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During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman volunteered as a nurse and treated wounded Union soldiers

Domagoj Valjak

Walt Whitman was one of the crucial figures of American literature in the 19th century. His famous collection of poems named Leaves of Grass was as first considered distasteful and obscene because it contained explicit sexual scenes.

However, the collection is nowadays praised as the pioneering work of American free verse poetry.

Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, Fulton St., Brooklyn, N.Y., steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.

The American Civil War greatly affected Whitman, who was a humanist, a transcendentalist, and a pacifist. At the beginning of the war, he published his poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, which praised the ideals of the North and served as an inspiration for the soldiers of the Union.

Because of his pacifist views, Whitman never went to war as a soldier, but his brother George immediately joined the Union army. In December of 1862, Whitman learned that the New York Tribune published a list of soldiers who were killed or wounded in combat; he acquired the list and was shocked to discover that the name “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore” was listed among the names of the wounded.

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of the men with whom Whitman was believed to have had an intimate relationship

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of the men with whom Whitman was believed to have had an intimate relationship

This was the name of his brother, so Whitman quickly ventured south. He had trouble reaching the camp where his brother was treated because he was unable to ride, and he lost his wallet so he couldn’t purchase a train ticket. He eventually reached the camp and discovered that his brother had only a minor wound on one of his cheeks.

Although he was deeply relieved, he was also profoundly shocked by the massacred soldiers whose amputated limbs were piled up by the medical tents of the camp. Whitman then went to Washington, D.C., where he volunteered as a nurse in the army hospitals. He acquired basic medical training and helped the wounded Union soldiers until the end of the war.

Walt Whitman as photographed by Mathew Brady.

Walt Whitman as photographed by Mathew Brady.

The war took its toll on Whitman’s family. Whitman’s brother George was held captive by the Confederate army, his brother Andrew died of tuberculosis, and his third brother suffered a psychological breakdown and had to be committed to an insane asylum.

Because Whitman worked as a nurse, he managed to get a position as a clerk in the Department of the Interior and worked there for a year. However, he was fired when James Harlan, the new Secretary of the Interior, discovered that Whitman wrote the sexually explicit Leaves of Grass. Still, Whitman’s poetry soon brought him significant popularity across the United States, and he got the job of an assistant at the Attorney General’s office, which he kept until 1872.

Walt Whitman, 1887.

Walt Whitman, 1887.

The war greatly affected Whitman’s literary themes; in 1863 he published his essay named “The Great Army of the Sick”, which described his experience of tending the wounded soldiers.

Read another story from us: Influential writer Thomas Pynchon was a student of Vladimir Nabokov at the University of Cornell

In 1875 he published a book named “Memoranda During the War”, in which he summarized his own experiences from the war and his humanist and pacifist ideals.