Walt Whitman: Poet of the Civil War
8th Grade, English/Social Studies
The human side of the Civil War as seen through the lens of poet
Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Whitman served in the hospital tents in
Washington D.C. for 3 years of the war.
8.10 Students analyze the multiple causes, key events, and complex
consequences of the Civil War.
4. Discuss Abraham Lincoln's presidency and his significant writings and speeches and their relationship to
the Declaration of Independence, such as his "House Divided" speech (1858), Gettysburg Address (1863),
Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and inaugural addresses (1861 and 1865).
8. Explain how the war affected combatants, civilians, the physical environment, and future warfare
Structural Features of Literature
3.1 Determine and articulate the relationship between the purposes and characteristics of different forms of
poetry (e.g., ballad, lyric, couplet, epic, elegy, ode, sonnet).
Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.3 Compare and contrast motivations and reactions of literary characters from different historical eras
confronting similar situations or conflicts.
3.4 Analyze the relevance of the setting (e.g., place, time, customs) to the mood, tone, and meaning of the
3.5 Identify and analyze recurring themes (e.g., good versus evil) across traditional and contemporary works.
3.6 Identify significant literary devices (e.g., metaphor, symbolism, dialect, irony) that define a writer's style
and use those elements to interpret the work.
English Language Learner (ELL) Strategies:
Use of Supplementary materials: Pictures, via PowerPoint
presentation, of hospitals and conditions of the time, plus a picture of the Air &
Space museum in Washington D.C., which is built on the site of the hospital in
which Whitman spent most of his time during the Civil War.
Hands-on manipulatives, realia, pictures, visuals, multimedia, demonstration,
Adaptation of Content: Vocabulary words will be previewed and
definitions of less common words will be written on board/overhead. For students
with significant ELL needs, shortened/simplified versions of some of the poems
may be provided.
text, jigsaw text reading, marginal notes, etc. Graphic organizers, outlines,
leveled study guides, highlighted text, adapted
How many of you know someone who is now serving in the military?
If you don’t know anyone personally, imagine your older brother or sister,
your dad, or one of your uncles has been called into action. If this person
were wounded, what kinds of things would you want to know about their
situation? What kinds of things would you like to say to him or her
yourself? If this person were unable to write due to injuries, what kind of
letter or poem might you compose on his/her behalf if you were sitting with
Into: Discuss hospital conditions at the time of the Civil War, and how
Whitman wound up being there amongst the sick and wounded for 3 years.
Discuss historical setting and Whitman’s biography (mini-lecture, using
Read aloud and review some of Walt Whitman’s war time poetry and prose,
from his ―Drum Taps‖ collections and ―Speciman Days‖ (see handouts);
these Civil War poems should be contrasted with the more
innocent/exuberant pre-war poetry that made up much of Leaves of Grass,
with emphasis on how the Civil War was a transformational experience for
Whitman, as it was for so many Americans of the day.
In groups of 3, students are given several samples of Whitman’s poetry,
from Leaves of Grass and from Drum Taps; students must put the poems in
order and justify why they’ve put them in the order they did.
Beyond: Students will write either a poem or a letter to or from a soldier
who has been wounded and is lying in a Civil War hospital bed somewhere.
Handouts of Whitman poems & prose to be read aloud
Computer with PowerPoint software and screen to project pictures/text
Paper for students to write on
http://www.blackmask.com/books127c/7drumdex.htm (Drum Taps, poetry on-
http://www.bartleby.com/229/ (Specimen Days, prose works on-line)
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/ (Library of Congress stuff on Whitman –
the Library of Congress is what blew me away most on our trip to D.C., and the
exhibit there on Whitman inspired this lesson)
http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/hospital/whitman.htm (incredible website with all
kinds of information about Civil War hospitals and Whitman’s work there)
Student Handout #1
Arm'd year—year of the struggle,
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you terrible year,
Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping cadenzas
But as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes, advancing,
carrying a rifle on your shoulder,
With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands, with a knife in
the belt at your side,
As I heard you shouting loud, your sonorous voice ringing across the
Your masculine voice O year, as rising amid the great cities,
Amid the men of Manhattan I saw you as one of the workmen, the
dwellers in Manhattan,
Or with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois and
Rapidly crossing the West with springy gait and descending the
Or down from the great lakes or in Pennsylvania, or on deck along the
Or southward along the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers, or at
Chattanooga on the mountain top,
Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs clothed in blue, bearing
weapons, robust year,
Heard your determin'd voice launch'd forth again and again,
Year that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp'd cannon,
I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.
