I Sing the Body Electric: Walt Whitman and the Body

Whitman and the Civil War

Whitman spent much of the Civil War years visiting wounded soldiers in the hospitals of Washington, D.C. Bringing gifts like horehound candy, money, and oranges, he gave comfort to the wounded and dying and built personal friendships with many of the soldiers who survived, as evidenced by the letters displayed here between him and Rubin Farwell. As a witness and poet of the war, Whitman advocated for the soldiers by writing letters to many newspaper editors. Some of these letters, such as the drafts shown here, urged for the speeding up of prisoner exchanges.

In Specimen Days, displayed in this case, Whitman frankly tells his reader about the suffering he witnessed of hospitalized soldiers—diarrhea, pneumonia, typhoid fever, limb amputation, and worse. In Drum-Taps, he puts these descriptions into his poetry, showing the reader young Americans who had been shot in the lungs or the head. The Civil War had a profound effect on the bodies of Americans, including Whitman himself, whose health began to suffer from the strain of his hospital work.


Transcription: It is generally believed in Washington that the President in in favor of a general exchange, but has been for the past year overruled by the head of the war department and others. The consequences are well known to all who mix much with the people and the sholdiers. The administration has already established a name for bad faith, which will tell for years to come, and the army is far more deeply incensed than appears on the surface.

Their blood is on our own heads. Another side to the exchange