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“In Honor, as in Limb, Unmarred”: Obsession with the “Whole” Body in Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

Vanessa Meikle Schulman


This article examines Herman Melville’s poetry collection Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) using theories and concepts from the sphere of disability studies. Mobilizing evidence from Melville’s letters as well as close readings of the poems, I argue that Melville presented a complicated relationship to questions of bodily wholeness and autonomy in his written work, particularly in response to the political and existential stresses of the U.S. Civil War. Melville conceptualized Battle-Pieces as a chronological archive intended to redeem a narrative of wholeness and overcome a perceived weakness or deficiency in the body politic. However, the book’s fractured arc serves rather to highlight a lack of healing, both political and corporeal. Melville’s obsession with the “whole” body is apparent both in his unpublished, private writing and through close readings of the poems “Donelson,” “The College Colonel,” and others. Reading Battle-Pieces through the lens of disability studies makes visible the author’s conflicted responses to wounded bodies. Melville’s obsession with wholeness and healing was part of a larger national obsession—that of mending the rift between North and South by tending to the physical wounds of individual veterans—a historico-medical context that Melville scholars have largely ignored. Placing Melville’s poems within a larger conversation about medical intervention and the limits of the ‘disabled’ body as a symbol for national regeneration, in this article I show how Melville overtly engaged in ongoing debates about healing and nation-building in the aftermath of the Civil War.

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1In an 1863 speech, the doctor and intellectual Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. regaled his audience with a vision of the war as “rough chirurgery” needed to suture “the two broken pieces of the Union” (83, 87). The fracture of war, he suggested, was not merely a political schism; it was a narrative written on the bodies of men who returned “starred with bullet-wounds and striped with sabre-cuts” (119). While Holmes ascribed a positive, patriotic meaning to this scarring, other observers were less sanguine. A few months earlier, a dispatch in the New York Herald had described survivors of the Battle of Chancellorsville as “poor cripples, with legs and arms shattered and their life’s blood ebbing out,” a despairing description that contrasts with Holmes’s more triumphal reading (“Correspondence” 10). These responses show two different facets of the Northern reaction to wartime wounding. Holmes found hope in a metaphor of healing, while the other author, faced with one of the Union’s most unsettling military defeats, observed only pain and suffering. Both texts, however, used wounded bodies to make a pronouncement about the state of the nation, helping shape a postwar rhetoric that equated political reunification with a process of physical healing. In this era, most texts of this kind shared an assumption about the desirability of corporeal wholeness, presenting war-altered bodies as problems to overcome. In the postwar period, these nearly half a million wounded men (Johnson 131-32) were used by writers, artists, and politicians as symbols of a shattered body politic.

2It is unsurprising that Herman Melville, an author whose work had long engaged with questions of bodily autonomy and disability, would add his voice to this chorus. In 1866, he published the poetry collection Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which presents Melville’s personal gloss on the war’s technological, military, and human tragedies, locating the events of the Civil War in a roughly chronological arc that, many scholars argue, replicates the uncertainty and multivocal nature of the war itself (Marrs; Sweet, “Melville’s Battle-Pieces”). However, little attention has been paid to the role that wounding, amputation, and physical and mental health play in the text. In this article I examine Battle-Pieces through the lens of Melville’s obsession with the “healthy” body and view the book as an artifact of the author’s attempt to work through his complex feelings about physical difference. The poems of Battle-Pieces show Melville trying to figure out how to respond to war-related differences and injuries. While most responses of the era seek to heal, or at least salve, the war’s wounds, Melville’s more open-ended text demonstrates the author’s negotiation of received assumptions about the “ideal” body. In spite of his own fixation on corporeal wholeness as a desirable attribute, Battle-Pieces also reveals his growing recognition of a socially-produced experience of disability.

3In this essay I will explore what I believe is an overlooked context for understanding Battle-Pieces: Melville’s conflicted attitudes toward physical disability and bodily infirmity, including his concerns about his own body. While at times he appears to see his own physical limitations—and those of others—as signs of mental weakness or failures of manliness, Melville also uses Battle-Pieces to observe and comment upon the social constructs that produced ideas of disability in antebellum and Civil War-era America. His struggles with his own health, and his obsession with bodily wholeness, produce a text that is at times censorious and prejudicial, at others tender and reverential. The book’s lack of cohesion and its contingent nature mirror Melville’s own uncertainty about the feasibility of a model that links wounded bodies to a larger national narrative of reconciliation.

