Walt Whitman and the Civil War

Photograph of Walt Whitman in 1863
Library of Congress

The poet Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War extensively. His heartfelt observation of life in wartime Washington made its way into poems, and he also wrote articles for newspapers and a number of notebook entries only published decades later.

He had worked for years as a journalist, yet Whitman did not cover the conflict as a regular newspaper correspondent. His role as an eyewitness to the conflict was unplanned. When a newspaper casualty list indicated that his brother serving in a New York regiment had been wounded in late 1862, Whitman traveled to Virginia to find him.

Whitman's brother George had only been slightly wounded. But the experience of seeing army hospitals made a deep impression, and Whitman felt compelled to move from Brooklyn to Washington to become involved with the Union war effort as a hospital volunteer.

After securing a job as a government clerk, Whitman spent his off-duty hours visiting hospital wards filled with soldiers, comforting the wounded and the sick.

In Washington, Whitman was also perfectly positioned to observe the workings of the government, movements of troops, and the daily comings and goings of a man he greatly admired, President Abraham Lincoln.

At times Whitman would contribute articles to newspapers, such as a detailed report of the scene at Lincoln’s second inaugural address. But Whitman’s experience as a witness to the war was mostly important as an inspiration for poetry.

A collection of poems titled "Drum Taps," was published after the war as a book. The poems contained in it ultimately appeared as an appendix to later editions of Whitman's masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass."

Family Ties to the War

During the 1840s and 1850s, Whitman had been following politics in America closely. Working as a journalist in New York City, he no doubt followed the national debate over the greatest issue of the time, enslavement.

Whitman became a supporter of Lincoln during the 1860 presidential campaign. He also saw Lincoln speak from a hotel window in early 1861, when the president-elect passed through New York City on the way to his first inauguration. When Fort Sumter was attacked in April 1861 Whitman was outraged.

In 1861, when Lincoln called for volunteers to defend the Union, Whitman’s brother George enlisted in the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry. He would serve for the entire war, eventually earning an officer’s rank, and would fight at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and other battles.

Following the slaughter at Fredericksburg, Walt Whitman was reading casualty reports in the New York Tribune and saw what he believed to be a misspelled rendering of his brother’s name. Fearing that George had been wounded, Whitman traveled southward to Washington.

Unable to find his brother at military hospitals where he inquired, he traveled to the front in Virginia, where he discovered that George had only been very slightly wounded.

While at Falmouth, Virginia, Walt Whitman saw a horrifying sight beside a field hospital, a pile of amputated limbs. He came to empathize with the intense suffering of wounded soldiers, and during two weeks in December 1862, he spent visiting his brother he resolved to begin helping in military hospitals.

Work as a Civil War Nurse

Wartime Washington contained a number of military hospitals which took in thousands of wounded and ill soldiers. Whitman moved to the city in early 1863, taking a job as a government clerk. He began making the rounds in hospitals, consoling the patients and distributing writing paper, newspapers, and treats such as fruits and candy.

From 1863 to the spring of 1865 Whitman spent time with hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. He helped them write letters home. And he wrote many letters to his friends and relatives about his experiences.

Whitman later said that being around the suffering soldiers had been beneficial to him, as it somehow restored his own faith in humanity. Many of the ideas in his poetry, about the nobility of common people, and the democratic ideals of America, he saw reflected in the wounded soldiers who had been farmers and factory workers.

Mentions in Poetry

The poetry Whitman wrote had always been inspired by the changing world around him, and so his eyewitness experience of the Civil War naturally began to infuse new poems. Before the war, he had issued three editions of "Leaves of Grass." But he saw fit to issue an entirely new book of poems, which he called "Drum Taps."

The printing of "Drum Taps" began in New York City in the spring of 1865, as the war was winding down. But then the assassination of Abraham Lincoln prompted Whitman to postpone publication so he could include material about Lincoln and his passing.

In the summer of 1865, after the war’s end, he wrote two poems inspired by Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Both poems were included in "Drum Taps," which was published in the fall of 1865. The entirety of "Drum Taps" was added to later editions of "Leaves of Grass."

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McNamara, Robert. "Walt Whitman and the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685 McNamara, Robert. "Walt Whitman and the Civil War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685 (accessed May 28, 2023).