When most people thing of Walt Whitman, they think of “O Captain! my Captain!” Perhaps this is from a high school English class like mine, perhaps it’s from the “Dead Poets Society” movie with Robin Williams. However, he wrote hundreds of other poems and was quite popular in his day — though just as controversial, given some of his sexual themes throughout. But like most of the authors in the “Pages of War” series, poet Walt Whitman had very personal, intimate experiences with war and channeled it into his work.

He was around 42 years old when the Civil War broke out in 1861, and during that time his brother enlisted to fight for the Union. A similar name to his brother’s was printed in the newspaper as KIA, so Whitman left New York and traveled down on foot to make sure his brother was still alive. His brother had only suffered some superficial wounds, but the journey changed Whitman forever — he was struck at the sheer devastation and damage that had been done to the soldiers, both physically and mentally. He never returned to New York, rather, he began to volunteer as a nurse near Washington D.C. It was there that he was faced with emergency medicine in the most casualty producing war in American history.

A Civil War field hospital in Virginia | Wikimedia Commons

One of the most powerful poems of his — in regards to war — is “The Wound-Dresser.” To me, it is his most personal and sobering poem in the “Leaves of Grass” collection, though the soldier in me admittedly has some bias there. Whitman has a collection of letters he wrote during the war, also called “The Wound Dresser.” It is described as “A Series of Letters Written from the Hospitals in Washington During the War of the Rebellion,” and it gives a stunning picture as to a war actually occurring within the United States.

In the poem, he contemplates a war during “the Rebellion,” and of the complexities. He speaks of the bravery of the wounded men he tends to, and the likely bravery of those they fought. The entire piece puts the reader in the shoes of a tired, sad old man watching young men getting ripped apart and treating them one by one, over and over. The apparent weight is heavy upon his shoulders, and the images branded into his mind are found all throughout the poem.

Whitman does not shy away from the medical aspect either, and that is what grounds this poem in reality: “The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,) / The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine, / Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard.”

But he perseveres. He treats the soldiers one after the other, a man doing what he can for those in need.


The Wound-Dresser
by Walt Whitman