- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

Red-faced and bushy-bearded, his spotlessly clean shirt tieless, and wearing a broad-brimmed hat, the man looked older than 43 as he walked slowly along a street in Washington.

To some in 1862, he was a stranger of odd appearance; to others, recognizing him, his habit of voicing matters they considered best left unspoken aroused feelings of dislike; but many admired his poetic gifts, for this was Walt Whitman.

He was born May 31, 1819, on a farm in Huntington County, Long Island. His father was a Quaker carpenter, and his mother was of Dutch descent. His parents employed slave labor until they moved to Brooklyn around 1823.

At 13, he was a printer’s apprentice; later he became a journeyman printer. He had a variety of jobs but wanted to be a writer. From 1846 to 1847, he edited the Brooklyn Eagle; from 1857 to 1858, the Brooklyn Times. Ever restless and traveling widely, he was always keenly interested in his native land and his fellow Americans.

Came the war, but instead of joining the army, Whitman volunteered as a nurse in military hospitals. Capable and compassionate, he earned the liking and trust of the wounded. His brother was injured at Fredericksburg in November 1862. The horrors of the battlefields inspired “Memoranda During the War,” a prose work not published until 1875.

Whitman eventually accepted a clerical post in the Department of the Interior, but a superior referred to “Leaves of Grass” (1855) as “indecent,” and its author, offended, got himself transferred to the Office of the Attorney General. He commented wryly on his outspoken views: “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.” His attitude toward sexual matters (he was homosexual) undoubtedly disturbed people.

The war was never far from Whitman’s mind. After the disaster of 1st Manassas, he contributed to a general condemnation, saying of officers he saw in Washington: “There you are, shoulder-straps! Where are your companions? Where are your men? No explanation shall save you. Bull Run is your work!” But although greatly moved by the carnage, he saw beauty in some aspects of the war and portrayed them vividly.

“Scarlet and blue and snowy white / The guidon flags flutter in the wind,” he wrote in “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” “Drum Taps” (1865) was a book of war poems published at his own expense, and the war was the subject of “Specimen Days,” a prose work of 1882.

The death of President Lincoln shocked him profoundly, but whereas for many it increased a hatred of the defeated South, Whitman merely grieved. Soon after the assassination, he wrote “O Captain, My Captain!” and it is curious that this lament should have been expressed in rhyming and metrical verse, and not the free form he had made so much his own.

Also shortly after Lincoln’s death, he penned another poem, which would be included in “Sequel to Drum Taps” (1865-66), and has a haunting quality: “When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky at night, / I mourned, and yet shall mourn, with ever-returning Spring.”

Most poems written during and after the Civil War are banal, but not Whitman’s. Derided or despised for his perceived immorality, his opinions frequently anathema, he was often shunned by his fellows, and it must have hurt to be treated as a pariah. It took a long time before his greatness as a writer was internationally recognized, but some acknowledged his qualities early, among them Emerson, Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Extensively revised, the 12th edition of “Leaves of Grass” appeared shortly before his death, but it is his war poems we are concerned with here. “Bivouac on a Mountainside” paints an evocative portrait: “I see before me now a traveling army halting, / Below a fertile valley spread, with barns and the orchards of summer.” So the Valley of the Shenandoah must have looked before Phil Sheridan’s army ravaged it at Ulysses S. Grant’s command. It was a granary for the Confederacy and was torched.

Whitman attempted to explain his life and work in “A Backward Glance O’er Traveled Roads,” included in the final edition of “Leaves of Grass.” In 1873, he was paralyzed by a stroke and retired to a little home in Camden, N.J., where he was cared for by a widow who had become his close friend. There he died on March 26, 1892, leaving behind him memories of a man unafraid to challenge conventional behavior, who is now judged for what he wrote and not for his way of life.

Walt Whitman’s position is now unassailable. He is regarded as one of the greatest poets America has produced, a literary giant whose free-form verse rang out like a bugle call in a manner too new to receive immediate acceptance. Today, Walt Whitman, who had only a small but useful role in the Civil War and wrote of it in luminous fashion, ranks among the literary immortals.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.


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