Walt Whitman's Civil War

The poet Walt Whitman wrote about the Civil War extensively. And his observations, many of which were unpublished during his life, constitute a fascinating account of life in wartime Washington, the experiences of common soldiers, and the feelings of the American public as the war transformed the nation.

Whitman, though he had worked for years as a journalist, did not cover the war as a regular newspaper correspondent.

He was drawn into becoming an eyewitness to the great conflict after a trip to the front in Virginia to find his wounded brother inspired him to volunteer in military hospitals. He spent countless hours comforting patients and at times assisting nurses and doctors.

To support his volunteer hospital work, Whitman took government jobs in Washington. He was therefore positioned to observe the workings of the government, movements of troops, and the 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 most important as inspiration for poetry.

A collection of poems titled Drum Taps, was published after the war, and ultimately appeared as an appendix to later editions of his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass.

Walt Whitman’s Family Connection to the Civil War

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

Whitman was a supporter of Lincoln, and claimed to have seen Lincoln when he visited New York City on the way to his inauguration in early 1861.

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 horrendous sight beside a field hospital, a pile of amputated limbs. He came to realize the intense suffering of wounded soldiers, and during the two weeks in December 1862 that he spent visiting his brother he resolved to begin helping in military hospitals.

Whitman’s Work as 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.

The Civil War in Whitman’s 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 death of Abraham Lincoln prompted Whitman to postpone publication so he could included 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's Civil War." ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2015, thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685. McNamara, Robert. (2015, June 14). Walt Whitman's Civil War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685 McNamara, Robert. "Walt Whitman's Civil War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/walt-whitmans-civil-war-1773685 (accessed September 21, 2017).