War's Emotions, Images Inspired Walt Whitman

By Kryvoruka, Ken | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 23, 1996 | Go to article overview
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War's Emotions, Images Inspired Walt Whitman


Kryvoruka, Ken, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Were it not for his brother, George, who was 10 years his junior, Walt Whitman might have spent the Civil War years scratching out a living as a free-lance writer in Brooklyn.

Instead, George's experience drew the author of "Leaves of Grass" close to the war and had a profound effect on his career for, as he would later recognize, the Civil War was at the heart of his poetry.

Six days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, George Whitman, then 32 and a cabinet maker, joined the Brooklyn 13th Regiment and later re-enlisted in the 51st New York Volunteers.

As Whitman watched his brother's regiment assemble, he saw exuberant troops "with pieces of rope [t]ied to their musket barrels [t]o bring back [a] prisoner from the audacious South, to be lead in a noose, on our men's early and triumphant return!"

With the defeat at Bull Run, Whitman became less sanguine about the North's prospects and penned a recruiting poem exhorting the North to rise up, "Beat! Beat! Drums," for Harper's Weekly on Sept. 28, 1861.

During the war, George would participate in 21 engagements under Gens. George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant and others; see most of his comrades killed at Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Antietam; and spend four months in a Confederate prison.

George wrote vivid accounts in his many letters home and kept a diary that Walt considered one of the most powerful records of the war. On Dec. 16, 1862, George's name, garbled as "First Lieutenant G.W. Whitmore," appeared in the New York Herald list of regimental casualties. Walt set out for the front and, once in Washington, searched the hospitals looking for George.

A friend from Boston, now an assistant to the Army paymaster, got him a pass to Falmouth, Va., where George's regiment had regrouped. One of the first things Whitman saw outside an Army hospital was a heap of amputated limbs, large enough to fill a horse cart. He found George, alive and well, one of the luckiest of the 10,000 Union wounded at Fredericksburg; he had been cut on the cheek by a shell fragment.

For 10 days, Whitman shared his brother's tent and mess. Living so close to the dressing stations, makeshift hospitals and burial grounds, Walt felt an intimacy for the men doing the fighting, which he recorded in detail. At Falmouth, Whitman wrote the prose draft of one of his finest Civil War poems:

Sight at Day Break - in camp in front of the hospital tent on a stretcher, (three dead men dying,) each with a blanket spread over him - I lift up one and look at the young man's face, calm and yellow, - `tis strange!

(Young man: I think this face of yours the face of my dead Christ!)

Whitman returned to Washington on Dec. 28 with a trainload of wounded. During the trip he walked about the stretchers, carrying water and taking messages from the men for their families. Whitman wrote to his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the next day that his "New York stagnation" had ended and, as he acknowledged later, he had found his great work.

Though he planned to remain in Washington for only a short time, his stay, interrupted by periodic visits home, would last a decade.

Whitman rented a room at 14th and L streets, and the following year moved to Sixth Street near Pennsylvania Avenue. He got a job as a copyist in the paymaster's office, which paid only a few dollars a week but left time during most of each day to visit the hospitals. With meager funds sent from his friends and the sale of a few articles to the newspapers, Whitman bought tobacco, fruit, stationery, books and magazines, and other small items that the men wanted, which he distributed on his many trips through the wards.

The spirit of his work and change in attitude about the war are captured in the "Wound-Dresser":

Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resigned myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;

By 1862, Washington had nearly 50 military hospitals, most converted hastily from churches, schools and taverns.

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