returned home soon, she was likely to find him gone to
join the Delaware Blues; that he would wait and earn what he could in
the oats, so as to leave her as much money as possible; that she
could stay with his people untill he returned, and have a pension if
he never came back.
How often it happens in real life that prosaic circumstances
intervene to block one's worthiest endeavours, and mock his most
heroic moods! An enemy in ambush, shortly after that, prevented the
translation of our hero's martial feelings into action: A series of
carbuncles attacked him in relays, not only preventing him from
working effectually in the oats, as planned, but also from joining
the Delaware Blues.
Among a series of articles "From the Back Country," which
our essayist wrote that summer for the New York Leader, was one,
"Harvest Time," for which the editors could give no money,
but for which they sent him, in payment, a pass for three years on
the Ulster and Delaware Railway. But that article brought him
something far more precious than money or fame-the friendship of
Myron B. Benton, a young man a few years his senior, a rural
philosopher and poet, an advanced farmer, a man of ripe and refined
literary taste. Attracted by these articles of the Back Countryman,
that summer Mr. Benton wrote John Burroughs the first letter of
appreciation he ever received from a stranger concerning his
writings. Thence there developed a helpful friendship which
terminated only at his death, thirty years later.
When Mr. Benton had praised the country sketches for their charm and
fidelity, the essayist in reply said he only undertook them to limber
up his style, adding that if Benton had chanced to see his essay,
"Expression," in the Atlantic he had doubtless perceived
that it travelled a little stiff, like a ring-boned horse, a fault
which he found this writing on homely country things was enabling him
A brisk correspondence ensuing, personal data were exchanged,
literary likes and dislikes compared, and the conduct of the war was
freely commented upon. By this time the Countryman in the Catskills
was disinclined to enlist under generals in whom he had so little
confidence. On September 12, 1862, a few days before McClellan
stopped Lee's invasion at the bloody battle of Antietam Creek, he writes:
The war feeling runs very high with me, but I have not enlisted and
probably shall not. I have lost all confidence in our generals; there
is not one whom I would serve under without compulsion. McClellan I
implicitly believed in once, but now consider a failure, fully as
much as Pope, the Gasconade, is. "Mac" is a very proper
general, a very mathematical gentleman, but, me judice, has not a
spark of genius. And mark this, so long as there is only engineering
skill and mathematical precision on our side, and dash and bravery
and rapidity of movement on the part of the Rebels, so long the
battle will be against us. No great war can be successfully carried
on purely on mathematical principles (organizing Victory beforehand)
any more than a great poem can be written solely by mastering
"Parker's Aids." Forego spades and picks and the idea of
digging or engineering an active, vigilant enemy out of a place, rely
upon pure bravery, and the ability to deal quick, hard blows, and
something may be done. Halleck engineered the enemy out of Corinth,
and we now seethe fruits of it! "Mae" ditto out of
Yorktown, and see the harvest he gathered! Obliging an enemy to
retreat without fighting him is disastrous; it is winding the spring
up, and you know what effect that has-narrows its compass and in the
same measure intensifies its power.
I have not read the Tribune this summer, nor the Post, so these views
are not those of any newspapers. I have arrived at them solely from
studying our own movements and those of the Rebels. Look at the
contrast! I know it is very naughty of them to "cutup" as
they have! They ought to have come up in front of Washington, or
Pope's army, and gone to digging. But enough of this. You will excuse
me for talking thus, for I feel deeply upon the subject.
In the light of later knowledge, and the perspective of time, this
opinion of the young man of twenty-five concerning the conduct of
some of the Union generals, shows that he was something more than a
"cabbage head," or even a budding essayist. McClellan's
failure to follow up his Antietam victory, his second removal,
Burnside's reckless assault of Fredericksburg, with his awful
repulse, and, in the spring (May '63), General Hooker's defeat at
Chancellorsville, were causing a general disheartening, as well as a
critical attitude, among loyal hearts everywhere.
Benton, in reply to the criticism concerning the conduct of the war,
said, in part:
I fear that you are too nearly correct in your opinion of our
officers, though I am not quite so devoid of confidence in them. We
have, indeed, been out-officered from the beginning, but however bad
they are, they axe, of course, better than none, for in the latter
case we could not fight at all, and fighting is our only hope now. We
must stick by our officers until we, the people, compel the
government to put better in their places.
It is a pity, indeed, that the Southern bull would pitch in, instead
of raving at a distance, according to the policy of the Northern one,
pawing and "digging entrenchments," as we often see such
belligerents do on the farm. I have still confidence in Lincoln's
honesty, but, O, how far behind the day he is! A handful of
half-loyal men in the border states outweigh all the rest. It is a
pity that he who once thought that no method of dealing with slavery
was fit which did not contemplate it as wrong, should now hold back.
