Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

WALT(ER) WHITMAN (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1891)

Jon L. Wakelyn

How does a mere poet become one of the Civil War’s great captains? Walt Whitman held no wartime elective office, wrote no major treatise on that war, contributed too little journalism to influence events, fired no weapon, and influenced none of the war’s events in any formal way. Yet that “Good Gray Poet” who spent much of the war attending sick soldiers and holding petty bureaucratic jobs indeed became a great captain. Whitman had hoped to write a definitive history of the war but never did. Even his most powerful weapon, his pen, which in letters, prose, and poetry so brilliantly captured the war’s meaning, only partially explains why he ranks as one of that war’s greatest leaders. His most important task, to nurture the sick, which commemorated what he called the “divine average,” goes some way to make his wartime actions symbolically important. But there is more—there is the image of the man himself in history, self­created, to be sure. In that image, Whitman embodied the values of the country. In his personal dilemma over support of central government power versus the need to protect individual freedoms, he embodied the dilemma of the Union. Most important, in his view of one nation, both North and South, Whitman created an image of himself as symbolizing the Union itself. Thus, the man and writer, despite failing most tests of great leadership, truly became a great leader.

Where did Whitman develop this image of Union, and how would he become so obsessed with embodying that image in his own person? Perhaps through a look at the way he lived his life, combined with how he expressed and created himself, the answer will become apparent. Whitman of course attempted to control what history would say was most important in his own character formation. In Specimen Days he wrote of his Dutch and English heritage, the combination of pastoral Long Island and “teeming” Brooklyn and New York, and “my experiences afterward in the secession outbreak” (15). Certainly these themes have been studied by almost all of his many biographers, and perhaps far too

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