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University of Iowa Walt Whitman Quarterly page. Contains on-line versions of the publication. —

Lecture 6: Whitman's Civil War

Before beginning this lecture you may want to ...

Read Walt Whitman's "0 Captain! My Captain!" and Drum-Taps.

Whitman called the Civil War the central event of his life. He told his friend Horace Traubel that the war was "the very center, circumference, umbillicus of my whole career."

He dedicated much of his autobiographical narrative Specimen Days to the War. In this lecture we'll look in particular at Whitman's hero, the "redeemer president" Abraham Lincoln. We'll also discuss Whitman's poetry of race, and how his poetry looked beyond color lines and still speaks to African Americans today.

Most people first come to Whitman through his poem "O Captain! My Captain!" which was easily the best loved of all Whitman's short poems during his lifetime and remains today one of his most well known works.

Whitman, it must be noted, was deeply ambivalent about this poem:

I'm honest when I say, damn 'my captain' and all the 'my captains' in my book! This is not the first time I have been irritated into saying I'm almost sorry I wrote the poem.

He felt the poem imperfect and felt it a "concession to the philistines." Nevertheless, Whitman kept this poem in all his collections. It's important when considering why he would do this to understand how Whitman felt about the character on which the poem is based—Abraham Lincoln.

0 Captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won; The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring: But 0 heart! heart! heart!

Leave you not the little spot.

Where on the deck my captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

0 captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding; For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning: Oh captain! dear father!

This arm I push beneath you;

It is some dream that on the deck, You've fallen cold and dead.

My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will; But the ship is anchor'd safe, its voyage closed and done; From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won: Exult, 0 shores, and ring, 0 bells! But I, with silent tread,

Walk the spot my captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.


Historical Context of "O Captain! My Captain!"

Lincoln was Whitman's redeemer-president. He called Lincoln "the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality" in American life. Whitman considered the date of Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth, April 14, 1865, as a day of unequaled influence on the shaping of the Republic. Whitman said of Lincoln at this time: "Lincoln is particularly my man—particularly belongs to me; yes, and by the same token, I am Lincoln's man: I guess I particularly belong to him; we are afloat on the same stream—we are rooted in the same ground." (Epstein 90)

There is a reciprocal relationship between Lincoln and Whitman, and it was he who immortalized Lincoln for Americans. In "O Captain! My Captain!" and other poems of Drum-Taps, such as "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman glorifies Lincoln's role as the living embodiment of democracy.

Whitman's connections with Lincoln.

• both rose to greatness from humble backgrounds

• both were self-taught

• both liked Shakespeare as well as minstrel shows

• both loved low humor and slang

• Lincoln, like Whitman, knew the Bible better than any other book, the Bible that Whitman used as a model for his long rolling lines of poetry.

• both loved oratory

Whitman first saw Lincoln when he passed through New York on February 18, 1861 on his way to his inauguration. He saw him many times after this and has described him closely in his journals. After the attack on Fort Sumter, Whitman writes very evocatively about his feelings and sympathies for Lincoln. When Lincoln began mobilizing the army, two companies of the 13th Regiment marched out of the city and George Washington Whitman, Walt's brother, was one of the recruits.

On July 22, 1861, during the Battle of Bull Run, the Union army was handed its first crushing defeat. The routed Union troops began pouring into Washington and the seriousness of the situation dawned on the North, leading Lincoln to immediately set about reorganizing forces. It's at this point that Whitman's admiration for Lincoln increases. Whitman went as far as to write recruiting poems like, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" exhorting the Union to rise up in war.

From 1861, Whitman starts to visit wounded troops in the New York Hospital on Broadway. It had begun to receive soldiers after Bull Run and steadily increased its services to military men as the war continued. By the spring of 1862, this hospital was taking care of several hundred sick and wounded soldiers, and Whitman was regularly spending his Sunday afternoons and evenings visiting them. Then, Whitman settled in Washington in January 1863, where he saw Lincoln twenty to thirty times and continued going to the hospitals. "I think well of the president," Whitman wrote to his friend Fred Gray in 1863."He has a face like a Hoosier Michelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion."