4First, I will outline conversations about wounding and disability that followed the Civil War and discuss how the framework of disability studies can help make sense of this historical moment. Next, I will analyze Melville’s most conventional move in Battle-Pieces: the impulse to use wounded, particularly amputee, bodies as metaphors for larger national, even geological, distress—representing the break to which Holmes had referred as a “fissure… zigzagging itself half across the continent” (87). With a close reading of “Donelson,” in this section I will analyze how Melville’s rendering of damaged landscapes laments a wounded nation and prompts readers’ desires to make it whole. Finally, I consider how other portions of the collection reveal Melville’s more equivocal engagement with wounded bodies. In this section I discuss Melville’s relation to the visual culture of photography, which structures encounters of looking at male faces and bodies in “The Portent,” “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander,” and “The College Colonel.” Occasional references to the author’s private letters are interwoven with close readings of the individual poems. I argue, through engagement with these various texts, that the book represents Melville’s obsessive attempt to work through his complex assumptions about the cultural role of (presumably white, presumably male) ‘whole’ bodies. These questions of bodily wholeness and autonomy constitute a major, overlooked theme of Melville’s poetics.

5Placing Battle-Pieces in the appropriate historico-medical context requires some attention to the war’s medical legacy. The great loss of life, particularly the high casualty rate due to disease, prompted an immediate response that centered on narratives of amateurism, butchery, and incompetence. In spite of some positive steps in the treatment and care of ill or injured soldiers (Devine 15-19; Humphreys 26-43), the war created an unprecedented number of men whose bodies were changed by their military experiences. Due to their position within a narrative of fraught reconciliation, disabled war veterans prompted new national conversations about issues of masculinity and sacrifice. As Colleen Glenney Boggs writes, it is in this era that “disability emerges as a social condition and discursive formation on which constructions of national identity as well as of gender and sexuality rely” (42). Particularly under modern capitalism, the notion of physical disability became tied to one’s productive capacity, therefore heightening the need to regulate bodies and “solve” their perceived deficiencies (Nielsen 20; see also Handley-Cousins 13-21). Scholars show that Civil War veterans classified as “disabled” on average experienced poorer long-term outcomes than veterans of earlier wars (Nielsen 84-85). As a mechanized war fought by troops in a rapidly modernizing economy and treated by a newly professional medical class, the Civil War’s production of narratives about disability—and the volume of altered bodies it created—was unique at that point in history.

6Recent scholars of the Civil War in fields including the history of medicine, literary studies, and art history have incorporated key ideas from critical disability studies. Whether they are considering the lived experiences of men whose bodies were changed by the war (Handley-Cousins; Jordan) or are looking at the “symbolic uses of disability” in postwar culture (Johnson 133; see also Boggs; Nudelman), these authors concur that disability is a culturally and socially produced category, rather than a persistent medical reality. Recognizing that nineteenth-century authors, artists, and doctors primarily understood disability in the latter way, contemporary scholars seek to uncover complex assumptions about wellness and wholeness that pervaded postwar discourses and constructed Civil War veterans’ bodies as non-standard. In some venues, the wounded bodies of veterans prompted narratives of valor, patriotism, and sacrifice. At the same time, however, the sight of injured men or amputees could remind able-bodied viewers of the vulnerability of their own bodies, activating fears about physical autonomy and wholeness that permeated nineteenth-century culture (Davis 3-16). The postwar period encouraged the construction of a culturally defined division between normate, “able” bodies and those disabled bodies that present “deviation from standard norms” (Dolmage 34). In particular, the cultural figure of the veteran amputee stood in as a marker for larger concerns about health and welfare after the war.

7Veteran amputees, comprising a small percentage of men who experienced wartime injuries or diseases that legally qualified them as “disabled,” nevertheless loomed largest in the cultural imagination and in the production of disability as a politically significant category. A relatively high survival rate for field amputations—around 73.7% for Union soldiers (Devine 209)—meant that some 45,000 veteran amputees entered the population (Nielsen 84). As the historian Sarah Handley-Cousins writes, images of and discussions about amputees have been a central area of study for recent Civil War scholars, who tend to focus on their “symbolic use in postwar discussions of reconciliation and memory creation” (8). Melville also focuses disproportionately on men with visibly noticeable impairments. The poems under analysis in this article, for instance, center on two key sites of identifiable physical difference: the face and, more frequently, the limbs (or lack thereof). In this, Melville shared a preoccupation with many of his contemporaries in art and literature. Russell L. Johnson writes of the “vast” archive of images representing veteran amputees in the illustrated press (133), while Boggs analyzes the “empty sleeve” as a trope in fiction and poetry, including the work of Melville’s contemporary, Walt Whitman (Boggs 55-57).

8The cultural response to veteran amputees can also highlight the contradictory postwar messages surrounding physical difference, contradictions that Melville absorbed, reflected, and sometimes reworked in Battle-Pieces. According to Robert Bogdan, veteran amputees may form a special category of disabled subjects because “their identity as soldiers outweighs their status” as patients (171), leading to positive appreciation, even celebration, of their differences. In the postwar era, a missing limb sometimes served as a heightened reminder of masculinity, patriotism, and strength (Boggs 42-43; Johnson 133-34). However, Handley-Cousins cautions that this “[r]hetoric that fashioned war wounds into patriotic sacrifices and wounded men into heroes failed to exorcise the anxiety over disabled soldiers’ manhood,” and did not alleviate concerns about their ability to contribute profitable labor to the postwar economy (30). Thus we can understand postwar American society as one that interpreted combat veterans using the medical model of disability, a mode of thinking that understands different bodies as “problem[s] in need of a solution” (Mitchell, “Narrative Prosthesis” 15). As the most visually pressing reminder of the war, veteran amputees presented their society with a large-scale “problem,” and one that often stood in a symbolic way for a weakened and rehabilitating nation.

9I would like to move now to analyzing Melville’s Battle-Pieces as an example of a literary work that operated within this atmosphere, in which open discussions about bodily fitness and perceived infirmity were ongoing and were connected to national messages of reunification and national healing. Published in 1866 and composed over roughly the previous year, Battle-Pieces was supposed to mark the author’s triumphant return to the cultural arena. Instead, it became a legendary flop in the variegated career of a literary figure who has since been hailed as one of the United States’ most important proto-modern writers. The book’s organization shows Melville’s interest in synthesizing disparate pieces of information to form something complete, but the author clearly recognizes the challenge inherent in such a unifying project. In his preface, Melville writes that the individual poems were “composed without reference to collective arrangement, but being brought together in review, naturally fall into the order assumed” (v). The entries are marked with years, months, and even, occasionally, specific dates, and placed in a chronological progression, a choice that speaks to an interest in writing a cohesive history of the war. Yet he also writes that the collection proposes to give the viewer a glimpse of “but a few themes… such as for any cause chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind” (v). In other words, the poems are arranged not strictly chronologically but into the order in which unreliable and flitting memory may place them. From its inception, this project is noted as subjective, “without purposing to be, of consistency” (v). When faced with a war that resolutely refused to offer certainties or placate anxieties about the reconstituted state of the nation, Battle-Pieces itself enacts a fractured and difficult unification of its constituent parts.

10Despite its initial critical failure, there are now multiple compelling interpretations of the book’s formal and political goals, many of which connect Melville’s poetic concerns with debates about larger national issues. Stanton Garner (72-76), Megan Rowley Williams (156-57), and Robert Arbour (52-53) discuss the work’s Miltonian echoes to suggest that the war cast the nation, howling, into a hostile wilderness. Peter Coviello even reads the volume as a warning about the viability of the “nation-form” itself (195). Focusing particularly on the final poems in the collection, Griffin describes the book as a prescient recognition that the war’s legacy would be a “North-South reconciliation at the cost of inclusive or progressive racial politics” (93), a position of leniency toward former rebels that Melville espoused in the concluding prose supplement. Warning against an overly harsh Reconstruction that would foment future sectional strife, Melville instead advocates for a smooth reunification, one that rejects any form of recrimination. Instead, he focuses parts of the volume on the work of healing a divided nation. To soothe these injuries, Melville navigates the genres of epitaph and elegy. To modern readers, the war’s scale and devastation make poetic elegies seem outdated, even quaint, but Melville’s poems of mourning become texts that lament the breakage of self-evident “truths” about nationhood upon which the country had been founded (Caddell 292-318; Griffin 68-75; Sweet, “Melville’s Battle-Pieces” 99-100; Williams 158-59). However, while dead bodies might serve as touchpoints for national grief, still-living men whose bodies had been changed by combat injury or illness provided a more apt metaphor for a nation that was not dead, but merely altered.

11To explore this theme, Melville uses natural metaphors to equate wounded bodies with the national landscape, referencing that “fissure” that his former neighbor Oliver Wendell Holmes had identified in 1863 (87). This approach appears in one of the first pieces in the collection, “Apathy and Enthusiasm,” in which Melville connects the war with naturalistic imagery evoking destruction and infirmity. Setting the poem during the election season of 1860, “the clammy cold November / And the winter white and dead,” he compares the election of Lincoln to “the thunder-cracks of massy ice… Bursting one upon another” (19). This reference to an iceberg cracking apart sets up a narrative of Northern dissolution, a fracture visible on the body of the continent. In the following section, Melville explores how this “fissure” was “growing momently more wide,” but inaction and uncertainty stopped any possibility of healing the divide. This indecision of the North Melville calls “the paralysis of arm” that eventually led to “the finality of doom” (19). Thus even before any wounding can occur, Melville likens the foundering nation, with its passive and flawed response to the secession crisis, to a body without the use of an arm.

12In other poems, the author creates parallels between wounded soldiers and scarred trees, thus becoming perhaps one of the first commentators to make this connection, which later became common. The long poem “Donelson” narrates the siege of Fort Donelson through a series of dispatches, paired with the responses to the news from civilians in an unnamed Northern community. One of the earliest of these dispatches—before the length of the siege starts to wear on the public, and the reader—notes almost with pride that “Each cliff cost / A limb or life” (35). Each of these limbs now equates to a veteran amputee, a sacrifice made in the cause of Northern victory. Yet Melville also pays close attention to the losses sustained by the natural landscape in the course of the fighting. Continually throughout the rest of the poem he imagines those “limbs” lost not as human appendages but as tree branches. On the following page, he notes the trees that are wounded by enemy fire: “Some scores are maimed by boughs shot off / In the glades by the Fort’s big gun” (36). A tree losing its limbs, like a man, will appear lopsided, shorn, damaged: “the trees show bullet dents” (39).

13Later, in a different poem, “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Melville describes how “stumps of forests for dreary leagues / Like a massacre show” (97). The rhetoric of bodily injury done to trees, or other forms of nature, emerged in the war’s aftermath as a metaphor for its calamitous human damage (Lyons 44-65; Nelson 153-59). Imbuing trees with some rudimentary form of consciousness or feeling, nineteenth-century writers used them as metaphors for the devastation wreaked (literally) on the land and (metaphorically) on the body politic by the war’s killing and maiming. The idea of ‘witness trees,’ as seen in writing about and tourism around Gettysburg in the years immediately following the war, suggests that trees, like bodies, can feel pain, hold scars, lose limbs. Rather than the oaks of Gettysburg, Melville picks a different type of tree to anthropomorphize in “Malvern Hill.” At the end of the poem, which is itself a long apostrophe directed at the trees, he closes the composition with the answering lines: “We elms of Malvern Hill / Remember every thing” (68).

14Melville continues the parity between humans and trees later in “Donelson,” when soldiers are faced with the corpses of trees that have been felled earlier in the siege, almost like an advance guard whose cadavers are left to deter those that follow. The human tide of the war comes in contact with the injured bodies of nature, when “they who first / Gained the fort’s base, and marked the trees / Felled… They faltered, drawing bated breath, / And felt it was in vain to dare” (37-38). Seeing the wounded trees causes the advancing soldiers a moment of panic, and later, in retreat, the movement is mirrored in the “crippled plight” of wounded Union troops back through the forest (43). As these examples show, Melville here views the nation as a stricken body, suffering from paralysis, division, and weakness. His solution is the presentation of a carefully organized, yet oddly fragmented, series of poems that tries to overcome—yet also replicates—the fractured nature of wartime and postwar discourse.

15Melville references the idea of being “crippled” multiple times in Battle-Pieces, often with a derogatory or negative tone. For instance, in “The Armies of the Wilderness,” he seems to associate wounding with cowardice, when he describes how “The crippled, a ragged bark-stick for a crutch… Hobble from the sight of dead faces” (102). In “On the Slain at Chickamauga,” he equates the positive attribute of “honor” with freedom from injury: “Happy are they and charmed in life / Who through long wars arrive unscarred… In honor, as in limb, unmarred” (172). He only uses the specific terms “cripple” or “crippled” four times in the book, but makes continued reference to bodies with missing limbs. In “The Victor of Antietam,” he refers to survivors of the battle as “the one-armed,” reducing the men to what Melville believes they are lacking (72). These more apparently negative references to men’s wounded bodies show how Melville absorbed the assumptions of his time, privileging the whole body and continuing a concern that was pervasive in much of his earlier work.

16Extensive recent interest in Melville’s engagement with disability now reaches beyond the interpretations of Moby-Dick (1851), first posed in the 1980s. Captain Ahab, perhaps literature’s most famous amputee, formed an initial focal point for analyses of Melville based around questions of physical difference. Sharon Cameron, for instance, examined the ways in which Melville creates parallels, both thematically and linguistically, between the figure of Ahab and his nemesis, the white whale. Placing Melville’s non-human “monster bodies” within a larger context of nineteenth-century American literature (4, author’s emphasis), Cameron’s interpretation paved the way for later iterations of Melville scholarship by Samuel Otter, David T. Mitchell (“Too Much of a Cripple”), and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Extraordinary Bodies) that more directly engaged with the growing critical literature on disability. These authors largely read Ahab as a figure reflective of Melville’s acceptance of the medical model of disability, one which strips autonomy by presenting the “disabled figure” with a “compromised, and subjected body susceptible to external forces” (Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies 45). Mitchell concurs that Moby-Dick replicates nineteenth-century structures of thought by “proffer[ing] a vision of the disabled body firmly yoked to the tragic logic of nineteenth-century discourses on physical difference” (“Too Much of a Cripple” 22). However, some recent analyses of Melville’s work suggest a more equivocal position. Ralph James Savarese, for instance, analyzing The Confidence-Man (1857), notes that it references a recent mysterious case of presumed neurodivergence—that of Kaspar Hauser—a move that “signals an attempt to undermine dichotomous representations of the Other by strangely blending them” (9). Though this is a reference to Melville’s depiction of neurodiversity, rather than physical difference, this same impulse—to challenge his era’s received assumptions about disability by addressing the subject from multiple perspectives—seems to structure Battle-Pieces.

17Many scholars interpret Battle-Pieces as an attempt to meld or “strangely blend” a variety of received sources to provide a more complex reading of a situation or object—in our case the “Other” of the injured wartime body. Such blendings produce, throughout Battle-Pieces, a multivocal and often inconsistent text. The poet Rosanna Warren, for instance, argues that Melville’s “poems of undeception” only gradually reveal snippets of information (116), replicating the inability of observers in 1866 to look headlong at the war and unflinchingly face its moral, racial, and corporeal truths. Other scholars focus their analysis on how the text borrows from a panoply of sources: high and low, literary, artistic, and cultural (Vendler 588-90; Barrett 251-53; Sweet, “Melville’s Battle-Pieces” 110-13; Shamir 212-19). In these readings, the text combines “various contingent glimpses and glances… to construct the singular notion of ‘the War’” (Arbour 41). This sidelong glance of elliptical vision also frames Hsuan Hsu’s approach, which is to analyze the poems as sites of “incomprehensible absence” (66).

18These references to both sight and comprehension point to another consistent element in Melville’s work: exploring cognition and sensory inputs as parts of a larger treatment of physical difference and disability (Castiglia; Snediker, esp. 50-57). Melville’s structural and thematic choices in Battle-Pieces highlight his interest in vision, and in its fixed form, photography, as a means of framing seen bodies in certain ways. Considering photography as a medium that produces a reciprocal look between spectators and soldiers, I turn now to Melville’s ekphrastic poems and his evocation of the complex linkage between looking and disability. Visual images of non-standard bodies, as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson has argued, operate differently than physical encounters in public spaces. With their added layer of separateness from real wounded bodies, images can present a prolonged opportunity for perusing the subject’s disability; in its physical and temporal remove from the actual site/sight of a disabled person, “photography authorizes staring” (Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring” 58). This socially-sanctioned staring can also be used as a means to “satisf[y] the viewer’s consequential desire to know ‘what happened’ to make the body abnormal” (Millett-Gallant 84). Post-Civil War culture gave observers license to stare at and talk about disabled bodies through the medium of photography.

19As a technology that captures indiscriminately and in minute detail, photography held a special place in wartime visual culture. In spite of the incredible mimesis it afforded, the often random details the medium captured and its reception as a fragment of the ‘real’ provide a conceptual parallel with Melville’s poems. The usage of photography in multiple instrumental ways in the war—from preservation of family likenesses in formal portraiture, to support of official disability claims, to recording sites of military progress or defeat—also ties in with critical disability texts that foreground looking as a path to meaning-making. Timothy Sweet first connected Battle-Pieces with photography in the 1990s, when he interpreted the fragmentation and proto-modernist style of wartime poetry by Melville and Whitman as “a rupture of representation” (Traces of War 37), similar to the photographs of Mathew B. Brady and others. In opposition to the formal portraiture that had mostly dominated American photography to this point, such images marked the first time that photographs of corpses who had undergone a violent death were disseminated to a wide public. While Elizabeth Renker links the “pieces” in the collection’s title to triumphalist history paintings of war—often colloquially known as “battle pieces” (102)—Melville specifically repudiates the empty platitudes of traditional paintings that extolled the virtues of sacrifice and good death. A closer parallel with the “pieces” in the title might be the piles of amputated limbs that lay scattered around the surgeon’s table and were sometimes captured in explicit photographs of post-amputation patients.

20The overall organizational principle of the book also has a photographic quality. It resembles the albums that were being marketed to American consumers as receptacles for the photographs they could purchase from the catalogs of entrepreneurs like Brady. In addition to portraits of their friends and loved ones, Americans bought images of famous personages and even of the bodies of Civil War soldiers on the battlefield. As Alan Trachtenberg describes these albums, they “consisted of slotted pages permitting the insertion of cards within proscenium-like openings… a mode that would have encouraged the interchangeability of images. The viewer might arrange and rearrange the order of pictures according to whatever rules or purposes” (6-7). The interchangeability Trachtenberg describes—the ability to shuffle, physically, the varied sheets of albumen-treated paper that carried upon them the chemical imprint of specific bodies captured in time—replicates Melville’s own compositional process when writing Battle-Pieces. While Christopher Sten argues that Melville “arrang[es] his poems like pictures in a gallery” (31), I posit that the clearer analog is that of the newer medium of photography, and photograph albums in particular.

