“Only three guns were in use,
One was directed by the captain himself against the enemy’s
Two well-served with grape and canister silenced his
Musketry and cleared his decks.” (68)
Walt makes many mentions of firearms and weaponry of his time in the mid-1800s. Arcane terms like “firelock” and “carbine” come to mind immediately. But I focus here on the sequence where Walt puts himself in the midst of naval battle and his brave little captain who, after a cannonade from the enemy puts their ship in shambles, stands tall and “serene” to return fire. The heroic unlikelihood of only three guns taking down another ship is glorious, and it helps to know what is meant by “grape and canister”.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines grapeshot as a “cannon charge consisting of small round balls, usually of lead or iron, and used primarily as an antipersonnel weapon. Typically, the small iron balls were held in clusters of three by iron rings and combined in three tiers by cast-iron plates and a central connecting rod. This assembly, which reminded gunners of a cluster of grapes (hence the name), broke up when the gun was fired, spread out in flight like a shotgun charge, and sprayed the target area. Grapeshot was widely used in wars of the 18th and 19th centuries at short range against massed troops.”
In Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy, canister shot is described as “made for both smoothbore and rifled artillery…[it] consisted of a thin iron can containing lead or iron balls packed in sawdust. Unfailingly lethal at 350 yards or less, canister shot sprayed from the muzzle of a cannon like a monstrous shotgun blast.” Echoes of Glory also mentions that grapeshot had “larger iron balls [than canister shot] encased in cloth or in an iron frame” and “was used infrequently on the battlefield, but saw some action along the seacoast in larger-caliber guns—24-pounders and up.”
So what we have are two short-range but horrifically deadly types of ammunition, indicating the fighting that took place between these combatant ships was chaotic and close. While—we’ll say for the sake of it—Walt’s ship was taking a beating with the enemy’s “eighteen-pound shots under the water,/On our lower gun-deck two large pieces had burst at the/ first fire, killing all around and blowing up overhead”. To me, this indicates the enemy’s artillery using a more conventional means of explosive ammunition.
So with that, I’m going to go out on a limb. I think the scattered, spread out nature of canister and grape shot is analogous to Song of Myself as a work. In the 1850s readers of poetry would have been bombarded with conventional poetic structure: rhythm, rhyme, cadence, syllables, lines, feet, etc. Here was a clear-cut, direct hit of poetic typicality. But then enter Walt. Armed with a ferocious piece of work that appears chaotic, strewn across pages and pages with nary an anapest or tetrameter to be found, Song of Myself, too, is shot from a cannon and hits every single person within range with overwhelming force and devestation.