Whitman's Civil War Letters

Interior view of a Union hospital during the Civil War

The result of these experiences with Lincoln culminated in a number of works: Drum-Taps (1865), Sequel to Drum-Taps (1866), as well as a stunning series of Civil War letters and lectures.

Whitman's Civil War Letters

The Civil War was America's bloodiest war, and Whitman got to see much of it during his days in Washington. He volunteered as a nurse in the hospitals that sprung up in Washington at this time and saw much of the carnage wreaked by the war.

Interior view of a Union hospital during the Civil War

I saw the vision of armies;

And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags; Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc'd with missiles, I saw them,

And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody; And at last but a few shreds of the flags left on the staffs

(and all in silence), And the staffs all splinter'd and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,

And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;

I saw the debris and debris of all dead soldiers;

But I saw they were not as was thought;

They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,

The living remain'd and suffer'd—the mother suffer'd,

And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer'd,

And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.—Stanza 18 from "When Lilacs Last"

He helped with practical nursing and lent his emotional and personal support to wounded soldiers. He tried to make the soldiers feel better by keeping them company, buying them last wishes, telling them stories, and recording what they said and did for those who loved them. He played the role of guardian angel to these dying soldiers and often worked as a scribe for those who couldn't write for themselves.

Whitman and the Issue of Race

Whitman's love of Lincoln and the soldiers was rooted in his belief in the Union cause. He, like Lincoln, came to his radical political stance slowly.

Lincoln at first disavowed extreme stances. His initial objective was to preserve the Union as it was. He favored the Fugitive Slave Law, gradual emancipation, and colonization back to Africa. Lincoln wanted to remain friendly to the South. In fact, as late as 1862, Lincoln wrote, "My paramount objective is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery." When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he was a moderate on the slavery issue.

Whitman's strongest statements of freedom of all come from the ten-year period between 1855 and 1865. Though it should be noted here that there were a few lapses—he was more conservative at the beginning and end of his career. Nevertheless, there is widespread admiration for Whitman's message from a distinguished group of African American writers, from Langston Hughes and Richard Wright to Yusef Komunyakaa and Cornel West.

Now known as "I Sing the Body Electric," this poem is a wonderful example of how Whitman from very early on was looking across the boundaries of race. This was originally one of the untitled twelve poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. In working notes to this poem, he titled it "Blacks."

Flakes of breastmuscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, goodsized arms and legs, And wonders within there yet.

Within there runs his blood ... the same old blood ...

the same red running blood; There swells and jets his heart... There all passions and desires ...

all Teachings and aspirations; Do you think they are not there because they are not expressed in parlors and lecture-rooms?

This is not only one man ... he is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns, In him the start of populous states and rich republics, Of him countless immortal lives and countless embodiments and enjoyments.

How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries? Who might you find you have come from yourself if you could trace back through the centuries?

—Stanza 7 lines 94-103 from "I Sing the Body Electric"

This poem was based on Whitman's experience seeing a slave auction in New Orleans in 1848, an event that he claims changed his life. It may be shocking to hear the line "I help the auctioneer" until we understand what Whitman is saying is that there is a reason to value the person on the auction block, that they are priceless and he can help to show the auctioneer and the public this fact. When he says, examine these, "Limbs, red black or white," Whitman reaches out to include all bodies that jostle for freedom. Everybody is the focus of divine and democratic energies in this poem.

He goes on to say "this is not only one man," and this is where Whitman desires to bring Americans out of their lethargy of discrimination and hierarchy and show that all men share a common lineage. For the first time in this poem, Whitman is seeking to become a fully representative voice of all people.

Whitman's hatred of slavery and strong abolitionist feelings increase between the 1855 first edition to the 1865 Drum-Taps poems. One of the 1860s poems illustrates this fact beautifully.

Walt Whitman's Caution (regarding enslaved nations) To the States, or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little;

Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth ever Afterward resumes its liberty.

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