Only a day or two since I heard a speaker, one of the hard old sort,
who scarcely thinks the negro equal to a baboon, plead strongly for
In October, the correspondents are planning
for a meeting in Poughkeepsie, Benton to visit his
soldier brother in training there. The younger man, warning his
friend that he is likely to be disenchanted at nearness and contact,
and confessing that he is habitually stupid, his occasional bright
spells almost never occurring with strangers, writes:
If I should find that I have always known you, though I have never
happened to meet you before, why, we will get along first rate together.
He names a certain hotel for the place of meeting, telling his friend
that if he sees a middling short, thick fellow with a mere shadow of
side whiskers, dressed in a dark suit, and a light felt hat, with a
newspaper clutched in his hand, coming along the street in front of
the hotel, there's a chance of its being he.
And so the friends met, and got along "first rate"
together. Soon after this, the "middling short, thick
fellow" went to the town of Olive and speculated in a
consignment of honey, but the honey got crashed in transportation
turning, as it were, to gall.
Just what directed his thoughts to medicine he does not remember, but
without abandoning in the least his intention of becoming a writer,
he decided to combine with this the study of medicine. Accordingly,
he began reading anatomy in the office of his old friend, Dr. Hull,
at Olive, and teaching the little school there, at seventeen dollars
a month, his wife remaining in his father's home at Roxbury, there
being no rooms for rent available there, and little of the
wherewithal to rent them, had such been found.
The future looked pretty dubious but, in spite of gloomy misgivings,
he must subconsciously have been sustained by a conviction of
selfdependence, and a trust that the long time following the sowing
would be crowned by joyous reaping; that some day his Own-whatever
his soul craved and deserved-would come to him. One gloomy evening in
November, as he sat in the Doctor's dingy little office with Gray's
Anatomy, he suddenly pushed aside the book and began scribbling. What
he wrote was the now well-known poem, "Waiting," which has
probably brought him more friends than anything else that has ever
come from his pen. He thought little of it himself and the poem made
but little stir at the time. It was not printed till two years later,
in, Knickerbocker's Magazine. For years it seemed completely
forgotten until Whittier, resurrecting it, included it in his Songs
of Three Centuries. This seemed to give it vogue and it has travelled
on the wings of public print ever since.
The reading of medicine continued, but hearing of a school at
Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls) near West Point which needed a
teacher and would pay better wages than the Olive school, he resigned
in December, took along his medical books, and began teaching in the
little river town. Again the couple set up housekeeping, and again
the skies brightened for a little. Besides reading medicine, for
"side dishes" there were Dickens's Great Expectations, and
Prescott's Conquest of Peru.
Before many months had passed, however, he abandoned the thought of
becoming a physician, the fine library to which he had access at the
West Point Academy probably proving too powerful a rival to the few
medical books he had borrowed of Dr. Hull.
On the 18th of December, after Burnside's repulse, Benton writes:
Oh, this last repulse and slaughter of our army! When are we going to
accomplish anything? The only morsel of encouragement there is in it
is that we have a general who will attempt something at least. My
brother is still in Baltimore-it is quite probable that the regiment
will remain there this winter.
Knickerbocker's Magazine accepted a paper that winter on
"Analogy," giving the essayist Wilkinson's Human Body in
payment. His friend, Henry Abbey, a poet, declared the essay
"brilliant," but the Evening Post pronounced it
"heavy," and the sane young writer, in a letter to Benton,
agreed with the judgment of the Post rather than the poet. He
complained to Benton that he had not written much for some time, had
"merely cackled without laying an egg."
That school at Buttermilk Falls was a hard one to govern, the boys
being very unruly. One day when a certain lad became insolent, the
impulsive teacher, losing his temper, "walloped" him
severely. In the ensuing struggle the teacher finally got the upper
hand; but so heartily ashamed of himself was he for losing his temper
that he stood up before the school and, breaking in two the whips,
told his pupils that if he could not keep school without such scenes
as that, he would quit; he was not there to thrash them, he said, but
to help them. Admitting contritely his own weakness, before he had
finished he was weeping, and his pupils were weeping with him.
Thereafter obedience and harmony reigned.
In January of 1863, and for months following, the tide in the
fortunes of the Union cause was at its lowest ebb; the
Burroughs-Benton correspondence reflects those anxious times.
