Memorial Day, an annual federal holiday observed in the United States on the last Monday of May, was originally known as Decoration Day, a commemoration of those who lost their lives while fighting in the Civil War. But when the United States found itself involved in yet another war, World War I, four decades later, the day evolved into a more general celebration of American military personnel who have died in all wars.
While poets like John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, and Alan Seeger are defined by their war poems, even categorized as “war poets” for the active role they played on the battlefield and the sometimes brutal honesty with which they reported the horrors and tragedies of their experiences, perhaps somewhat less discussed is Walt Whitman's poetic account of the Civil War.
Known as one of the quintessential American poets, Whitman is nothing if not a poet of broad scope. His poems seek to capture a diversity of experiences and revel in the multiplicities and contradictions of life. In his poem “America,” he declares the country as “Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, / All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old.” Though Whitman celebrated America in his verse, he also wrote about living through America’s Civil War, an experience he would recount with anger, fear, and empathy.
On December 13, 1862, Whitman’s younger brother George was listed in the New York Herald as one of the soldiers wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Fearing for his brother’s health and safety, Whitman left his family’s home in Brooklyn and hurried to Washington, D.C. to find George. After several days of searching, Whitman found his brother in Falmouth, Virginia, with only a minor facial wound, but still remained with him for two weeks, during which time he recorded what he saw at the Union Army camp and visited injured soldiers in the field hospitals.
As Whitman prepared to leave Falmouth at the end of December, he was asked to transport some of the wounded soldiers to hospitals in Washington in a journey that included both travel by rail and government steamer. Whitman tended to the injured, running errands and writing down their messages to their families. He recalled: “Several wanted word sent home to parents, brothers, wives, &c., which I did for them, (by mail the next day from Washington.) On the boat I had my hands full. One poor fellow died going up.”
By the time Whitman reached Washington, moved and overwhelmed by the injured soldiers he encountered, he had decided to stay as a nurse and work in the hospitals for the duration of the war.
The experience, though taxing, was ultimately rewarding for Whitman, who enjoyed helping the soldiers and regularly kept an account of his work with them. He wrote to his friend, fellow poet 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 sepulcher of Washington itself.”
By the time the Civil War was over, Whitman estimated that he had made “over 600 visits or tours, and went … among from some 80,000 to 100,000 of the sick and wounded, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need.”
Whitman published articles in The New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle about his experiences and published a collection of poems about the war, Drum-Taps, as the war was coming to an end.
Leaves of Grass was in its third edition when Whitman declared to his friend William O’Connor, in 1864, that he “intend[ed] to move heaven & earth to publish” his Drum-Taps. The collection was published just weeks after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Markedly different from Whitman’s usual romantic, celebratory, and expansive poems about the individual and the collective in America, Drum-Taps contained poems that bore witness to the violence of war with a sense of intimacy and fear. In Whitman’s account of what he called the “red business” of the war, there’s his usual sense of compassion, but there’s rage and hopelessness too, as can be read in the first section of “The Wound-Dresser,” in which the speaker says, “Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war, / But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself / To sit by the wounded and sooth them, or silently watch the dead.” The dead are numerous in these poems, and dutifully accounted for, as in his poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” in which the speaker spends time lovingly addressing each of the three dead soldiers in the poem: “And who are you my child and darling? / Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?”
Six months after his original publication of Drum-Taps, Whitman republished the book with a “sequel,” a series of poems responding to the end of the war, including the death of Lincoln. This edition included Whitman’s famous elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” which shares the elegiac, anaphoric “O” exclamations also present in his other famous poem about Lincoln: “O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; / Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.”
Though some found Drum-Taps distasteful in its particular mode of reporting on the war (a young Henry James called the collection “the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry,” in a November 1865 issue of The Nation, a statement he later said he regretted), others have since called the poems representative of what would later be defined as the modern war poem.
Ultimately Whitman included an edited version of Drum-Taps in his next edition of Leaves of Grass, published that same year—though only thirty-eight of the original seventy-one poems in the collection appeared in later editions of Leaves of Grass.
In the end, Whitman, who was so resolute in his aim to publish Drum-Taps—going so far as to publish the first edition on his own dime—was at least pleased that he was able to accomplish his goal: to put to words all that he had seen during the war. In another letter he sent to O’Connor, on January 6, 1865, Whitman said, “Drum-Taps delivers my ambition of the task that has haunted me, namely, to express in a poem...the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope, the shiftings, masses, & the whirl & deafening din...& then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos.”