- Walt Whitman and Civil War Washington
Walt Whitman famously described his visits to thousands of wounded Civil War soldiers in Memoranda During the War, a volume with a largely ignored subtitle: “Written on the Spot in 1863-’65.” I want to highlight that subtitle and its emphasis on space and time—its geo-temporal specificity—to ask what it meant to have a writer of Whitman’s sensibilities thrust into the nation’s capital city in the final three years of the war, when it had become a city of hospitals. More wounded soldiers were treated in Washington, DC, than in any other city, and Whitman, a visitor to dozens of hospitals, gravitated toward the epicenter of suffering. He spent most of his time at Armory Square Hospital, which hosted the worst cases and had the highest death rate. At a time of unprecedented maiming and killing, Whitman engaged in the work of healing. Leaves of Grass, his poetic masterpiece, intertwined the physical bodies of men and women and the symbolic body of the nation and saw in both a capacity to embrace contradictions and diversity while still remaining united and whole. Both the nation and Whitman’s poetic project were at risk as he confronted innumerable broken and battered bodies. In this new context, he reassessed the possibilities for poetry, the future of democracy, and even the efficacy of affection, a quality that he had always believed sustained civil society. Faced with massive destruction, in what ways did Whitman succeed and fail in making meaning of it, in finding reasons for hope?
The crisis of war remade both Whitman and Washington, DC. The city more than tripled in size from 63,000 to 200,000 inhabitants and underwent profound change, as the maps available on the Civil War Washington digital site illustrate; once a relatively quiet town with a busy political season, it absorbed a new and year-round population of soldiers, bureaucrats, prostitutes, adventure-seekers, merchants, doctors, nurses, and undertakers. During the course of the War, forty thousand fugitive slaves, known as “contrabands,” fled to the nation’s capital: they often resided in camps run by the government and charitable organizations and many worked on military projects. (The term “contraband of war,” used by General Benjamin Butler in 1861 to refer to former slaves who reached Union lines, became widely adopted thereafter.) The routine of life in the city was frequently interrupted by military drills and the [End Page 121] fear or rumor of imminent Confederate attacks. From the First Battle of Bull Run, Confederate armies continually threatened Washington as part of General Robert E. Lee’s strategy of taking the war to the north. Lee’s offensives of 1862 and 1863, leading to key battles at Antietam and Gettysburg, were meant to threaten Washington, to encourage the numerous Southern sympathizers in the North, and to challenge President Lincoln’s administrative authority. In response, Lincoln ordered the creation of a 37-mile ring of forts and batteries, effectively transforming the capital city into a citadel (Winkle xii).
Prior to coming to Washington, Whitman had experienced a life far removed from armed conflict. He had spent the pre-war years in the New York area where he had worked as a printer, school teacher, journalist, occasional politician and stump speaker, and a successful builder of homes. He was a remarkably competent and effective builder: he sold homes for profit, established his mother and the extended family under her care in a dwelling he constructed in Brooklyn, and arrested the family’s economic decline (Roper 54–66). He also mastered the lingo of building with its grounding in concrete particularity, and this approach to language informed his breakthrough book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, published in 1855: he wanted his style to be as stout as a plank, as sturdy as a crossbeam. Yet if Whitman’s language was often concrete—even earthy—it could also reach to the stars. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson explained, Whitman’s writing was a “remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald” (Sanborn 144).
Writing with great resourcefulness across verbal registers, Whitman established himself as a poet...