Image: Walt Whitman as an old man, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right
Feinberg-Whitman Collection at the Library of Congress. Saunders, 44a. (between 1890 and 1940)
In celebration of Walt Whitman, our beloved "national poet" (born May 31, 1819) EDSITEment highlights resources on his writing and first-hand experience of the American Civil War.
"Future years will never know the seething **** and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface courteousness of Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war, and it is best they should not - the real war will never get in the books."
No commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War would be complete without reference to Whitman's experiences and reflections of this conflict. As he made his rounds of the army hospitals in Washington DC tending to the sick and wounded, his poet's eye was taking in as much as he was giving out succor and support to the soldiers. In a letter to his mother dated June 1863, he wrote,
"I go every day without fail & often at night--sometimes stay very late--no one interferes with me, guards, doctors, nurses, nor any one--I am let to take my own course."
Whitman's poetry and notebooks convey the Civil War in a most direct and poignant manner. Through an examination of his writing students can gain insight into the universal human experience of suffering and grief. EDSITEment feature, Civil War in Literature, details his involvement while EDSITEment-reviewed Whitman Archive, offers this commentary by scholar James Barcus:
In the midst of suffering, agony, death, and occasional survival, Whitman captures the nobility of the human spirit, of husbands and fathers yearning for word from home and desperate to send letters, but hampered by disease and poverty. In declining health and faced with incapacity, Whitman remembers what he had discovered years before: that sudden death, even death in battle, may not be the worst ending. November Boughs 
In his early writing, Walt Whitman set out to chart a new course for poetry with ideas universal in scope. EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe directs students to seek clues to his effort to create a new and distinctly American form of verse. EDSITEment lesson Walt Whitman to Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy explores the historical context of Whitman's concept of "democratic poetry" and examines daguerreotypes taken circa 1850. (EDSITEment Closer Readings explores the Common Core State Standards applications of this lesson, Let Freedom Ring! Democracy in the Poetry of Whitman and Hughes) Both lessons illustrate how Whitman was determined to express truth through verse using authentic American situations and settings with language that appealed to the senses. The Civil War would provide him with more than ample opportunity for such expression.
Walt Whitman’s notebooks available through the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory project illustrate the Poet at Work and capture wrenching images that war evoked for him. The article, Daybreak Gray and Dim: How the Civil War Changed Walt Whitman’s Poetry from NEH Humanities magazine, characterizes Whitman’s initial response in verse to the sounds of the drums of war: “BEAT! beat! Drums! — blow! bugles! blow!” Haunting scenes of human suffering shape his maturing impressions of warfare and find their way into his tender musing upon “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” available at the NEH-funded Walt Whitman Archive.
“In the future of these States must arise poets immenser far, and make great poems of death. The poems of life are great, but there must be the poems of the purports of life, not only in itself, but beyond itself.”
Whitman was himself destined to write the nation’s quintessential poem on life, death, and rebirth. When Lilacs Last in the dooryard Bloom’d articulates America’s grief upon President Lincoln’s untimely death in this lament of a stricken nation as it watches the train with Lincoln’s body make its way across the country to its final resting place. A critical discussion of this elegy with its three archetypal symbols — the lilac, the star, and the hermit thrush — is found at the Whitman Archive.