Known as one of the most influential American poets in history, Walt Whitman had other careers he is far less recognized for; he was also a journalist, a teacher and a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.
Born in 1819 on Long Island, Walt was the second of nine children and spent his youth in New York. At age 11, to help his family make ends meet, he began to work. During the years to follow, Walt would spend much time working at print houses and newspapers, learning the crafts of printing and typesetting. He also spent time as a journalist and editor and would pen the occasional poem. He tried his hand at teaching but found it less fulfilling and went on to write more prolifically.
In 1855, Whitman released his most noted work, a book of collected poetry pieces called Leaves of Grass, whose publication he financed himself. After a warm reception from noted poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the book began to grow in popularity. Walt perhaps never felt the work was complete, as he would revise and rerelease it several times over his lifetime.
By all accounts, Whitman was a supporter of the North during the Civil War, publishing a poem called Beat! Beat! Drums!, which include this passage:
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.
Whitman’s brother George had enlisted with the Union army and would frequently send Walt very detailed descriptions of the front lines of battle. Perhaps those firsthand accounts stripped away the romance of war that may have tinged his previous poem. Walt was worried about George’s wellbeing.
While scanning a newspaper story about the war in 1862, a name caught Walt’s attention; on a list of fallen and wounded soldiers, he read about “G.W. Whitmore” and was concerned the name could be an erroneous reference to his brother.
In a panic to reach his brother and discover the truth, his wallet was stolen, and Walt was forced to make the journey south to Washington, D.C. on foot. Arriving to find his brother unharmed, a relived Whitman was horrified by the things that he saw, deeply affected by the injuries of the reality of war.
Whitman volunteered as a nurse in military hospitals, spending time with soldiers on both sides of the conflict, listening to their stories and writing letters on their behalf to family members back home. Like any great nurse, he tended to both their physical injuries and their emotional ones.
These powerful experiences inspired his article The Great Army of the Sick, published in 1863 and eventually, a book entitled Memoranda During the War in 1875. It also resulted in his haunting poem, The Wound Dresser, partially excerpted below:
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
Read more about Walt Whitman here.