In his journal, Walt Whitman writes of a soldier who died from his wounds in May 1864:
I wonder if I could ever convey to another—to you, for instance, reader dear—the tender and terrible realities of such cases, (many, many happened,) as the one I am now going to mention. Stewart C. Glover, company E, 5th Wisconsin—was wounded May 5, in one of those fierce tussles of the Wilderness—died May 21—aged about 20. He was a small and beardless young man—a splendid soldier—in fact almost an ideal American, of his age. He had served nearly three years, and would have been entitled to his discharge in a few days. He was in Hancock’s corps. The fighting had about ceased for the day, and the general commanding the brigade rode by and called for volunteers to bring in the wounded. Glover responded among the first—went out gaily—but while in the act of bearing in a wounded sergeant to our lines, was shot in the knee by a rebel sharpshooter; consequence, amputation and death. He had resided with his father, John Glover, an aged and feeble man . . . but was at school in Wisconsin, after the war broke out, and there enlisted—soon took to soldier-life, liked it, was very manly, was beloved by officers and comrades. He kept a little diary, like so many of the soldiers. On the day of his death he wrote the following in it, today the doctor says I must die—all is over with me—ah, so young to die. On another blank leaf he penciled to his brother, dear brother Thomas, I have been brave but wicked—pray for me.
It was a terrible month in America, and there was something—some loss, some horror—for which most everyone might find cause to weep. The Confederacy lost one of its valiant young generals, the Union lost one of its great writers, and war still raged across the land. The month had begun in a bloody fight at the Wilderness in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and those same motifs of blood and horror would follow the armies as the fierce Union forces pushed a dwindling Confederate army backward toward its capital in Richmond.
Following the fight at the Wilderness, General Ulysses Grant continued to take General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to task. The fighting lasted all month; after the Wilderness, it continued at the Spotsylvania County Courthouse and in the general direction of Richmond. On May 11, General Jeb Stuart was fatally wounded at Yellow Tavern outside of Richmond. Stuart was one of the Confederacy’s mythic personae. Early in the war, his reputation as daring and cavalier was established when he rode his horsemen around General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac twice in the span of a few months. Although he was late to arrive at Gettysburg in July of 1863, and ineffective during that campaign, Stuart’s greater, more dramatic and sympathetic legacy was fixed at the time of his death.
In the South, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman started his campaign in Georgia, moving his army toward Atlanta. This marked the beginning of the effort that would take his command through that state and then into South Carolina. Sherman’s strategy of “total warfare” would demoralize the South and severely punish those providing aid to the rebellion.
To add injury to an already broken nation, one of the United States’s beloved men of letters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died on May 12. Hawthorne, a close friend of former president Franklin Pierce, as well as poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and novelist Herman Melville, was one of the early American writers of short fiction. He was also the author of several dark and dramatic works of longer fiction, including The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance, and The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s family was one of New England’s early families, and he had two ancestors who were prosecutors at the Salem witchcraft trials.
Although no one knew it would be the last full year of the war, Walt Whitman, who volunteered at Washington hospitals throughout the war, had visited Virginia just before the spring. He noted optimistically:
Last evening . . . I saw the first of the new moon, the outlined old moon clear along with it; the sky and air so clear, such transparent of color, it seemed to me I had never really seen the new moon before. It was the thinnest cut crescent possible. It hung delicate just above the sulky shadow of the Blue mountains. Ah, if it might prove an omen and good prophecy for this unhappy State.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery