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.
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.
by Walt Whitman
An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?
O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift-running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys
(Both I remember well—many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content).
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart).
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
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.
On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
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
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly).
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.
I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.
I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips).