Whitman’s War: On Whitman’s Civil War Notebooks

By Stephen Boykewich


THE CIVIL WAR THREATENED TO GIVE THE LIE to every claim Walt Whitman made about America.

In the preface to his 1855 Leaves of Grass, he set forth a vision of a “teeming nation of nations,” unified, for all its variety, by the spirit of openness and sincerity common to its citizens, “their deathless attachment to freedom … the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states … their good temper and openhandedness … ” The American spirit had not yet had “the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it”; he sought, in his sprawling poem, to give it just that.

Whitman’s great democratic vision, however, was as much an act of will as of perception. He recognized that the very variety he celebrated had the potential to tear the country apart. “The largeness of nature or the nation,” he wrote, “were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.” Whitman had to believe in a unifying spiritual bond common to all Americans. Without it, the political and economic conflicts inevitable in so unwieldy a country would be more than the country could bear.

As the war approached, Whitman’s efforts to sing a unifying American spirit into existence grew more urgent. “States!” he cried in a poem added to the 1860 edition of Leaves, “Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers? / By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?” None of these means will succeed; rather, “[a]ffection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom … ”

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of equality shall be comrades.
These shall tie and bind stronger than hoops of iron,
I, extatic, O partners! O lands! henceforth with the love of lovers tie you.

This is no celebration, but a plea, and the futility of it would soon be clear. If, as Whitman claimed in the 1855 Preface, “the United States themselves” were “essentially the greatest poem,” they were a far bloodier poem than he had yet written.

APRIL 1861. WHITMAN WAS ON a midnight walk down Broadway when news of the battle at Fort Sumter reached New York. In Specimen Days, he described the ominous silence that fell over the street: “For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listened silently and intently. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increased to thirty or forty, but all stood a moment or two, I remember, before they dispersed. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps of midnight again … ”

Whitman was forty-one years old at the time and did not enlist. George, his younger brother, did. It was Whitman’s concern for his brother that drew him into an encounter with the war that would dominate much of his work, thought, and writing for the last three decades of his life. The Whitman family monitored the published lists of the wounded with great anxiety. When the name “G.W.
Whitmore” appeared in December of 1862, Whitman promptly traveled to Washington, where he toured dozens of army hospitals on the chance that “G.W. Whitmore” had been a misprint for “G.W. Whitman.”

It was. Whitman eventually located his brother with his unit in Fredricksburg, Virginia. George had received a slight wound and returned to service. Whitman had planned to return to New York after finding his brother, but found he could not. In New York he had acquired the habit of visiting and tending to injured ferry workers; now the experience of seeing the shattered bodies of thousands of young soldiers overwhelmed him. He spent several days with his brother, then settled in Washington and began to tend to wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, at army hospitals. He would continue to do so until the end of the war.

“During those three years,” Whitman wrote, “in hospital, camp or field, I made over six hundred visits or tours and went, as I estimate, counting all, among from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body to some degree in time of need.” He spoke with them, read to them, brought them fruit and tobacco, wrote letters to their parents, hugged and kissed them. “I adapt myself to each case and to temperaments—some need to be humored; some are rather out of their head; some merely want me to sit with them and hold them by the hand.” In a dispatch to the New York Times he summed up the challenge of his work by saying, “One has much to learn to do good in these places.”

Evidently he learned all he needed to. Whitman received hundreds of letters, sometimes barely literate, from soldiers he had cared for. “I will never forget you as long as life should last,” one wrote, “I can’t find words to tell you the love thier [sic] is in me for you.” From another: “We have had a son borned [sic] since we heard from you. We call him Walter Whitman in honor to you, for love of you.”

THE DIARY PUBLISHED BELOW, from the University of Virginia’s Clifton Waller Barrett Library, is one of the many that Whitman carried with him during his nursing work. The diary is made of seventeen pages folded in half to form a book of 5” x 4” and hand-sewn with red thread. The writing is in black pencil and blue ink.

“From the first,” Whitman wrote, “I kept little notebooks for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances and what was especially wanted, &c … . I have dozens of such little notebooks left, forming a special history of those years for myself alone, full of associations never to
be possibly said or sung.”

These jottings served as the basis for much of Whitman’s later prose, including the reminiscences of and reflections on the war collected in Memoranda During the War and Specimen Days. For all the associations the present diary leaves unspoken, though—and in part because of them—it evokes a remarkably vivid picture of the poet at work, passing from bed to bed, tuning himself to each wounded soldier, talking with one about his family, reading quietly to the next.

Most of the men referred to in these pages were Union soldiers wounded at Chancellorsville, under the command of General Joseph E. Hooker, from May 2-4, 1863. “Our wounded from Hooker’s battles,” Whitman wrote, “are worse wounded and more of them than any battle of the war, and indeed any, I may say, of modern times.” In another newspaper dispatch, he described a night battle at Chancellorsville with terrific vividness, contrasting the calm of nature (“The night was very pleasant; at times the moon shining out full and clear”) with the human violence in its midst (“The flashes of fire from the cannon, the quick-flaring flames and smoke”), and the nightmarish scene of when the woods caught fire and burned many of the wounded to death.

Then the camps of the wounded—O heavens! what scene is this? Is this indeed humanity—these butchers’ shambles? There they lie in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from two hundred to three hundred poor fellows; the groans and screams, the odor of blood mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees, that slaughter house!

And in Specimen Days he recounted the arrival of the seemingly numberless casualties:

May, ’63.—As I write this, the wounded have begun to arrive from Hooker’s command from bloody Chancellorsville. I was down among the first arrivals. The men in charge told me the bad cases were yet to come. If that is so I pity them, for these are bad enough…To-day, as I write, hundreds more are expected, and to-morrow and the next day more, and so on for many days. Quite often they arrive at the rate of 1000 a day.

Here, as in the war poems he wrote during these years, Whitman was concerned more with the effects of war than with its conduct. But in the face of such horrors, what became of the idea of American brotherhood that he held so dear and sang so boldly? Why, after tending to a hundred thousand, did he reflect that, “I can’t recall a single case in which I gave away Leaves of Grass”?

WHITMAN’S OWN HEALTH DECLINED seriously as a result of his hospital work, and though he was persuaded in 1864 to spend several months recuperating in New York, he soon returned to Washington. Writing about his highly personal method of nursing, he revealed why this work became essential to him, whatever its toll, and what it had in common with his project as a writer: “One must be calm and cheerful; not let on how their case really is; must stop much with them; find out their idiosyncrasies—do anything for them—nourish them, judiciously give them the right things to drink—bringing in the affections; soothe them, brace them up, kiss them, discard all ceremony, and fight for them, as it were, with all weapons.”

Whitman was not a realist, but a visionary. In the pages of Leaves of Grass, he fought for the idea of an America united in spite of its contradictions. Among the wreckage of an America broken by its contradictions, he fought for the health and sanity of individual human beings. In both cases, he insisted on giving hope even when there seemed to be little cause for it, because that was what life, as he understood it, required.

He emerged from his years in the crowded hospitals uniquely equipped to renew his call for a unified America. He had witnessed as intimately as anyone alive the disaster of a country divided against itself. And yet he had reason to believe that the spirit of comradeship he had proclaimed before the war was still possible—and had the authority to proclaim it now—because throughout the worst years of the war, he had lived it.

The final edition of Whitman’s masterpiece is nearly four times the length of the first. It incorporates the war poems “Drum-Taps,” “Memories of President Lincoln,” among many others. Some critics consider this last Leaves inferior to the pre-war editions, disparaging it for being overstuffed, uneven, confused,

In other words, for being too much like America itself.

Original PDF: http://www.readmeridian.org/issues/11/11_Lost_Classic.pdf