Walt Whitman received many letters from his brother, George Washington Whitman, during the Civil War. George, as a member of the Thirteenth New York, also kept a diary that was sent to Walt and his mother upon George’s capture on September 30, 1864. After reading the entries Whitman wrote in his own diary that,
“It is merely a skeleton of dates, voyages, places camped in or marched through, battles fought, &c. But I can realize clearly that by calling upon even a tithe of myriads of living & actual facts, which go along with, & fill up this dry list of times & places, it would outvie all the romances in the world, & most of the famous histories & biographies to boot. It does not need calling in play the imagination to see that in such a record as this lies folded a perfect poem of the war comprehending all its phases, its passions, the fierce tug of the secessionists, the interminable fibre of the national union, all the special hues & characteristic forms & pictures of actual battles with colors flying, rifles snapping, cannon thundering, grape whiring, armies struggling, ships at sea or bombarding shore batteries, skirmishes in woods, great pitched battles, & all the profound scenes of individual death, courage, endurance & superbest hardihood, & splendid muscular wrestle of a newer large race of human giants with all furious passions aroused on one side, & the sternness of an unalterable determination on the other”
After reading some entries from George’s diary it is obvious how appropriate Whitman’s response is to his brother’s entries. They are really as Whitman described them — simple when, where, what logs of what occurred in his regiment. Whitman historian Martin G. Murray says that “George Washington Whitman manifested the common American manliness that his brother Walt Whitman lauded in poetry and prose.”
Whitman’s poem “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice” from the Leaves of Grass section “Drum-Taps” seems to encompass Whitman’s views on the men of the Civil War and what he obviously experienced emotionally while caring for them in the hospitals. At this point towards the end of the war, Whitman would have seen and cared for many Union and also Confederate soldiers. The “manly affection” he speaks of in “Over the Carnage…” echoes in the entry he wrote in his own diary in response to his brother’s. The simple human value is torn down to something as simple as a record of deaths printed in the papers, and then is brought back up to something like Whitman’s poem, applauding the faith he has in humanity.
Overall, I believe there is a string that can be seen from George’s diary — the simple accounts of everyday war — to Whitman’s response, to the final link, “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice.” All three show an understanding of what real war, real men, are but also provide an answer to the end of something as horrific and extensive in all ways as war. They are like three simple steps of war: awareness, comprehension, triumph.
Fascinating post, Kaitlin. I wasn’t aware of Whitman’s full response to his brother’s diary. I love how he says it doesn’t take any imagination, any romancing, to turn the skeleton of facts into full reality of war–and then he proceeds to imagine and romance the hell out of it! I mean, he even talks about giants.
I think much of Whitman’s admiration for the form of the diary had to do with how it echoes his own favored poetic mode: the catalog.
The two brothers were so different and yet you can still see their similarities through their writings. Obviously, Whit is the more romantic poet of the two, but his brother, George, is a beautiful writer as well. I originally thought that Walt’s time in Washington with the soldiers was one of the primary influences on “Drum-Taps,” but after reading your blog, Kaitlin, I see that his brother, and in particular his brother’s diary, were major influences in his works as well as the soldiers of Washington.