As Shira Wolosky and others have noted, Dickinson’s poetry draws both directly and indirectly on the language of war. Wolosky cites several examples of martial imagery, particularly as it “is applied to situations unrelated to the war” (“Emily Dickinson’s War Poetry” 30); Wolosky points to the “number of poems in which sunsets or storms are described as battles” (31), specifically discussing Whole Gulfs of Red. More importantly, perhaps, Dickinson also located her poems physically in the war: four of Dickinson’s seven poems published in the Springfield Daily Republican, a journal that regularly carried war news, appeared between the years 1861 and 1865. In one striking instance, Dickinson’s poem, I taste a liquor never brewed, appeared directly alongside an article reporting the state of the South, including a discussion on the attack at Fort Sumter, as well as on the same page as a letter from Abraham Lincoln calling for troops (May 4th, 1861, pg. 8). In addition, some of her letters and poems to Higginson, stationed in South Carolina between fall of 1862 and mid-1864 are literally “sent to war.”
The physical wounds which are occurring on a daily basis and which are reported in the daily newspapers received in the Dickinson household infiltrated Dickinson’s consciousness and her canon. The men she knew, or at least knew of, men she grew up around, were sent away from the place that members of the Dickinson household were so loathe to leave. Fifty-seven of the 273 men from Amherst who enlisted died either in battle, from wounds or disease resulting from the war. Forty-nine men were wounded, and nine Amherst men were captured and imprisoned. Amherst men fought in twenty-seven engagements in which one man or more were either killed or wounded. Amherst men fought in an additional eighteen battles and several smaller skirmishes (The History of Amherst, 503-522).
The death of Frazar Stearns in the battle of Newbern on March 14, 1862, shocked the town of Amherst. The blow was felt on a more intimate level by those connected with Amherst College and by the Dickinson family. His death first paralyzes, then catalyzes Dickinson into writing. In a note to Fanny and Louise Norcross composed in late March, 1862, she writes: “So our part in Frazer is done, but you must come next summer, and we will mind ourselves of the young crusader – too brave that he could fear to die. We will play his tunes – maybe he can hear them; we will try to comfort his broken-hearted Ella, who, as the clergyman said, ‘gave him peculiar confidence.’ . . . Austin is stunned completely” (L255). Those letters of late March, 1862 concerning the death of Frazar Stearns to the Norcross cousins and Samuel Bowles are halting, as Dickinson continually disrupts the flow with dashes and commas, as well as her own asides: You have done more for me – ‘tis least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer – “killed at Newbern,” darlings. His big heart shot away by a “minie ball” (L255). With her letter to Bowles, the hesitation appears again: Austin is chilled – by Frazer’s murder – He says – his Brain keeps saying over “Frazer is killed” – “Frazer is killed,” just as Father told it – to Him. Two or three words of lead – that dropped so deep, they keep weighing– (L256). The pauses seem to indicate the shock and gradual, sinking recognition of Stearns’ death. It is possible that Stearns’ death was also the impetus for Dickinson’s first letter to the prominent literary and war figure, (Col.) Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
The war left its mark on Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. To be wounded, her work suggests, is the most terrifying and pained state of being: death is preferable to this liminal, and thus fundamentally unstable, condition. Another letter to Louise Norcross, composed in 1864, records a significant change in Dickinson’s perspective on wounding, as well as expresses her “alarm” at the prospect of being harmed—both physically and mentally: “Sorrow seems to me more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one’s own, now would be many medicines. ‘Tis dangerous to value, for only the precious can alarm” (L298). The Civil War gives Dickinson a different understanding of sorrow and of wounding, and what was very personal becomes recognized as a farther flung condition, as wounding grows beyond the intangible into the corporeal.