21Here we may rely on another meaning of the phrase “aspects of the war,” the second part of the book’s title. Robert Arbour and Minette Shamir both read “aspects” as referring to, essentially, different ways of conveying information, roughly equivalent to a twenty-first century notion of points of view. Augmenting Arbour’s and Shamir’s readings with another interpretation of the term, I note that in the nineteenth century “aspect” also referred to a facial expression, as well as one’s entire countenance or face. Thus Melville’s full title, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, connotes visual images, specifically alluding to a gallery of faces, a series of images that can be shuffled around like photographs in an album. This interpretation is in line with analyses of Battle-Pieces that posit Melville’s interest in emergent technologies of communication and representation (Griffin 86-87; Shamir 215-17; Vendler 589-90; Williams 148-49). It also reflects the poems’ origins as physical entities that were first composed on individual sheets of paper, then shuffled and ordered in the hands of the author (Renker 102-03). In Battle-Pieces, certain poems indeed appear as if through Trachtenberg’s “proscenium-like openings,” creating “a theatrical frame for the portrait” (6). Melville recognized photography’s ability to aggrandize certain types of sitters while defining others as non-standard. This is particularly evident in the poems that deal explicitly with visual renderings of specific individuals. Melville invites us to look at bodies as we might peruse a photograph, and to gauge the wholeness of the bodies we find there.

22In “The Portent,” “The College Colonel,” and “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander,” Melville engages closely with specific bodies instead of proposing generic wounded bodies as metaphors for larger national aims. In these works, he obsesses mostly over two primary physical features: faces and missing limbs. These “photographic” renderings oscillate between a more censorious representation of disability—including repudiation of, or shame about, the author’s own physical shortcomings—and a more engaged approach. Particularly in “The College Colonel,” Melville presents a scenario in which “an initial startle response gives way to curiosity and attention. Instead of fleeing, the starer sticks with the stare to get to know more,” creating the possibility for a “relation of empathic exchange” between the reader and the subject of the poem (Garland-Thomson, Staring 117, 92). Throughout these poems, Melville often uses the face as the starting point for an analysis of character, fitness, and strength.

23An uncanny facial rendering is introduced in the collection’s first poem, “The Portent.” Its narrative of the 1859 hanging of the abolitionist John Brown overlays the moment of Brown’s death with references to a period of unusual meteoric activity earlier that fall. Observers, including Melville and Whitman, painter Frederic Edwin Church, and numerous newspaper editorialists, saw portents of a gathering storm in this heightened celestial volatility (Ljungquist 675-76). Melville’s language in the second stanza blends synonyms for prophecy (“portent,” “future,” “weird”) with the notion of blindness (“hidden,” “veils”) to present Brown’s death as an omen of an unknown future:

Hidden in the cap
        Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

24Melville here reduces Brown to the one recognizable part of his body that can be seen below the hangman’s hood, his distinct and familiar beard, simultaneously merging that signifier of identity with the meteor’s blazing trail, “a heavenly body of terrifying scale, motion, and power” (Warren 109). I suggest that in addition to some of the well-trod interpretations of the poem, attending to the phrase “the meteor of the war” shows how Melville focuses on Brown’s face and body as indices of failing health.

25Stanton Garner relates in The Civil War World of Herman Melville that the author was ill with an unspecified complaint throughout the fall of 1859, a span of time coinciding with Brown’s capture, trial, and execution. Melville, who as a young man had possessed a “manly” physique with “agility and power,” began to suffer, Garner relates, from severe neurological concerns including sciatica and neuralgia, made worse by a growing hypochondria (37). In Melville’s mind, his increasing failure as an author and the growing ill health of his body mapped onto the degeneration of the nation (Garner 43-45). Brian Yothers suggests that the author’s beard, read as a sign of masculine potency and wisdom, was also taken as an attribute portending “prophecy” (96). In the 1850s Melville’s beard had become a recognizable sign by which he could be identified in author portraits; John Brown, too, has been memorialized as possessor of a large, wild beard. This consistent signifier of Brown’s identity persists in visual images, ranging from the media coverage of the 1859 raid and arrest, to paintings including Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s John Brown’s Blessing (1867) and John Steuart Curry’s Tragic Prelude (1942), to actor Ethan Hawke’s wild-eyed portrayal of Brown in the television dramatization of James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird (2020). In “The Portent” the beard is the only visible part of the dead man’s swinging corpse, peeking out from below the hood that “veil[s]” his countenance. The figures of Brown and Melville merge in “The Portent”—men whose collapse mirrors “the inexorable march of events toward tragedy” (Garner, 50).

26While Brown met his end on the scaffold, his swinging body a “meteor of the war,” Melville rode another Meteor, the clipper ship captained by his younger brother Thomas, which left Boston on May 30, 1860. The voyage was intended to reconstitute Melville’s poor health, to return him to the virility and energy of his seafaring youth. For several months, the Melville brothers were isolated from news of the massing clouds of war. When Melville returned to New York on November 13, 1860, just days after the general election, he “faced the precise crisis that he had sought to escape” (Garner 58). For Melville, then, the “meteor of the war” was the literal conveyance that brought him to San Francisco in an attempt to heal his ailments, only to find himself back where he started, a rhythm that mirrors the swinging “metronome” of John Brown’s swaying body (Williams 150). To add to the previous analysis of the book’s title, a third meaning of the phrase “aspects of the war” appears: an astronomical aspect is an analysis of the “relative positions of the heavenly bodies as they appear to an observer on the earth’s surface at a given time” (OED). In this sense, then, the volume begins with two different aspects upon two different meteors, one of which (Brown’s) meets the war headlong, while the other (Melville’s) turns away from it, craven. John Brown’s final statement, which warned that the sin of slavery could never be eradicated unless “purged away with blood” (qtd. in Nudelman 35) uncannily echoes William Dean Howells’s often-quoted remark, in his scathing review of Battle-Pieces, that Melville’s poems represent “tortured humanity shedding, not words and blood, but words alone” (252). Bloody war is met with bloodless prose: robust prophet and sickly author, two ailing men whose faces, or aspects, are “hidden” from the audience.

27With Melville’s concerns about his own bodily infirmity in mind, I would like also to consider an incident from his wartime experience that illuminates the author’s uneasy relation to facial difference. During a brief visit to the front in April 1864, Melville and his brother Allan saw the encampment of their cousin, Henry Gansevoort, near Vienna, Virginia. There Herman shadowed a reconnaissance party on the trail of the infamous Confederate guerrilla John S. Mosby, an experience he dramatized in one of the longest poems in Battle-Pieces, “The Scout Toward Aldie” (Parker 565-72). During this same visit, Melville met Dr. Benjamin Rush Taylor, a regimental surgeon who had received a facial wound. Melville responded with half-joking alarm to Taylor’s “disfigurement.” Writing to Gansevoort to thank him for the visit, Melville wrote of Taylor: “When in your tent you introduced him [Dr. Taylor] to Gen. Tyler, you should have said: — General, let me make you acquainted with my friend here. Dont [sic] be frightened. This is not his face, but a masque. A horrible one, I know, but for God’s sake dont [sic] take it to be the man. General, that horrible masque, my word for it, hides a noble and manly countenance” (Correspondence 392). Though he included disability as a central focus of Moby-Dick, the author nevertheless seemed nervous when face-to-face with the physical scars of wartime, constantly referring to Dr. Taylor’s facial wound as “a masque.” Here he highlights a disparity between outward appearance and interior traits, surprised, perhaps, to find they do not match. In some ways, Melville seems to recognize that his own response is problematic. After taking the time to talk with Taylor, he finds him “noble and manly,” and encourages his cousin to remind Taylor’s new acquaintances of that fact in future. In this case, Melville’s refusal to look away from facial difference creates the possibility for human connection (see also Garland-Thomson, Staring 79-83) that was denied by the “hidden” face of John Brown.

28Melville’s response to an actual Civil War wound suggests a messy and incomplete reckoning with the visible reminders of violence. His attempt at humor in response to Dr. Taylor’s facial wound shows someone struggling to know what to say to—and about—wounded men. These quotations show Melville, in the privacy of his personal correspondence, as a man conflicted about wounds, particularly those received in battle, responding to them in an inconsistent way that is undergirded by his own deep discomfort in and about his own body. The author’s confusion about how to assess wounded bodies is seen both in his private correspondence and in his capricious approach to disability in his fictional works. Vibrant, manly physicality became an obsession for the author, positioned as he was in an era that privileged these traits as exemplars of masculinity and moral worth. Melville’s initial response was almost always to privilege the “whole” body over the injured, equating unmarred “honor” with a body unaffected by the cut, the scar, the fragment, or the missing limb. Yet a look at two final poems will show him equivocating on this response, recognizing, while replicating, the social adulation shown toward military men of “unmarred” body.

29Two final poems that can shed light on Melville’s obsessive focus on wholeness are “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander” and “The College Colonel.” Both provide portraits of unique individuals, creating parallels between their outward appearance and the interiority of their thoughts and emotions. The “manly greatness” of the corps commander (106) contrasts with the “aloofness” and disenchantment of the college colonel, a young amputee who rides home at the head of a depleted regiment (120). With reference to the popular pseudoscience of phrenology, Andrew Miller has convincingly argued that “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander” embraces nineteenth-century ideals of masculinity and Anglo-Saxon racial identification that Melville suggests can be read on the ideal body of the general (667-70). Noting “the warrior-carriage of the head, / And brave dilation of the frame” in a northern leader “in whom the spirit moulds the form,” Melville creates a connection between physical fitness and spiritual nobility (105). As Miller suggests, however, the commander is not only meant to be a figure of admiration, but also of emulation. By copying the physical power, ease, and bravery of the commander upon whose photograph he looks, the reader “learns, then, how to ‘mold’ his physical body into a better specimen, and thus improve the shape of his soul” (672).

