"Ashes of Soldiers" is a tribute to the soldiers who died fighting in the American Civil War. The speaker begins by addressing the spirits of all the deceased soldiers, from both the North (the Union) and South (the Confederacy). He describes the soldiers' ghosts rising from their graves and gathering around him. He requests the trumpeters to refrain from playing any music. He celebrates the soldiers' lives, which were filled with joy and pride, and commends them for enduring such peril. He asks that the drummers make no sound either, as there is no need for a reveille, an alarm, nor a burial drumroll.
He calls the soldiers his comrades and clarifies that this "chant" is to draw attention to these "lost" and "voiceless" souls. He observes their "faces so pale with wondering eyes," but since they cannot speak, he must speak for them. He promises them that "love is not over" and for the rest of his life, he will "exhale [the] love" arising from their ashes.
Whitman wrote "Ashes of Soldiers" after the end of the Civil War. He actually served as a nurse during the war, so Whitman felt a special connection to the soldiers. He knew several men who went on to die in the line of duty. In the poem, Whitman emphasizes his role in the war by referring to the soldiers as his "comrades" and promises them that he will keep the memories of them alive for as long as he can. While history only memorializes battles won and lost, Whitman is writing this poem for the soldiers who died in order to create these outcomes. As if it is his patriotic duty, he gives a voice to those who did not survive to tell their own tales.
Whitman wrote "Ashes of Soldiers" in his typical free verse, without a rhyme scheme or set meter. It consists of twelve stanzas of varying lengths, although he uses anaphora to unite certain clusters of lines. Anaphora, or the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of each sentence, was one of Whitman's favorite poetic devices. The shortest stanzas are those in which Whitman describes the physical features of the dead soldiers, as if picturing them around him makes him pause for a moment before. The shortest stanza in the poem is: "Faces so pale with wondrous eyes, very dear, gather closer yet/Draw close, but speak not." By placing a break in the stanzas at this point, Whitman forces the reader to pause, perhaps to consider the individual faces who made up the two sides of this conflict.
Whitman's diction in this poem exudes tenderness, warmth, and compassion for the deceased soldiers. He speaks about them as if they were his friends and family, which undoubtedly stems from his experiences as a wartime nurse. The final stanza is his most passionate proclamation of devotion: "Give me exhaustless, make me a fountain/That I exhale love from me wherever I go like a moist perennial dew/For the ashes of all dead soldiers South or North." Dew represents morning, and the dawn of a new day. A "perennial dew" invokes the image of something temporary (dew) recurring or lasting forever. Therefore, Whitman's poem is his way of immortalizing these soldiers even though they perished on the battlefield.
Although this poem first and foremost serves as a tribute to soldiers who died during the Civil War, it inherently poses an anti-war message. Whitman found fighting and violence to be ineffective solutions for the world's problems. In this poem, he does not at all celebrate the North's victory or mourn the South's loss, but rather, he focuses on the soldiers who died for this result to come about. He distances the dead soldiers from the act of war, sending away the drummers and the trumpeters who would play at a military funeral. He even goes so far as to describe the drumbeats as "warlike."By doing this, Whitman crafts his tribute to the individual lives cut short by war instead of portraying them as heroic cannon fodder (which is how the rows of "countless unnamed graves" make them appear).