Benton's remark shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation shows how
the immortal Lincoln was criticised and carped at even by men as
fair-minded as this level-headed young man. Because the memorable
document could not accomplish everything desired, the fact that it
liberated three and one half million slaves earned for it only the
"faint praise" of these words to his friend Burroughs:
Thank the Lord we have the long awaited Proclamation at last; though
it comes, like Samson, shorn of its locks of strength.
The slaves were freed at last; but, to continue the parallel in the
fortunes of our youth and the nation, the schoolteacher of Buttermilk
Falls found himself in bondage for the first four months of that
momentous year, his writing and meditation being practically
suspended, owing to the semiinvalidism of his wife. A wearisome round
of household duties, nursing, and teaching was his portion, until her
convalescence in May, and the too-long-delayed arrival of a housemaid
upon the scene.
An acquaintance with Professor Eddy, a scholarly man and a botanist
living at Buttermilk Falls, resulted at this period in long walks in
the woods, the botanist initiating him in the study of the early wild
flowers. From now on his letters give glimpses of the ardour of these
quests; the discussions concerning McClellan and " Fighting Joe
" and Burnside are superseded by bloodless conquests of his own
in the May woods, the letters breathing the fragrance of arbutus,
revealing the tender grace of hepatica, corydalis, and claytonia, and
announcing his delight in gathering cypripediums.
It was, in truth, a peaceful life he was living those months in the
midst of war's alarms. One day at noon on going home from school and
stepping into his bedroom, he was startled to find a quail sitting on
his bed, the bird evidently having flown there to escape a hawk.
Trivial as is this incident, it stands out in his memory as clearly
as much more significant things in that far-away period.
But letters from Allen will not long allow the war to be forgotten.
In early May, Allen writes:
I have seen several officers and others within the last few hours,
just up from the front, and they all report that Hooker has crossed
the river again. He'll hop on their breast-bones before they know it
and be picking the meat off. Now while I write I hear the rattle of
ambulances bringing the wounded in, and so they'll rattle all night....
From now on Allen's letters begin to mention Walt Whitman, who
saunters into the store occasionally:
a broad-chested old fellow with grey beard and moustache radiating
from a broad, ruddy face. He has the mildest of clear blue eyes, far
apart, and one of the most sympathetic voices I ever heard in a man.
He wears a broad-brimmed, soft hat well back on his head, and collar
well open on the chest. His dress and air are very farmer-like, and
he walks the streets with an easy stride, his hands in his pockets,
and always seems to be musing. He does not talk much on literature.
He lent me some letters from some of his young friends in New York.
They call him "Walt," and by reading you would judge him to
be a young fellow, and, indeed, he is young, with his perfect health
and youthful tastes.
Later in the month:
Walt was in the other day and I had quite a talk with him. He has a
volume coming out soon called Drum Taps. . . .
June 18, 1863:
Walt just passed with his arms full of bottles and lemons, going to
some hospital, he said, to give the boys a good time. . . .
Walt is much interested in you. I sketched your history some to him.
He would like to know you. He is a good fellow, and, although over fifty,*
belongs to the present generation. He was much interested in our
trip to the Beaverkill, which I detailed to him.
He [Whitman], good man, was just returning from some hospital where
he had been doing that sort of good which a kind heart and noble soul
can do -- performing those sweet, balmy ministrations which win the
sinking spirit from the very borders of the Dark Realm, his large
active sympathy reaching down to the homesick soul, shivering within
a shattered body, and lifting it into light, and warmth and love.
One June day as John Burroughs was sauntering around West Point when
the official visitors were there for the examination of the cadets,
he spied a tall, striking-looking person with a much too large silk
hat pushed back on his head, and an air of eager curiosity. He
wondered who the countryman was who was evidently away from home for
the first time, intent on seeing all there was to be seen.
That night Myron Benton came to town, and rushing into the Burroughs
home, his usual placidity considerably ruffled, announced that
Emerson was over at West Point. Then Burroughs knew who the alert,
eager "countryman" was.
The next day the two friends went over to the Military Academy and
met their hero, and walked and talked with him. He seemed glad to get
away from the older fellows, and they followed him about much as
Socrates was followed by the youthful Athenians; only, instead of the
master questioning them, they did the most of the questioning. They
asked him particularly about Alcott, Thoreau, and David A. Wasson,
and he told them many significant things concerning those gifted friends.
That talk of Emerson's to the young men was like water to a thirsty
hart. They carried his valise to the boatlanding, they hovered near
as he stepped on the little ferryboat, they stood close to the boat
listening to him till 11 the last minute, and waved to him as he
smiled benignly when the boat moved away.
It was a red-letter day in their lives. They had seen and touched
their hero, and virtue seemed to have gone out of him into their very
souls. For hours, even days, they moved in a different world. Wisdom
had tarried awhile with Youth, and Youth, basking in the light of her
countenance, knew itself to be blest.
