Civil War

For the First Time in 150 Years: Walt Whitman’s Civil War ‘Drum-Taps’

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“I intend to move heaven & earth to publish my ‘Drum-Taps’ as soon as I am able to go around,” Walt Whitman told his friend William O’Connor in 1864, after a mysterious illness, likely contracted from the hospital where he nursed soldiers, claimed his health for a time. The American Civil War was in its third year, and Leaves of Grass in its third edition. With his new book of Civil War poems, Whitman meant to advocate a re-union, a reconciliation, an end to the war, and a continuation of the spirit of democracy set in motion by his earlier work. He wanted Drum-Taps to “express in a poem…the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in…with the unprecedented anguish and suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony.” The following January, as the war neared its conclusion, Whitman wrote again to O’Connor, explaining that the now fairly completed Drum-Taps was “superior to Leaves of Grass — certainly more perfect as a work of art.’’ Adding that although it may appear that the poems were ‘‘let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see it is yet under control.’’
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