Cover image for The sacrificial years : a chronicle of Walt Whitman's experiences in the Civil War
The sacrificial years : a chronicle of Walt Whitman's experiences in the Civil War
Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : David R. Godine, 1999.
Physical Description:
xix, 167 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, facsimiles, portraits ; 24 cm
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3231 .A364 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



In Late 1862, at the height of the Civil War, the poet and former newspaperman Walt Whitman traveled to a Virginia base camp in search of his wounded brother. The unattended misery he found there -- rows of unburied corpses, piles of amputated limbs, wounded men lying on the frozen ground -- moved him to (as he wrote) "a profound conviction of necessity" that he had to help relieve it. Whitman spent the next four years, at great personal and professional sacrifice, working as a voluntary nurse at military hospitals in the frontline capital of Washington, tending the sick and wounded well past the war's end.The Sacrificial Year, is Walt Whitman's story of his involvement in the Civil War, and of his thoughts and feelings about this great crisis. Whitman himself never kept a diary of his experiences -- a fact he later regretted -- but he did write hundreds of letters, newspaper articles, and "memoranda." While many of these works have been published individually, editor John Harmon McElroy isthe first to select and arrange Whitman's prose writings on the war in chronological sequence -- including previously unpublished extracts from his recently discovered Civil War notebook -- thereby reconstructing a continuous narrative of his month-to-month experience in his own words.Poignant and powerful, encompassing all the horror and scope of that immense conflict, Walt Whitman's war chronicles are among the essential documents of those crucial years. This edition contains nearly 300 entries, and is further enhanced with over 50 compelling period photographs of the places, people, and events that Whitman captured so vividly in his prose.

Author Notes

Walt Whitman was born on Long Island and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a carpenter. He left school when he was 11 years old to take a variety of jobs. By the time he was 15, Whitman was living on his own in New York City, working as a printer and writing short pieces for newspapers. He spent a few years teaching, but most of his work was either in journalism or politics. Gradually, Whitman became a regular contributor to a variety of Democratic Party newspapers and reviews, and early in his career established a rather eccentric way of life, spending a great deal of time walking the streets, absorbing life and talking with laborers. Extremely fond of the opera, he used his press pass to spend many evenings in the theater.

In 1846, Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, a leading Democratic newspaper. Two years later, he was fired for opposing the expansion of slavery into the west.

Whitman's career as a poet began in 1885, with the publication of the first edition of his poetry collection, Leaves of Grass. The book was self-published (Whitman probably set some of the type himself), and despite his efforts to publicize it - including writing his own reviews - few people read it. One reader who did appreciate it was essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a letter greeting Whitman at "the beginning of a great career." Whitman's poetry was unlike any verse that had ever been seen. Written without rhyme, in long, loose lines, filled with poetic lists and exclamations taken from Whitman's reading of the Bible, Homer, and Asian poets, these poems were totally unlike conventional poetry. Their subject matter, too, was unusual - the celebration of a free-spirited individualist whose love for all things and people seemed at times disturbingly sensual. In 1860, with the publication of the third edition on Leaves of Grass, Whitman alienated conventional thinkers and writers even more. When he went to Boston to meet Emerson, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes, and poet James Russell Lowell, they all objected to the visit.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman's attentions turned almost exclusively to that conflict. Some of the greatest poetry of his career, including Drum Taps (1865) and his magnificent elegy for President Abraham Lincoln, "When Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865), was written during this period. In 1862, his brother George was wounded in battle, and Whitman went to Washington to nurse him. He continued as a hospital volunteer throughout the war, nursing other wounded soldiers and acting as a benevolent father-figure and confidant. Parts of his memoir Specimen Days (1882) record this period.

After the war, Whitman stayed on in Washington, working as a government clerk and continuing to write. In 1873 he suffered a stroke and retired to Camden, New Jersey, where he lived as an invalid for the rest of his life. Ironically, his reputation began to grow during this period, as the public became more receptive to his poetic and personal eccentricities.

Whitman tried to capture the spirit of America in a new poetic form. His poetry is rough, colloquial, sweeping in its vistas - a poetic equivalent of the vast land and its varied peoples. Critic Louis Untermeyer has written, "In spite of Whitman's perplexing mannerisms, the poems justify their boundless contradictions. They shake themselves free from rant and bombastic audacities and rise into the clear air of major poetry. Such poetry is not large but self-assured; it knows, as Whitman asserted, the amplitude of time and laughs at dissolution. It contains continents; it unfolds the new heaven and new earth of the Western world." American poetry has never been the same since Whitman tore it away from its formal and thematic constraints, and he is considered by virtually all critics today to be one of the greatest poets the country has ever produced.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Walt Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in Civil War hospitals from 1862 through 1865. He recorded his experiences in hundreds of letters and "memoranda" describing the suffering and heroism of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Although some of this material has been previously published, it has never before appeared in the chronological sequence of the events described, thus producing the effect of a diary--something Whitman didn't keep (but wished he had) during the war years. Accompanying the text are a series of 50 painstakingly reproduced period photographs capturing both the field hospitals where Whitman worked and the war leaders (Lincoln, Grant, Lee) he discusses. The vividly written text reflects the author's reverence for the details of life (and death) in the hospitals. Whitman's grasp of specifics is reminiscent of Hemingway's similar approach to documenting the physical sights, sounds, and smells of the battlefield. There is much here of interest to both Civil War buffs and students of Whitman. --Bill Ott

Choice Review

From 1862 to 1866, Whitman served as a volunteer nurse in the hospitals and field camps in and around Washington, DC. Originally he had traveled into war territory to find his wounded brother in northern Virginia; he stayed on to help the wounded and dying in whatever way he could. Although not trained in medicine, Whitman seemed to know instinctively what to do to ease the soldiers' suffering. A trusted and necessary individual in many wards, Whitman offered his services for everything from wound dressing to letter writing for the young, illiterate volunteers. He freely gave his care to all--white, black, Northerner, Southerner. Although Whitman wrote poems, newspaper articles, letters, and memoranda about his thoughts and experiences during this time, he never kept a journal or documented those years in an orderly way. Several previous books mix his letters and wartime prose with his poetry, but McElroy (Univ. of Arizona) is the first to arrange Whitman's prose as a narrative of his Civil War experiences. Nearly 300 entries and 50 period photographs effectively place Whitman "The Wound Dresser" before the reader's eyes. A useful and welcome addition to documentation of this period in the poet's life and in US history. All collections. P. J. Ferlazzo; Northern Arizona University

Table of Contents

John Harmon McElroy
List of Illustrationsp. ix
Introductionp. xi
The Sacrificial Years
Prelude to Service, 1861 and 1862p. 1
First Year of Service, 1863p. 15
Second Year of Service, 1864p. 77
Third Year of Service, 1865p. 111
Final Year of Service, 1866p. 151
Sources and Acknowledgmentsp. 159
Indexp. 163