While trying to come up with an idea for this blog post, I decided to flip through some of Whitman’s prose and see if anything caught my eye. I noticed a section called “Calhoun’s Real Monument” in Specimen Days, and sure enough it was our own John C. Calhoun monument in Marion Square… partially. Whitman relates how he heard two soldiers talking in one of the “tents for special cases”. One soldier was from Connecticut, an “old veteran”, which Whitman himself puts ironic quotes around, noting that the boy is likely less than 25 years old, joined by a boy sick with fever from Charleston. The feverish boy is carrying on about the monument built in his proud southern hometown for the great general Calhoun. Whitman details the “veteran’s” response:
“I have seen Calhoun’s monument. That you saw is not the real monument. But I have seen it. It is the desolated, ruined south; nearly the whole generation of young men between seventeen and thirty destroyed or maim’d; all the old families used up- the rich impoverish’d the plantations cover’d with weeds, the slaved unloos’d and become the masters, and the name of southerner blacken’d with shame- all that is Calhoun’s real monument.” (Whitman 797)
Some intense words, but Whitman offers no commentary in response or reflection. Whitman loved his New York, but he did not seem to really identify with the role of a Northerner. Once the war started, he was an everyman, helping with out regard to place of birth. However, once must wonder where his loyalty was at the end of the day. He saw so much of the destruction caused by the war, the ruined beauty of the South and the pointlessness of it all, who did he blame? Certainly not his Redeemer President.
Calhoun’s monument still stands in Marion Square and it is funny to me to think of the South that saw its construction. Going about life as a College of Charleston student, it is easy to forget the role that Charleston played in the civil war as well as the slave trade, but sometime I can still feel the ghosts that haunt this little city. The city had to die to what it was to become what it is today, and I think that is what I will think of whenever I see that statue from now on. I wonder if Whitman ever saw it.