The library at West Point had, from the first, been a godsend to the
student-teacher, but as the books could not be taken from it, and as
it was two or more miles distant from his home, and he could seldom
get there except of a Saturday, it left much to be desired. But here,
in May or June of 1863, he chanced upon Audubon's Birds with its
spirited coloured illustrations. It was one of the most momentous
happenings of his life. His enthusiasm became inflamed. It was like
bringing together fire and powder. In his childhood when he had noted
with such curiosity and delight that strange warbler in the Deacon
woods, of which we have read, he had said to himself, "I shall
know the birds some day," but in all the years that had
followed, nothing had come of that thought and wish on his part until
now; his observation of the birds and their ways had apparently been
aimless; his knowledge of them unsystematized. But hear what he says
of the effect which Audubon now had upon him:
I was ripe for the adventure. I had leisure; I was in a good bird
country. . . . How eagerly and joyously I took up the study! It
fitted in so well with my country tastes and breeding; it turned my
enthusiasm as a sportsman into a new channel; it gave to my walks a
new delight; it made me look upon every grove and wood as a new
storehouse of possible treasures. I could go fishing or camping or
picnicing now with my resources for enjoyment doubled. The first
hooded warbler that I discovered and identified in a nearby bushy
field one Sunday morningshall I every forget the thrill of delight it
The ardour with which he pursued this new study deepened throughout
that eventful May and June, with the throng of returning birds to
quicken it, and the collection of mounted birds for reference at the
Military Academy. It increased as the season advanced. A new world
opened up to him in the very midst of the old, almost blotting out
for him the perilous fortunes of the nation. "While the Battle
of Gettysburg was being fought (July 1-3) 1 was in the woods studying
the birds-think of it! " and he sighed in deep contrition,
reproaching himself for his callousness. Pickett's gallant charge,
the withering fire of the Union guns, immortal heroism in both attack
and defence, and then the wavering line stopping, slowly bending
backward, breaking-the Southern cause virtually lost! -- all this
taking place on the heights above Gettysburg, and the next day Lee in
sorrow unspeakable retreating to the Potomac with his defeated army,
while Grant was entering Vicksburg in triumph-all this, while the
bird-student was pursuing warblers in the woods around West Point!
How could this young man have been so seemingly un moved by the fate
of the Union whose welfare he unques tioningly had at heart? His own
words, uttered years later, when from the summit of the years he
looked back upon his life, furnish the explanation:
My life has always been more or less detached from the life about me.
I have not been a hermit, but my temperament and love of solitude,
and a certain constitutional timidity and shrinking from all kinds of
strife, have kept me in the by-paths rather than in the great
highways of life.
... I have kept apart from the strife and fever of the world, and the
maelstrom of business and political life, and have sought the paths
by -s, and in the quiet fields, and life has been sweet and whole the
still waters some to me. In my tranquil seclusion I am often on the
point of upbraiding myself because I keep so aloof from the struggles
and contentions ... about me.
I was never a fighter; I fear that at times I may have been a
shirker, but I have shirked one thing or one duty that I might the
more heartily give myself to another. He also serves who sometimes
I missed being a soldier in the armies of the Union during the Civil
War, which was probably the greatest miss of my life. I think I had
in me many of the qualities that go to the making of a good soldier
-love of adventure, keenness of eye and ear, love of camp-life,
ability to shift for myself, skill with the gun, and a sound
constitution. But the rigidity of the military system, the iron
rules, the mechanical unity and precision, the loss of the one in the
many-all would have galled me terribly, though better men than I
willingly, joyously, made themselves a part of the great military
machine. I would have been a good scout and skirmisher, but a poor
fighter in the ranks. I am a poor fighter, anyhow.
And who shall say that the service John Burroughs has rendered his
country by living his own sane and contented life, and writing his
books, has not been far greater than any he could have rendered by
becoming a soldier? He has given to the whole nation a fresh, sane,
simple outlook upon life; has stimulated a love for nature that has
been a saving grace to young and old. As that great American,
Theodore Roosevelt, said to" Dear Oom John:"
It is a good thing for our people that you have lived, and surely no
man can wish to have more said of him.
Early in August of '63, Allen, Benton, and Burroughs, with one Jaspar
from Jersey, planned a camping trip in the Adirondacks. Burroughs
wrote Benton, burdened with the cares of a large farm in Dutchess County:
Let not trifles detain you. We will have a glorious time. Write by
return mail and say you are with us. The expense will not be much,
but the fun boundless.
