Whitman often spoke of the importance of the Civil War to Leaves of Grass. He told his disciple Horace Traubel that it was "the very centre, circumference, umbillicus, of [his] whole career" (With Walt Whitman 3:95). In the poem "To Thee Old Cause" he wrote, "My book and the war are one," and elsewhere he wrote that his poems turned on the war as a wheel on its axle. What Whitman liked to call the "Four Years War" indeed represented for the poet a pivotal event in universal history, a sacred conflict between democracy and its internal as well as external antagonists. It proved his poetry's validity and anchored his personal history, with all its private anguish, to the public life of the nation.
Whitman heard of the firing on Fort Sumter while walking down Broadway around midnight, 12 April 1861. Three days later he recorded in his journal a resolution to purify and "spiritualize" his body, to drink only water and to avoid late suppers and fatty meats. This ritual self-purification reflected Whitman's view of the war, from the beginning, as a purgative rite for the country.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand his response to the war without understanding his despair for the country before it broke out—a despair that finds expression in his ecstatic poetry and the crescendo of prose attacks on "cringers, suckers, dough-faces, lice" of humanity (politicians) between 1855 and 1860 (1855 Preface 18). Whitman believed the causes of the war lay not in Southern secessionism alone but rather in lingering "feudal" elements and corruption that infected both the South and the North. Hence, like Lincoln, Whitman viewed it as a war within one identity.
But the war not only preserved and purified the Union; it proved as well that American democracy was breeding a race of heroes in the common people—a new type of human being. This proof Whitman found through personal experience in the hospitals, in the way the boys and men (in Whitman's view at least) faced suffering and death without complaint or fear, in the way they expressed selfless affection for each other and, indeed, for Walt Whitman. Here was America, "brought to Hospital in her fair youth" (Correspondence 1:69), and yet, sadly, the closest approximation to true democratic community Whitman would ever know.
Until the very end of 1862, Whitman had no direct experience of the war, for all his interest in it, and he never took up arms. Like most Northerners, he expected the "secessionists" to be quickly defeated and was appalled when early engagements, beginning with the first Battle of Bull Run, indicated that this was not to be. Whitman remained in New York during the first year and more, occasionally visiting a hospital for the sick and wounded, and following the conflict in the newspapers. His brother George, on the other hand, enlisted early and would fight in many of the war's major battles yet emerge practically unscathed.
On 16 December 1862, the Whitmans learned that George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Maryland, and Walt set off to find him. After canvassing the hospitals in Washington, he found George still with his company across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, his cheek pierced by shrapnel but on the mend. Walt stayed with his brother slightly over a week, witnessing the dead on the battlefield, visiting the wounded in hospitals, and touring the camps.
He left on 28 December with responsibility for conducting a contingent of wounded soldiers to the hospital authorities in Washington. Here he settled into a rooming house where an acquaintance, William Douglas O'Connor, was staying with his wife Nellie and took meals with them. His relationship with these two became among the most important of his career, as they formed the nucleus of his first circle of fervent supporters and, in the end, helped make him famous.
After finding a part-time job as a copyist in the army paymaster's office, Whitman was able to support himself and visit the soldiers in the hospitals. Soon he began to find his real calling in the war—providing aid, comfort, and encouragement to the sick, wounded, and dying. At the same time he wrote journalistic pieces for the New York papers describing the conditions of the hospitals and, more movingly, the emotional condition of the hospitalized. Whitman had found a way of actively employing the qualities celebrated in his poetry. He took on a healing function equivalent to that of his shamanistic persona in early poems such as "The Sleepers," and his homoeroticism could be openly and safely expressed, employed in the cause of his beloved country. He also found a new employment for his poetic powers as he strove to become the bard of the war.
Whitman's routine was to rest after his office work, bathe, dress in fresh clothes, eat a good meal, and put in four to five hours touring the hospitals. He would often pack a knapsack with fruit, tobacco, paper, envelopes, and the like for individual distribution to the soldiers—materials chiefly paid for with money raised from relatives and friends. He entered the hospitals well-rested, sweet-scented, and cheerful in appearance. Though he might often break down hours after a visit, he took care to steel himself to the agonies he witnessed for as long as he was in the presence of the soldiers, to keep his spirits high. He was not so much a "wound-dresser," as his poem of that title suggests, as a healer of the spirit, an affectionate comrade or "uncle," whose curative abilities were nonetheless deeply respected at a time when doctor's interventions often did more harm than good. Whitman never read his poetry to the men—in fact, he apparently never told them he was a poet—but he would recite Shakespeare or passages from the Bible. He would also hold the men's hands, kiss them, write letters for them. Some of Whitman's most admirable prose can be found in letters informing parents, with exquisite tact, of the exact circumstances and manner of the death of a son.
