April 12, 2011 -- Walt Whitman, one of America's most revered authors and poets, is best known for his "Leaves of Grass" collection but the National Archives revealed today a new perspective on his past in the form of newly discovered Civil War-related documents and records, all written in his hand.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War, the National Archives unveiled nearly 3,000 documents and records Whitman transcribed while working as a clerk in Washington, D.C., in the decade after the Civil War.
Although the documents unveiled today do not contain Whitman's original thoughts, they provide insight into Whitman's post-war writing and thinking.
"We've tended to think of Whitman in two ways during the Civil War as the person who was attentively visiting these soldiers and as this great poet of the Civil War, and people don't think about the third life he had going on in Washington, D.C.," Kenneth Price, the scholar who discovered the documents, said. "It's the life the city directory records as his fundamental life. It's the life that funded the other two lives."
Whitman first went to Washington in December of 1862 after the Battle of Fredericksburg in search of his brother whose name he believed appeared on a list of deceased soldiers. Whitman later found his brother alive, suffering only from a wound to his cheek.
Witnessing the casualties of the war, Whitman aided and transported wounded soldiers from both sides of the war, providing them with oranges, pudding and small amounts of cash. Whitman lived in Washington, for a decade from 1863 to 1873, when he wrote many of his famed Civil War poems, such as "Drum-Taps," which later folded into "Leaves of Grass."
Whitman's friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped him obtain a lower level government job as a clerk, recommending him on literary and patriotic grounds. Whitman worked for the Army Paymaster's office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Attorney General's office, transcribing letters and memorandums after the Civil War.
National Archives to House Whitman Documents
The 3,000 documents and records released today cover a variety of topics from the post-Civil War era, including the trial of Jefferson Davis, railroad expansion to the West and concerns about polygamy and Mormons in Utah. One document on display was a letter Whitman wrote under the name of President Andrew Johnson, which even included Johnson's signature that Whitman penned.
Whitman's literary life and government work were heavily intertwined. As a clerk, he was exposed to some of the most influential government officials of the time, exposing him to many of the issues that he would write about post-Civil War.
He used his government office as his literary address as well, and often worked on his poetry at night in the office to take advantage of the heat and light.
Whitman's personal book containing revisions for the third edition of "Leaves of Grass" was found at his government desk, resulting in his firing from the Bureau of Indian Affairs after the secretary of the Interior deemed the book to be immoral. But Whitman's friends helped him secure a new post in the Attorney General's office.
The newly discovered documents previously sat hidden in the National Archives until Price, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, uncovered them in the past three years.
"It's been in the National Archives," Price said. "The best hiding place is to hide something in plain sight -– the major repository -– it's been right there. The stunning thing in a way is that people haven't looked harder for this material."
Price became familiar with Whitman's handwriting while editing his previously unedited poetry manuscripts beginning in 2000. Few of the records contain Whitman's signature of "W.W" but, Price said, the meticulous handwriting matched that of Whitman's.
The Whitman documents will stay at the National Archives and be digitally published at the Walt Whitman Archive online.