The Civil War’s Influence On Walt Whitman

From Leaves of Grass. Source: (Wikiquote).

In 1855, Walt Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass; it was very controversial during its time, and Whitman spent the rest of his life reworking this collection of poetry in which the poems were often centered on himself. However, when Walt Whitman was 42, the country entered the Civil War. Although he opposed slavery and supported the free soil platform (according to this platform, the only territories which should be admitted into the Union were ones which had outlawed slavery), he did not join the Union Army to fight as a soldier. Early in the war, believing that it would be over quickly, he remained in Brooklyn and continued to write, although his writing during this time was not overly productive and he sometimes wrote journalistic pieces to make some money. His brother George, however, enlisted in 1861.

Source: (Library of Congress/ThoughtCo).

Whitman's Role Attending To The Wounded

George was wounded during the war, and his name appeared on a list published in the newspapers in December 1862. Whitman went south to find his brother. Once he located him, he found that he had barely been hurt and stayed with him for two weeks in Falmouth. After leaving Falmouth, he was asked to help transport the wounded to the hospitals in Washington, D.C., and once he was there, he remained in the South until the end of the war, with the exception of a few months, visiting the hospitals, handing out fruit, candy, books, pencils, and paper to the wounded, and helping in other ways by writing letters home. These small tokens were not free, so Whitman not only contributed from his own meager salaries (he clerked at the Army Paymaster’s Office, the Department of the Interior and Attorney General’s office in addition to selling articles about his experience), and he also solicited donations from both friends and strangers. While visiting the bedsides of the wounded, he made notes about his experiences, and wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself.” By his estimates, he made over 600 visits, even delivering ice cream to all 18 wards of Carver Hospital one afternoon. 

His Poetry Started To Focus On His Experience

On June 23, 1864, exhausted and ill from working so hard, Whitman returned to Brooklyn to recover. Once he was able to, he went back to Washington with the resolve to publish a book of poems arising from his experiences during the war. This book, Drum-Taps would come out in 1865, with its focus on the things he experienced while helping in the hospital. The original publication which, as Whitman later told Horace Traubel, was “put together by fits and starts, on the field, in the hospitals as I worked with the soldier boys,” included a total of 53 poems.

Source: (Library of Congress).

His Experiences Changed His Poetry

Just before the publication of Drum-Taps, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Whitman admired Lincoln, who knew of the poet and had sometimes read poems from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass out loud. Whitman, devastated by Lincoln’s death, wrote “Hush’d be the Camps Today” on April 19, just days after Lincoln’s death. Since Drum-Taps was about to be printed, he stopped the printing so that he could insert this new poem he had written on April 19, days after Lincoln’s death. Several weeks after Lincoln’s death, he wrote an elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a poem that is not just about Lincoln’s death but that also reflects the effects of the Civil War on Whitman.