Walt Whitman: The Civil War & Abraham Lincoln

Walt Whitman


From the pages of Civil War Untold Tales of the Blue and Gray:


“The Civil War fascinated Whitman, and his experiences during the conflict transformed him as a writer: He left behind a catalog of colorful descriptions of both the political dispute and the conflict on the battlefield. For example, after the First Battle of Bull Run, he penned “Beat! Beat! Drums!’ In this poem, Whitman calls on the drums and bugles to “scatter the congregations” and to take groom away from bride and “peaceful farmer (from) any peace” so they will serve the war.

In late 1862, Whitman learned through newspaper reports that his brother, George, was wounded in the battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia. He immediately left New York for Virginia. While looking for his brother, he passed through a makeshift field hospital where he saw a heap of amputated human limbs and wondered if any of these belonged to his brother. He finally found George-all in one piece-with his regiment, recovering from a bullet wound that had pierced his cheek. Spending time with his brother and the war-hardened soldiers, Whitman was enraptured by the stories he heard. He also helped the young soldiers of the ranks bury the dead.

From the field in Virginia, Whitman decided to take up residence in the nation’s capital and take a job copying material in the Army Paymaster’s Office. He also volunteered as a nurse’s assistant in the local hospitals, performing small acts of kindness to the wounded: reading to them, writing letters for them, and bringing them small gifts. It was this experience that inspired Drum-Taps. Whitman’s collection of 43 poems, such as “The Window-Dresser,” show the nation’s transformation from patriotic militarism to a sense of compassion and grief for the wounded and dead.

Also among Whitman’s most celebrated writings are those that define the commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln. While in Washington, D.C., Whitman lived within walking distance of the White House and crossed President Lincoln’s path several times. He even attended the reception for his second inauguration, but he never actually met the President.

Although Whitman was unable to express his fondness for Lincoln in person, he left a written record of poetry that shows a great deal of respect and admiration for the President. He confirmed their common ideology, “We are afloat on the same stream-we are rooted in the same ground.” Whitman understood Lincoln’s struggle and witnessed what war did to him on a personal and physical level, writing that the president looked “worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate question, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows.” He also complimented Lincoln’s “purest, heartiest, tenderness, and native western form of manliness.”

After the Union victory and Lincoln’s assassination, Whitman wrote what is probably his most famous ode to his hero Lincoln.”

B. Nash note: Whitman’s most famous ode to Lincoln?   “O Captain! My Captain!”


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