A Poet Remembers: Walt Whitman

Brooklyn-born poet Walt Whitman had already achieved national fame for Leaves of Grass (1855) when the war began. Fearing that his brother George, who had enlisted at the start of the war, had been injured at Fredricksburg, he traveled to Virginia to find him. Although relieved to find George unharmed, Whitman was deeply moved by his experiences in the camp. He spent the remainder of the war as a volunteer nurse, caring for the sick and wounded at Army hospitals in Washington, DC.

Whitman wrote letters on behalf of wounded soldiers, taking great pains to give worried families as much news as possible. He strove to record the experiences of “the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies—and especially the one-third or one-fourth of their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest,” who he felt “were of more significance even than the Political interests involved.” These experiences inspired him to write the poem sequence “Drum Taps,” first published in 1865. Wishing to “furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors of the period, never to be fully convey'd to the future,” he published the autobiographical Memoranda During the War in 1876.

Walt Whitman, 1876.

Walt Whitman, 1876.

Author and poet. This image is taken from Whitman's Memoranda During the War, a memoir about his time as a nurse in Washington, D.C., published in 1876. Item Link