From the Archive

Issue 21

Whitman, Melville
& the Civil War


“I feel at last, & for the first time without any demur, that I am satisfied with it—content to have it go to the world verbatim & punctuation. It is in my opinion superior to Leaves of Grass—certainly more perfect as a work of art, being adjusted in all its proportions, & its passion having the indispensable merit that though to the ordinary reader let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see it is yet under control.” –Walt Whitman, on Drum-Taps

“Were I fastidiously anxious for the symmetry of this book, it would close with the notes. But the times are such that patriotism—not free from solicitude—urges a claim overriding all literary scruples.” –Herman Melville, on Battle Pieces


Welcome to the Civil War issue of Mickle Street Review, timed to coincide with the sesquicentennial of Walt Whitman’s book, Drum-Taps (first published in 1865 and reissued with a sequel later that year and dated “1855-56”) and Herman Melville’s book of war verse, Battle Pieces (1866).

Neither Drum-Taps nor Battle Pieces was embraced when it first appeared. Critics complained about just how dissonant the poems sounded, how poorly the poems seemed to perform. Whitman’s Civil War poetry soon outran those early negative reviews (by the likes of Henry James), but it took Melville’s poems much longer (within perhaps the last twenty or so years) to be regarded as significant representations of the war and its politics.

Both men were on the Union side and both had access to the war not as soldiers but in more oblique ways. Whitman visited a battlefield in search of his wounded brother, George, and served as a nurse in Army hospitals in Washington, DC; Melville read about the fighting in magazines and newspapers and also traveled to battlefields.

In the essays included in this issue (some of which are primarily about Melville, some mostly about Whitman, and some equally about both), writers take up the Civil War poetry of these two major American authors, and work to see that poetry in cultural context and as the canny rhetorical performances that they are.

The other sections of this issue seek to highlight the ways in which the Civil War Whitman and the Civil War Melville (perhaps more so the Civil War Whitman) have figured in a range of media over the past 150 years. On stage, on the page(s of fiction), on film, in music and in the visual arts, Whitman and Melville’s Civil War poetry has provided a rich textual ground. Their war art has been variously redeployed, interpreted, and reimagined to speak to other times and places, including other wars across the twentieth century.

In addition, the historical war-time figure of Whitman in particular has served as a subject for future poets (those so-called “poets to come”) who meditate on his care of wounded soldiers during the war and the profound influence of the war and its lessons on Whitman, who claimed in 1871 that “my Book [Leaves of Grass] and the War are one.”

— Tyler Hoffman, Editor

Table of Contents

New and Old Poems
on Whitman & the Civil War

Published by MSR:

Christine Chiosi, MD, MFA retired early from the practice of medicine and is currently a doctoral candidate in Medical Humanities at Drew University. Her poetry appears in Painted Bride Quarterly, American Journal of Medical Genetics, Cloudbank, Carpe Articulum, and elsewhere.

  • Before
    Christine Chiosi, 2016

Terrence Chiusano received his BA in poetry writing from the University of Pittsburgh and his MA in literature from the University at Buffalo. Some of his poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly (forthcoming), CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art & Action, Colorado Review, Cordite Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of On Generation & Corruption (Fordham University Press, 2015), winner of the 2013-14 Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is also an assistant editor of Huck Finn: The Complete Buffalo and Erie County Public Library Manuscript (Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, 2003), as well as a co-recipient of the Oregon Literary Fellowship to Publishers for his work as co-founder and co-editor of Rococo Anerca, a literary and arts journal in Portland, OR. He currently lives in Pittsburgh.

Curated and Featured in MSR’s Live Archive:


Staging Civil War Whitman

The Civil War Walt Whitman frequently makes cameo appearances in contemporary artistic representations of the war, on stage and on page. For instance, in Paula Vogel’s 2012 Off-Broadway play A Civil War Christmas, Mary Todd Lincoln visits a hospital in disguise, and talks to a patient, Moses Levy, who recounts:

“That funny poet with the slouchy hat . . . Walt Whitman! I came through here maybe two years ago, with a bullet wound, and he came through the wards just about every night . . . he brings us things: trifles, but much desired—

CHORUS 1: To me he brought an apple.

