This book presents the "War of Attempted Secession" through the eyes of America's great poet. It consists of letters, dispatches, articles, and prose selections from Specimen Days (1882), Whitman's quasi-autobiography. In addition, all of Whitman's Civil War poems are included, some interspersed through the text and others collected in an Appendix.

The editor has arranged this material into 14 thematic chapters, beginning with "an introductory section in which Whitman discusses the general character of the Civil War" and including chapters containing material on his visits to the front, life in Washington during the War, letters to his mother, his admiration for Lincoln, and other topics.

Of particular interest is "The Great Army of the Wounded," a chapter composed of dispatches to the New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle, in which Whitman describes the military hospitals surrounding Washington and his own work as a volunteer nurse, scribe, and friendly visitor. In "Dear Love of Comrades," he presents a number of "specimen" cases of sick or wounded soldiers. "O My Soldiers, My Veterans" consists of letters written to soldiers, or for soldiers to their families. Another chapter, "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," presents Whitman's positive assessment of black regiments serving in the Union Army.

Many of the war poems appear in topically appropriate chapters; among the most effective of these are "A Twilight Song," "Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice," "Pensive on Her Dead Gazing," "Dirge for Two Veterans," "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors," "O Captain! My Captain," and The Wound Dresser (see annotation in this database).


Walter Lowenfels has organized the selections to provide a coherent and compelling narrative, although most of the credit goes to Whitman himself, whose prose is remarkably clear and energetic. His prose style avoids the verbal excess that sometimes sacrifices meaning for music in his poetry.

The description of military medicine is especially compelling. During the War there were nearly 50 military hospitals surrounding Washington, some of which had a thousand or more patients. Whitman describes the typical structure and organization of these hospitals, and speaks of his work "as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree in time of need." (p.4)

His estimate of having visited "from eighty thousand to one hundred thousand of the wounded and sick" (p. 4) during a three year period seems like a bit of harmless exaggeration, similar to Anton Chekhov's claim that he completed ten thousand data collection forms during his three month survey of the convict population of Sakhalin Island (see annotation of A Journey to Sakhalin in this database).


This book contains a number of splendid Civil War drawings by Winslow Homer.


Da Capo

Place Published

New York




Walter Lowenfels

Page Count