While absorbed in this work, Whitman was also making contact with the men who would later be crucial in building his reputation. He met John Burroughs in 1863; along with O'Connor, Burroughs became one of Whitman's most important early publicists, although they differed on abolitionism and racial matters. Whitman's experience in the war also firmed his resolve to dedicate his life to poetry. He wrote his friend Charles W. Eldridge on 17 November 1863 that he had determined to devote himself increasingly to "the work of [his] life, . . . making poems . . . I must be continually bringing out poems—now is the hey day" (Correspondence 1:185). He came to see his relation to the war as equivalent to that of Homer to the Trojan War. He wished to be identified with it through all later generations.
Throughout this period, however, Whitman was also afflicted with ongoing family difficulties, his brother Andrew dying of a painful throat disease in late 1863 and his older brother, Jesse, gone mad from syphilis, abusive to all around him. On 5 December 1864 Walt would commit Jesse to a lunatic asylum. By that date, the family knew brother George was missing in action—actually a prisoner of war, as they later found out, at which point Walt would begin pulling strings to secure his release through prisoner exchange.
Also in 1864 Whitman proposed a book composed of his diary entries and observations on the war. Above all, he worked on his new collection of poetry, "Drum-Taps," which he regarded initially as a project independent of Leaves of Grass, even artistically superior to it. As he sent the new manuscript to the printer, Richmond fell to the Union Army andLee surrendered at Appomattox—events that, Whitman believed, would "shape the destinies of the future of the whole of mankind" (Correspondence 1:258). Yet in the end these events would be vastly overshadowed by tragedy in the assassination of President Lincoln.
The Saturday after Good Friday, Whitman and his family read the news of Lincoln's assassination. Walt and his mother, Louisa, did not eat that day but sat silently as the sky darkened and the rain fell in dreary accompaniment to their sorrow. Later, Whitman would get a first-hand report of the assassination from his friend Peter Doyle, an Irish immigrant and former Confederate soldier whom Whitman had met when Doyle was an out-patient in Washington. Doyle's description would form the basis of Whitman's later speech, "Death of Abraham Lincoln," which in old age he gave religiously on the date of the murder. Essentially, the death of the president encapsulated the entire meaning of the war and proved its sacred quality. That it so well epitomized national tragedy suggested that only God could have written the script: "The whole involved, baffling, multiform whirl of the Secession period," Whitman would argue in his speech, came to a head in that single "fierce deed" ("Death" 11). In a sense, it proved the universal and even religious significance of the war; it was democracy's originary moment, its rite of crucifixion. Whitman ceased thinking of the nation as having been born during the Revolution. He began to see the Civil War and assassination as America's true "parturition and delivery"; the nation had been "born again, consistent with itself" ("Death" 12).
But what if Whitman's reading of the war, and with it Lincoln's death, were wrong? If the poet had deceived himself and democracy had not been truly and permanently saved, then America, he believed, would be a spectacular failure and his life's work wasted—both nation and poet victims of "a destiny . . . equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned," as he wrote in Democratic Vistas (Prose Works 2:424). Fear of such self-deceit is one of the keys to Whitman's later years. The war, which seemed to have revealed the very ground of meaning through blood-sacrifice, became the sacred center of the poet's view of both himself and history. He avoided any radical questioning of the motion of history, which helps explain the dramatic shift in his poetry away from personal crisis and ecstasy to stoic detachment, reminiscence, and meditation. Simultaneously, a greater focus upon the problem of temporality as such, of being in time, emerges in all his work as the poet moves not only closer to his own death but also further from the "umbillicus" of his career, those sacred experiences that had revealed the ground of meaning in history.
In incorporating "Drum-Taps" into Leaves of Grass and, throughout the last quarter century of his life, expanding as well as reorganizing that work into a cathedral-like form, Whitman gave the Civil War a central position. He devoted the heart of his autobiography, Specimen Days, to his memoranda from the war period. Whitman does not provide a comprehensive view of the war; most glaring is an almost total absence of reflection upon slavery and emancipation, except for the awkward "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (which, nonetheless, would be much admired by some black writers of later years). The whole epic story of black American experience of the conflict lies outside Whitman's reach—and, for that matter, the reach of every other poet and novelist of the period, as Daniel Aaron has pointed out. Nonetheless, it is right to remember Whitman as our greatest poet of the first modern war.
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Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
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Thomas, M. Wynn. "Fratricide and Brotherly Love: Whitman and the Civil War." The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 27–44.
____. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.
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Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.
____. "Death of Abraham Lincoln." Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962. 1–14.
____. 1855 Preface. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 5–26.
____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.