Of that sojourn in the Adirondack wilds we read in Wake Robin. Allen,
coming on from Washington, missed the stage at Poughkeepsie, walked
the twenty-eight miles to Benton's home at Leedsville one hot August
day, and the four then set out for two weeks of glorious freedom.
Shortly after returning to Buttermilk Falls John Burroughs wrote his
first bird article.
The reluctant teacher again took up his irksome task, more irksome
than ever after those free days in the forest. The pay was pitifully
inadequate to meet the mounting cost of living. He asked the trustees
to increase it, promising himself that unless they did, he would,
discontinue teaching and volunteer.
Gettysburg and Vicksburg had been the beginning of the end of the
long struggle, but the end itself was not yet. Still the war news
that now came to the restive teacher was more cheering than
heretofore. Real teamwork was taking place. Buell and Rosencrans in
Kentucky and Tennessee had compelled Bragg to retire to Chattanooga,
Grant and Sherman, free after Vicksburg to move eastward across
Mississippi and Alabama, driving Johnston before them, were working
to join Rosencrans at Chattanooga and push the Confederate armies
into Georgia, while the Army of the Potomac was to press down on Lee
from northern Virginia. This "Anaconda" policy promised a
speedy end of the Confederacy, when Bragg's sudden turn on Rosencrans
at Chickamauga nearly caused a crushing defeat of the Union cause.
But the magnificent defence of General Thomas almost turned defeat
The news that came of the valiant " Rock of Chickamauga "
so stirred our quiet school-teacher that we find him, on the 23d of
September, writing to Benton that he can no longer be satisfied to go
on in that way; that he is seriously contemplating joining the army;
that he craves action; and that if he only had someone like him
[Benton] to go with him, he would go without delay. Lover of comrades
that he was, he could not quite make up his mind to such a step
without a "buddy." But already two of the younger Benton
boys had gone to the war; the elder son was needed to carry on the
work of the farm. Immediately from his farmer-friend comes a protest:
This matter of your going into the army troubles me not a little. God
forbid that I should throw a straw in the way of patriotism now. Our
country needs sacrifices which should be offered willingly; but I do
not see that the cause requires very much now in the mere matter of
numbers, after the means which have been taken. One born with the
genius to direct and control the great mass of raw material could do
something for his country now; but I cannot see that the demand is
such that you are called upon to enlist at this time. I beg of you do
not plunge into this thing out of rash uneasiness and craving for
excitement. Such feelings ought to be smothered before they lead you
to bury all your opportunities of intellectual improvement, as you
know you would. I would not have answered to-night except to send my
opinion on this subject; for I fear that you are going to be very
precipitate. Think of all you would forego to satisfy this craving
for the excitement of the "big war." One week would satisfy
all that, and then-the long drudgery. If you think it is your duty to
your country, I will not open my mouth, though it would be a
sacrifice on my part to lose you. What you would sacrifice would be
immense. I need not tell you that your after life will depend very
much upon the way in which the next three or four years are
spent-towards your development.
. . . Now I wish you in particular to drop me a line by the next mail
after receiving this, and tell me your plans, will you not?
In spite of his friend's solicitude, it was not until ten days later
that Burroughs wrote his friend Benton that his plans for enlisting
had been "knocked prematurely in the head " by the severe
illness of his wife, whose condition still prevented his leaving her.
He was then again carrying on the threefold work of keeping house,
nursing, and teaching school. The draft had come off in the village
but he had "not the honour to be a conscript." He begged
Benton if he could find a housemaid in his vicinity to kidnap her and
send her along. The maid did not materialize, but the wife was soon convalescent.
In late October the school at Buttermilk Falls suddenly found itself
without a teacher. On closing school one night, after having given
out the lessons as usual for the next day, the teacher put the key in
his pocket. He never went back. The undercurrent of protest and
unrest suddenly culminated in abandonment of the school. Thus
ingloriously ended his career as a teacher. He had never been able to
give himself to the work. It was but a means to another end, and
almost before he knew it, he had quit it once for all. He had quit
his various business ventures; he had abandoned the brief study of
medicine; but through all these changes had steadfastly held to his
serious reading and writing; and now with his absorbing interest in
the birds and the flowers, and the ambition to become a writer,
conditions and circumstances seemed to be focussing more clearly on
that as a career-and yet, and yetthere was the War beckoning! One
decision, the abandonment of teaching, had been made, but what about
In late October, with the birds, he turned his back on the Highlands
of the Hudson, and migrated South as far as Washington, in quest of
work and adventure.
- Charles E. Benton, author of As Seen from the Ranks - (Return)
- Whitman was only forty-four at this time - (Return)