Student Handout #2
A SIGHT IN CAMP IN THE DAYBREAK GRAY AND DIM.
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woollen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just
lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd hair, and
flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step-and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
Student Handout #3
COME UP FROM THE FIELDS FATHER.
Come up from the fields father, here's a letter from our Pete,
And come to the front door mother, here's a letter from thy dear son.
Lo, 'tis autumn,
Lo, where the trees, deeper green, yellower and redder,
Cool and sweeten Ohio's villages with leaves fluttering in the
Where apples ripe in the orchards hang and grapes on the trellis'd
(Smell you the smell of the grapes on the vines?
Smell you the buckwheat where the bees were lately buzzing?)
Above all, lo, the sky so calm, so transparent after the rain, and
with wondrous clouds,
Below too, all calm, all vital and beautiful, and the farm prospers
Down in the fields all prospers well,
But now from the fields come father, come at the daughter's call,
And come to the entry mother, to the front door come right away.
Fast as she can she hurries, something ominous, her steps trembling,
She does not tarry to smooth her hair nor adjust her cap.
Open the envelope quickly,
O this is not our son's writing, yet his name is sign'd,
O a strange hand writes for our dear son, O stricken mother's soul!
All swims before her eyes, flashes with black, she catches the main
Sentences broken, gunshot wound in the breast, cavalry skirmish,
taken to hospital,
At present low, but will soon be better.
Ah now the single figure to me,
Amid all teeming and wealthy Ohio with all its cities and farms,
Sickly white in the face and dull in the head, very faint,
By the jamb of a door leans.
Grieve not so, dear mother, (the just-grown daughter speaks through
The little sisters huddle around speechless and dismay'd,)
See, dearest mother, the letter says Pete will soon be better.
Alas poor boy, he will never be better, (nor may-be needs to be
better, that brave and simple soul,)
While they stand at home at the door he is dead already,
The only son is dead.
But the mother needs to be better,
She with thin form presently drest in black,
By day her meals untouch'd, then at night fitfully sleeping, often
In the midnight waking, weeping, longing with one deep longing,
O that she might withdraw unnoticed, silent from life escape and
To follow, to seek, to be with her dear dead son.
Student Handout #4
O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up -- for you the flag is flung -- for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths -- for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
1] President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated April 14, 1865, in the Ford Theatre,
Student Handout #5
I. Specimen Days
35. Unnamed Remains the Bravest Soldier
OF scenes like these, I say, who writes—whoe’er can write the story? Of many a score—
aye, thousands, north and south, of unwrit heroes, unknown heroisms, incredible,
impromptu, first-class desperations—who tells? No history ever—no poem sings, no music
sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds. No formal general’s report, nor book in the
library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west.
Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest—our
boys—our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typical one of them (standing,
no doubt, for hundreds, thousands,) crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on
receiving his death-shot—there sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass and soil, with
red blood—the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by—and there, haply
with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a
serpent round him—the eyes glaze in death—perhaps the burial-squads, in truce, a week
afterwards, search not the secluded spot—and there, at last, the Bravest Soldier crumbles in
mother earth, unburied and unknown.
Task: Write a poem or a letter to or from a soldier who has been wounded and is lying in a
Civil War hospital bed in Washington D.C. It should be written from the perspective of the
time. Try to focus on the battlefield and hospital conditions, the feelings you have about
the war itself (perhaps you have a brother, or someone you know, fighting for the other side
– how do you feel about him now?), your feelings about your home, your comrades, your
future. You may also include anything you believe relevant.
Exemplary (Exceeds the Standard) 45-50 points:
Piece relates to the Civil War in a deep and penetrating way
Language is typical of the period (no modern slang used)
Originality and creativity are abundantly displayed
Few or no errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation
Proficient (Meets the Standard) 40-44 points:
Piece relates to the Civil War in a consistent manner
Language is typical of the period in most instances
Originality and creativity are displayed
Few errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation
Progressing (Progressing Toward the Standard) 30-39 points:
Piece relates to the Civil War only in use of a few examples
Language is untypical of the period in most instances
Originality and creativity are displayed rarely
Some errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation
Not Yet Meeting the Standard 0-29 points: Comments:
Piece does not relate to the Civil War
Language is untypical of the period
Originality and creativity are absent
Many errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation
Peer Evaluation (Optional)