Cover image for The better angel : Walt Whitman in the Civil War
The better angel : Walt Whitman in the Civil War
Morris, Roy.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
ix, 270 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3232 .M67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3232 .M67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



On May 26, 1863, Walt Whitman wrote to his mother: "O the sad, sad things I see--the noble young men with legs and arms taken off--the deaths--the sick weakness, sicker than death, that some endure, after amputations...just flickering alive, and O so deathly weak and sick." For nearly threeyears, Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experience with an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world. In The Better Angel, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest accounting of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War Years and an historically invaluable examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsistingon journalistic hackwork, wasting his nights in New York's seedy bohemian underground, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Though his brother's injury was slight, Whitman wasdeeply affected by his first view of the war's casualties. He began visiting the camp's wounded and, almost by accident, found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing andbrotherhood. Instead of returning to Brooklyn as planned, Whitman continued to visit the wounded soldiers in the hospitals in and around the capital. He brought them ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens and paper, wrote letters for those who were not able and offered to all the enormous healinginfluence of his sympathy and affection. Indeed, several soldiers claimed that Whitman had saved their lives. One noted that Whitman "seemed to have what everybody wanted" and added "When this old heathen came and gave me a pipe and tobacco, it was about the most joyful moment of my life." Anotherwrote that "There is many a soldier that never thinks of you but with emotions of the greatest gratitude." But if Whitman gave much to the soldiers, they in turn gave much to him. In witnessing their stoic suffering, in listening to their understated speech, and in being always in the presence ofdeath, Whitman evolved the new and more direct poetic style that was to culminate in his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. More than that, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"--the legions of sick andwounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history--seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest poet.

Author Notes

Roy Morris, Jr. is the editor of America's Civil War magazine. He is the author of Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, and the editor of The Devil's Dictionary, (OUP). He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Reviews 5

Booklist Review

Morris reveals the Civil War's transformative effect on Whitman: the anxious journeys to find his brother (who eventually became a prisoner of war), the shocking confrontation with the injuries and conditions of the wounded men, the frustration with doctors' attitudes, and the experience of affection for the wounded. At field hospitals and various hospitals around the capital, Whitman relentlessly visited, bringing the men all manner of gifts (tobacco, ice cream, alcohol, etc.) and spending hours consoling and sometimes cheering them, and straining his own health in the process. This is Whitman the self-proclaimed "Soldiers' Missionary." From missionary work he gained not only perspective on the impact of war (which would lead to a new phase in his poetry) but an understanding of his own influence and of what an ethic of care could yield: "It makes me feel quite proud, I find so frequently I can do with the men what no one else at all can, getting them to eat." The war deepened the level of Whitman's connections to others and renewed his faith in his own capacities. --James O'Laughlin

Publisher's Weekly Review

Since the 1980sÄwhen scholars such as Michael Moon and Robert K. Martin reinvigorated Walt Whitman scholarship by queering itÄthe poet has inspired something of a literary cottage industry. Now Morris takes Whitman scholarship in a captivating new direction. In this study, the first complete account of the poet's Civil War years, Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) shows how the War Between the States changed Whitman as a man and a poet. Indeed, in Morris's rendering, Whitman becomes a kind of metaphor for the country itself, a nearly transcendental signifier of American-style democracy and sexual freedom (though he was rather more ambivalent concerning the place of the "African" in American society). Whitman was, the author argues, depressed and adrift in New York's bohemia before the war; suffering from writer's block regarding his poetry, he occupied himself with journalistic hackwork. But when his brother was wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman found a cause that revived his sense of purpose: he spent three years visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers in and around Washington, D.C.Äand by the end of the war, he had become "the good gray poet," a larger-than-life figure Morris calls "almost mystical." The war, as Whitman himself acknowledged, "saved" him. His wartime experience inspired some of his best work, including the masterpiece "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." The postwar years also engendered a deep despair, however. Fearful that the nation had forgotten its soldiers in the heady days of the Gilded Age, the poet attacked "the post-war climate of graft and malaise." However despondent, Whitman produced important writing after the dust had cleared. The Better Angel enriches our understanding of his subsequent life and work. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The Civil War killed Whitman's dream of a world founded on "the blissful love of comrades" and replaced it with the horror of fratricide. Deeply depressed, the poet lost himself in "an aimless round of bohemian posturing, late-night roistering, and homosexual cruising." When he learned that his brother George had been wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed to find him; George's injury was slight, but in the sufferings of other soldiers, Whitman found new purpose in life and, eventually, in poetry, culminating in his masterpiece, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." In this first full account of Whitman's Civil War years, Morris, editor of America's Civil War magazine and biographer of Gen. Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce, leaves readers with a new image of what he calls "a great mothering sort of man" who visited the hospitals in and around Washington, DC, for three years, bringing his charges ice cream, tobacco, brandy, books, magazines, pens, and paper; he wrote letters for those who could not, and more than a few died in his arms. "His long white beard, wine-colored suit, and bulging bag of presents gave him a decided resemblance to Santa Claus," writes Morris; small wonder that, each time he left, many of the wounded soldiers, some of them still in their teens, called out, "`Walt, Walt, come again!'"ÄDavid Kirby, Florida State Univ., Tallahassee (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-Morris notes in his introduction that Whitman, no stranger to the practice of using precise vocabulary, claimed he was "saved" by the Civil War. The author explains his subject's salvation by tracing the effects of crisis and suffering on one man's spirit and artistry. Since this was also the man who articulated America's voice in his groundbreaking Leaves of Grass, Whitman's evolution personified that of the country he celebrated and loved. In 1860, the poet was feeling cynical and unfocused, mired in a "New York [s]tagnation." Then, following the bloody battle of Fredericksburg in December, 1862, word reached the Whitmans that Walt's brother had been wounded. Walt immediately left Brooklyn for Virginia, beginning the journey that would define the remainder of his life. While George's injury was slight, Walt's experiences with the Union's sick and wounded both revitalized and seasoned him. For the next several years this "great mothering sort of man," bearing small gifts and treats, comradeship and compassion, became a fixture in soldiers' hospitals. Morris's skills as a researcher are evident and his writing is first rate. Teens can read Better Angel as a moving introduction to Whitman, for its information on the home front and the medical profession during the Civil War, or to gain insight into the sociological and psychological aftermath of war on individuals or nations.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Drawing on the treasure trove of letters, notes, and publications Whitman left behind, Morris has produced a compelling narrative of the poet's life during the Civil War. Alternately disturbing and reassuring, this treatment of Whitman's unofficial service in Washington-area military hospitals is notable for balancing interest in the minutiae of contemporary medical practice (and its concomitant horrors) with a sympathetic but not fawning consideration of Whitman's motives in undertaking the difficult work of comforting the sick and dying in overcrowded, stench-ridden wards. The author argues that the Civil War offered the poet a way out of a stagnant bohemian existence and a way to recharge his poetry with the energy provided by a great national emergency. Service in the wards, and occasional visits to the front, gave Whitman the chance to test his own mettle, find in service to comrades a socially accepted form of male intimacy, and develop a more mature persona for his poetry, i.e., the "Good Gray Poet." Although Morris discusses only a few poems in any depth and cites relatively few scholars, his biography does present a convincing profile of Whitman and his nation responding to a defining crisis. This book will be useful in several disciplines in addition to literature and at all levels. J. F. Roche; Rochester Institute of Technology