Walt Whitman’s Wartime Experience: Using Primary Sources to Offer Context

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 2. Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Manuscript Division.

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 2, image 2. Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Manuscript Division.

Using primary sources in conjunction with reading poetry is a way to help students build context for understanding a poet’s time and place. Walt Whitman’s wartime work in Civil War field hospitals is believed to have inspired many of the poems published in Drum-Taps (1865).

The probable start of Whitman’s interest in helping the war-wounded began with his own brother. In December 1862 the Whitman family received word that George Whitman had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. After traveling to Virginia to find his brother, Whitman was able to write to his mother (images 2-4) on December 29th with good news about George and to share his own challenges and observations.

Offer students copies of this letter in its entirety. Perhaps ask pairs or trios to read it together. Contemporary students may find cursive writing a challenge; however, the attempt to read it provides a number of positive opportunities such as seeing Whitman’s handwriting and what he emphasizes, as well as building skills useful for interacting with historical texts.

If time constraints prevent reading the entire letter, an excerpt from the bottom of page 2 to the top of page 3 is especially poignant as Whitman describes the condition of the wounded. Consider providing a transcript of his words after students have had the opportunity to interact with the original, provided below:

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 2 (excerpt). Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Manuscript Division.

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 2, image 2 (excerpt).

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 3 (excerpt). Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Manuscript Division.

Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, December 29, 1862. Holograph letter, page 3, image 2 (excerpt).

Transcript: When I found dear brother George, and found that he was alive and well, O you may imagine how trifling all my little cares and difficulties seemed – they vanished into nothing. And now that I have lived for eight or nine days amid such scenes as the camps furnish, and had a practical part in it all, and realise [sic] the way that hundreds of thousands of good men are now living, and have had to live for a year or more, not only without any of the comforts, but with death and sickness and hard marching and hard fighting (and no success at that,) for their continual experience – really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.

Ask students:

  • Are there any words Whitman uses that stand out to you? Why?
  • What is Whitman’s tone toward the soldiers and the camps?

Next, offer students this photograph of wounded soldiers:

Kearney's men wounded at Fredericksburg. May 20, 1864. <a href="//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03386">Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints, Prints and Photographs Division.</a>

Kearney’s men wounded at Fredericksburg. May 20, 1864. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.03386

Ask them to describe the condition of the soldiers and their accommodations. Supplement this with another photograph of a Civil War camp such as the headquarters of Gen. George B. McClellan at Camp Winfield Scott (near Yorktown, Va.), or the camp of 2nd Vermont volunteers at Camp Griffin, Virginia. Ask students to discuss what it might have been like to live in one of these camps.

Now it’s time to layer in Whitman’s poetry. Poems such as “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim,” “By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame,” or “Come up From the Fields Father” connect with the recommended primary sources.

Ask students how their experience or understanding of the poem(s) is enhanced or changed by having read Whitman’s letter and seen the photographs.

How do you help students to connect with the context of a poem?

Note: The above letter and other Whitman artifacts related to the Civil War can be found in the newly digitized Walt Whitman Papers in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection.

One Comment

  1. Mary Johnson
    March 1, 2017 at 9:21 pm

    Wonderful ideas for combining words and photographs! I am especially grateful for the example of Walt Whitman’s letter from the newly digitized papers, as it can be overwhelming to dig through large collections to identify some of the most useful items for teaching. Thank you, Rebecca!

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