Reconstructing a Civil War Battle from a Poet’s Letter Home

In the May/June 2017 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features a letter that Walt Whitman wrote to his mother on December 29, 1862. Whitman wrote the letter to let his mother know that he had found his brother George alive and healing from an injury sustained during the Battle of Fredericksburg. This letter is part of a recently digitized collection at the Library of Congress. The collection contains some 28,000 items and includes notebooks and diaries; drafts of poems, essays, and speeches; original correspondence and other documentation of Whitman’s creative process.  A sidebar excerpted from a blog post by Barbara Bair, a historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division, describes the collection in more detail. Reading Whitman’s correspondence offers insights into the relationships and experiences that likely informed and inspired his published writing.

Letter from Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, (mother), December 29, 1862

Whitman had set out from New York, traveling through Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., eventually arriving in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in search of George after the family had seen him listed in the newspaper as wounded. According to the letter, “George was wounded by a shell, a gash in the cheek – you could stick a splint through into the mouth, but it has healed up without difficulty already.” In addition to reporting on George, Whitman described the generally harsh conditions in the hospital and the camp in Falmouth, across the river from Fredericksburg.

The article suggests that reading the letter might prompt students toward several research paths, including learning more about the Battle of Fredericksburg and about Whitman’s experiences during the Civil War. A search of online resources at LOC.gov for “Battle of Fredericksburg” yields hundreds of results, which can be further sorted by format to identify additional manuscripts, maps, photographs, or drawings. The article further suggested that examining a map, for example, might help students visualize the events of the battle. Another suggestion for engaging students in deeper learning is to search in Chronicling America for the Battle of Fredericksburg, using the advanced search features to limit dates to December 11-15, 1862. Students might read some of the articles and imagine reading an account of the battle and then finding the name of a loved one listed as wounded in the same paper, as Whitman’s family did. They might also read and compare accounts of the battle from a paper sympathetic to the Union and a paper sympathetic to the Confederacy.

Reading this letter might pique students’ curiosity and suggest any number of questions for further research. If you show this letter to your students, please let us know in the comments what catches their attention.

Five Questions with Margaret Wagner, Senior Writer and Editor, Library of Congress Publishing Office

As my job title indicates, I both edit the work of authors who publish works under the Library’s aegis and write books and other materials. My most recent writing project is America and the Great War: A Library of Congress Illustrated History, published on May 30, 2017, by Bloomsbury Press, in cooperation with the Library.

Do Your Best and Remember . . .

My son is graduating from high school this coming weekend and I am feeling mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I am proud, excited, and looking forward to what the future holds. On the other hand, I feel the winds of change, and with them a bit of sadness and apprehension about what lies ahead.

At times like this, I take comfort in knowing that I am not the first person to feel this way. Connecting with primary sources always helps. (Seriously, it does.)

Exploring the Bolshevik Revolution with Historic Newspapers

This year marks the centennial anniversary of both the U.S. entry into World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the events that led to the fall of Russia’s tsarist government and the eventual birth of the U.S.S.R. By analyzing reports in historic newspapers, students can explore the Great War’s role as a possible catalyst in starting the revolution and U.S. responses to the rise of communism in Russia.