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Walt Whitman’s War Work: Primary Sources in the English Classroom

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The following is a guest post by Rebecca Newland, 2013-2015 Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress. It is also posted on From the Catbird Seat, the blog of the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center.

Walt Whitman, 1863
Walt Whitman, 1863

One way for teachers to engage students with poetry is to connect poems and poets to historical events. Students gain a deeper appreciation of poets and their work when they can see snippets of the writer’s life in the work. Poems take on special meaning when connected to real events, evoking the emotions of a specific time and place students may have only read about. Primary sources related to a poet’s experiences offer first-hand connections between poet and event.

Walt Whitman is one poet whose experiences can lead to classroom discussions about the connection between an author’s life and work. For instance: Whitman moved to Washington, DC, in December 1862, prompted by news that his brother George had been injured at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whitman became a volunteer nurse at a number of war hospitals, one of which was the Armory Square hospital, which stood where the National Air and Space Museum stands today on the National Mall. His work as a visitor and amateur nurse influenced his writing, as seen in his notebooks and later in Drum-Taps — poetry published in 1865.

New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]), 29 April 1863
New-York daily tribune. (New-York [N.Y.]), 29 April 1863
Teachers can consider using portions of the notebooks from the collections of the Library of Congress to investigate influences on Whitman’s poetry. The notebooks provide insight into the time he spent in hospitals, where he jotted brief information about soldiers including name, home town and state, military division, and special requests. Other entries are battle stories told to him by the wounded. These stories, along with Whitman’s visits to nearby battlefields, shaped his wartime poetry. A draft of “A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim,” published in Drum-Taps, appears in his 1862-63 notebook. Look for clues to Whitman’s writing process by comparing this to a published version. Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool along with questions selected from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Manuscripts to immerse students in a close look at this page or others from the notebooks.

Whitman Notebook #94
Whitman Notebook #94

Additional teaching ideas:

  • Ask students to investigate the life of a poet, not for the facts, but for involvement in historical events, connection to a geographic location, or inspiration based on personal experience.
  • Team with a social studies teacher to develop a list of writers and specific literary selections (this works with novels or short stories as well as poems) that can be connected to historical events and eras. Ask students to explore these events and write their own literary reaction.
  • Ask students to produce their own writing in connection to personal or historic events.

Explore the Library’s collections to find other poems and drafts related to historical events that have inspired poets.

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