Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Falmouth, Virginia
Author:
Rietz, John
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In December of 1862, Whitman left New York (never to return to live permanently) for Falmouth, Virginia, to search for his brother George, who was listed among the wounded after the battle of Fredericksburg. George's wound was superficial, but Whitman's ten-day visit to the warfront decisively altered his personal life and literary career as the war became the focus of both.

This was the closest he would ever come to witnessing the war firsthand, and although the battle had ended nearly a week before his arrival, his journals, correspondence, and poetry from that period show that its aftermath affected him profoundly. Upon first arriving, he was shocked to see a pile of amputated limbs outside a makeshift hospital. One morning the sight of three fresh corpses on stretchers moved him to make a journal entry that would later be reworked into the poem "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim" (1865). He also toured the battlefield, went out on pickets, and under a flag of truce assisted in burying the dead, but what affected him most powerfully were his visits to the sick and wounded. In them he saw not only the rough, large-spirited Americans he celebrated in his poetry but also an image of the Union diseased and dismembered. In his visits, he discovered a mission that would pull him out of his "New York stagnation" (Correspondence 1:61) of the previous few years: he gave the men the personal attention that the overtaxed hospital staff could not, listening empathetically to their stories, bringing them small gifts, and writing letters home for the illiterate or otherwise unable. His experiences and the men's stories also opened a new world of literary materials for Whitman to explore, most notably in Drum-Taps (1865) and Specimen Days (1882). He left Falmouth in charge of a trainload of wounded men bound for the hospitals in Washington, D.C., where he took up residence and continued to nurse the sick throughout the war. Whitman's stay in Falmouth is memorialized in a sketch entitled Fall in for Soup—Company Mess (showing Whitman in a mess line), drawn from life by Edwin Forbes, the popular illustrator.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Forbes, Edwin. Civil War Etchings. Ed. William Forrest Dawson. New York: Dover, 1994.

Glicksberg, Charles I., ed. Walt Whitman and the Civil War. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1933.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Prose Works. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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