CHORUS 2: To me he brought a comb…

MOSES LEVY: I saw him sit with the most desperate cases…

CHORUS 3: My leg! The one that was amputated…it itched something terrible and I couldn’t sleep. But Walt said that imagination was a terrible thing, and he sat with me through the night….

CHORUS 2: Walt didn’t care where you come from, or what god you worship. He certainly didn’t care who your bedfellow was…

MOSES LEVY: We think he’s got some powerful magic. Maybe it’s the poetry…

When Mary Todd Lincoln goes to get Walt she is greeted by an exasperated Matron: “Walt Whitman? Whitman! God save me: Walt Whitman and Clara Barton and all the riff-raff who peddle themselves through these halls! Poets! Women! Bleeding-hearted do-gooders! A woman’s place is in the home. In the hospital what is needed are staunch middle-aged women who can keep a stiff upper lip no matter the stench!—Walt Whitman! (A smile breaks over her severe face; to Moses Levy) Ah, yes. I regret to inform you that Mr. Whitman has taken ill, and has returned home to Brooklyn.”

In this tradition, we present two excerpts from Carmine Sarracino’s soon-to-be-published novel:  Point Blank.

Curated Multimedia
and Links from Our New Live Archive

Issue 21 of the Mickle Street Review also corresponds to the launching of our blog — a multimedia live archive that showcases audio and video recordings related to Whitman mostly, but also related to other American artists featured in the peer-reviewed journal. Alongside our published content and featured essays, we offer the following links to interesting posts that deal specifically with Whitman, Melville, and the Civil War.


The first of Whitman’s poems set to music—a recitation with piano accompaniment—was composed by Frederick Louis Ritter, a professor at Vassar College, in 1880. The poem was “Dirge for Two Veterans” from Drum-Taps. Whitman was still alive when the adaptation occurred, and was even in correspondence with Ritter and his wife Fanny about the project. As he wrote to a friend, “rec’d a letter from Mrs Ritter—She speaks of a musical composition of her husband, to go with my “Two Veterans”—& asks if I am willing it should be published—I answered expressing my consent” (February 21, 1880). On February 24, 1880, he wrote to Fanny saying, “I cheerfully consent to Professor’s using the words of Two Veterans for musical publication—& also give permission for further musical adaptation of my pieces—Am curious to see how they go—Am sure I sh’d be impress’d and pleased….When the music is printed—(if printed—) please send me a copy—.”

Since that time, Whitman’s poetry—including his Civil War poetry—has attracted the attention of a wide range of composers in England and America. We present here some of the adaptations of that verse spanning the last more than a hundred years.

Musical Settings
of Whitman’s Drum-Taps

Musical Settings
of Melville’s Battle Pieces

Curated: a collection of links and media
related to Matthew Aucoin’s Civil War Opera, “Crossing”

Featured Essay
with Streaming Video

Excerpt from McMullen’s Essay:

The past half-century has seen the emergence of film as a popular teaching tool. While Walt Whitman has been perhaps the most analyzed American poet amongst literary scholars, the majority of the American population will encounter the Good Gray Poet only in junior high, high school, or college classrooms, often in an anthology or educational film; for most, he will be associated with a big beard, a big hat, and even bigger poems, usually too long to be read in their entirety. Some scholarly attention has been given to Whitman’s place in anthologies, textbooks, and fictional films, but virtually nothing has been written on the topic of Whitman’s portrayal in educational and documentary films, films that for many audiences will be one of the contributing factors in permanently shaping their views of one of America’s most well-known poets. | READ MORE

Issue Credits

Mickle Street Review is sponsored and published by the Department of English
at the Camden campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Tyler Hoffman, Rutgers University-Camden

Michael Russo, Rutgers University-Camden

Christopher Sten, George Washington University

Site Design by Michael Russo
Wallpaper by Robert Shenk

Mickle Street Review would like to thank Johns Hopkins University Press for permission to re-publish essays by Tom Nurmi, Timothy Sweet, and Peter J. Bellis. Leviathan is the original place of publication. 2015 JHUP and The Mellville Society. | CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

Copyright |  Rutgers University – Camden.
Supported in part by a grant from the
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.