Walt Whitman

“Here, coffin that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac.”

Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloomed”

Walt Whitman
America’s great poet spent the war in Washington, an obscure government clerk. This job gave him time and freedom not only to work on his constant revisions to “Leaves of Grass,” but also to serve as a devoted volunteer nurse for the hordes of wounded soldiers brought back from the battlefields.

Profoundly moved by the soldiers he met on his journey to Virginia in search of his wounded brother, he made it his personal crusade to circulate nightly among the wards, bringing candy, sugared water and gifts, sitting patiently for hours talking or writing letters for “his” boys. Throughout the war, he jotted his feelings and observations on scraps of paper which he tucked in whatever pocket was handy.

Though his intimacy with the president apparently extended only to shaking his hand once as he filed past during a New Year’s Day open house, Whitman became almost religiously devoted to Lincoln. Years before his election, Whitman had predicted the ascendance of a rugged, unpolished, raw-boned man from the West like the Great Railsplitter. In his last years he would annually deliver a lecture to packed houses recounting the death of Lincoln.

The Attack on Fort Sumter

“News of the attack on Fort Sumter was received late at night and was immediately sent out in extras of the newspapers. I heard the newsboys, who came tearing and yelling up the street, even more furiously than usual. The great lamps were still brightly blazing, and one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listened silently. No remark was made by any of the crowd, but all stood a minute or two before they dispersed.”

Before Bull Run

“A couple of companies of were all provided with pieces of rope, conspicuously tied to their musket barrels, with which to bring back each man a prisoner from the audacious South, to be led in a noose, on our men’s early and triumphant return!”

After Bull Run

“Where are your banners and your bands of music and your ropes to bring back your prisoners? There isn’t a band playing…. Willard’s Hotel is full of shoulder-straps. There you are, shoulder straps! But where are your men? Incompetents! Bull Run is your work; had you been half or one-tenth worthy your men, this never would have happened.”

The Death of Lincoln

“And in the midst of that pandemonium, infuriated soldiers, the audience and the crowd, the stage, and all its actors and actresses, its paint-pots, spangles, and gas-lights—the life blood from those veins drips slowly down….”

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