September 30, 2010

George Whitman's capture

In Poplar Grove, Virginia on September 30, 1864, a regiment of Union soldiers was surrounded and captured. A soldier named George (named in honor of the first President of the United States) was soon imprisoned at Libby Prison. He wrote to his brother Walt Whitman, "Here I am perfectly well and unhurt, but a prisoner." By December, however, George was sick with "lung fever" at a Confederate military hospital.

Walt Whitman, already moved enough by the Civil War to volunteer as a nurse, wrote a handful of public letters trying to enlist sympathy in the plight of soldiers like his brother. "The public mind," he wrote, "is deeply excited, and most righteously so, at the starvation of the United States prisoners of war in the hands of the Secessionists." He demanded that Union soldiers be exchanged for Confederate soldiers but little effort was made specifically for his brother. The only exchange, he worried, would be "those helpless and most wretched men" with "deaths of starvation." George was finally exchanged in February 1865.

Later in 1865, Whitman published Drum-Taps, a collection of poems dedicated to the war. Among the collection was the poem "Year that Trembled and Reel'd Beneath Me":

Year that trembled and reel'd beneath me!
Your summer wind was warm enough, yet the air I breathed froze me,
A thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken'd me,
Must I change my triumphant songs? said I to myself,
Must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled,
And sullen hymns of defeat?

 *Some information for this post comes from Jerome Loving's Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself and Roy Morris's The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War.

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