30By contrast, “The College Colonel” explores the complicated interplay between physical disability and failing mental health. Near the end of the collection, it is positioned just after “In the Prison Pen,” an appalling look at the mental and physical deterioration of a Northern prisoner of war. On its own, but also read in relation to the poem that immediately precedes it, “The College Colonel” most directly examines the state of being wounded or “crippled” as a breakdown of one’s bodily autonomy, an alienation from the idealized self. When we first see the colonel, Melville briefly describes his injuries: “He rides at their head; / A crutch by his saddle just slants in view, / One slung arm is in splints.” The young officer’s men are likewise “a remnant half-tattered, and battered, and worn,” bodies marked by injury and incompleteness (120). Melville chronicles the public jubilation that greets the regiment’s return, while exploring what he imagines is the empty and broken inner life of the “Boy” who is their leader. Linking the colonel’s experiences to other poems throughout the collection, Melville mentions “the Wilderness grim” as well as “lean brooding in Libby,” perhaps a reference to “In the Prison Pen.” In the most crucial stanza, Melville enters the head of the colonel, writing: “It is not that a leg is lost, / It is not that an arm is maimed. / It is not that the fever has racked— / Self he has long disclaimed” (121). In this list of ailments, it becomes not merely that the colonel has suffered amputation, maiming, and camp ailments, but that the consequence of these consistent assaults on his bodily health is a state of poor mental health as well. Melville here uses a longstanding assumption about the link between body and mind to amplify the young man’s concurrent physical and emotional alienation from the society to which he is returning, an alienation the poet assumes is partially caused by his physical woes. This plays into the rhetoric of disability as a “personal deficit” as well as tapping into the ways that normate culture denies wounded veterans “total self-possession” once they become part of a socially delineated pathological category: that of the “patient” (Dolmage 37).

31While Melville admires the “Corps Commander” as the ideal and the “College Colonel” as his faded shadow, however, he also represents the young colonel as a figure who sees through the panoply and show of wartime masculinity. Even as he experienced pain, injury, and mental anguish, Melville writes, “there came—/ Ah heaven!—what truth to him” (121). Much as he does in the often-quoted line “What like a bullet can undeceive!” (60), in this ultimate line of “The College Colonel” Melville articulates most clearly that the brutality of war exposes the fabricated and fragile nature of social niceties. He apprehends the young colonel’s disability not, or not only, as a medical state, but as part of a socially-constructed narrative about amputation—seen by nineteenth-century Americans simultaneously as a valiant sacrifice and as an emasculating state, barring the amputee from future happiness or productivity. Poems like “Donelson” and “On the Photograph of a Corps Commander” fit more smoothly with the common disability rhetoric of the postwar period—rhetoric that tied wounded men to a wounded nation or obsessively praised whole, handsome bodies as exemplars of moral worth. However, works like “The Portent” and “The College Colonel,” along with Melville’s experience meeting Dr. Taylor, enact a more complex relation to war-altered bodies. Battle-Pieces enacts Melville’s conflicted response as he faced, and challenged, his own received notions about the desirability and fitness of the ‘whole’ body.

32The poetic structure of Battle-Pieces presents a fractured and incomplete narrative that mirrored the sense of fragmentation many postwar Americans felt. The poems constitute focused, extracted glimpses of the war as it was experienced and imagined, pieced together to form a larger whole. In this, Melville tries to stitch together a postwar body politic and find a way forward. As a figure who bridged the antebellum era and the growing formal experimentation of the postwar decades, Melville faced and reworked American cultural assumptions about the male body in an uncomfortable but generative way. To work through his own obsession with the “healthy” body, Melville used Battle-Pieces to present a range of perspectives on wartime bodies, both “whole” and “disabled.”

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Electronic reference

Vanessa Meikle Schulman, “In Honor, as in Limb, Unmarred”: Obsession with the “Whole” Body in Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the WarEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2023, Online since 07 September 2023, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Vanessa Meikle Schulman

Vanessa Meikle Schulman is Associate Professor of art history in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University, Virginia, USA. She is the author of Work Sights: The Visual Culture of Industry in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts, 2015) and the forthcoming Art During Wartime: Painting Everyday Life in the Civil War North (University of Massachusetts, expected 2024). Her research on nineteenth-century U.S. visual culture has also appeared in the journals American Art, American Periodicals, Early Popular Visual Culture, and Studies in American Humor.

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