This extract from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ is surely one of the great set pieces dealing with ‘war and the pity of war’. It seems to be a substantially accurate account of the massacre of Texians that was carried out by the Mexican army at Goliad in 1836, acting under the order of President Santa Anna, except that modern sources put the number killed at three hundred and three rather than four hundred and twelve. I think this is Whitman at his best, with none of that swaggering loquacity G.K.Chesterton affectionately parodies in his Whitmanesque verison of ‘Old King Cole’ (‘I salute your three violinists, endlessly making vibrations/Rigid, relentless, capable of going on forever….’)
Now I tell what I knew in Texas
Now I tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth,
(I tell not the fall of Alamo,
Not one escaped to tell the fall of Alamo,
The hundred and fifty are dumb yet at Alamo,)
‘Tis the tale of the murder in cold blood of four hundred and twelve young men.
Retreating they had form’d in a hollow square with their baggage for breastworks,
Nine hundred lives out of the surrounding enemy’s, nine times their number, was the price they took in advance,
Their colonel was wounded and their ammunition gone,
They treated for an honorable capitulation, receiv’d writing and seal, gave up their arms and march’d back prisoners of war.
They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate,
Bearded, sunburnt, drest in the free costume of hunters,
Not a single one over thirty years of age.
The second First-day morning they were brought out in squads and massacred, it was beautiful early summer,
The work commenced about five o’clock and was over by eight.
None obey’d the command to kneel,
Some made a mad and helpless rush, some stood stark and straight,
A few fell at once, shot in the temple or heart, the living and dead lay together,
The maim’d and mangled dug in the dirt, the new-comers saw them there,
Some half-kill’d attempted to crawl away,
These were despatch’d with bayonets or batter’d with the blunts of muskets,
A youth not seventeen years old seiz’d his assassin till two more came to release him,
The three were all torn and cover’d with the boy’s blood.
At eleven o’clock began the burning of the bodies;
That is the tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young men.