Mapping Whitman:

Civil War, Reconstruction, Old Age

Whitman's Correspondence Eras

The Civil War






Old Age


Whitman in Washington, D.C.


With Whitman, it is difficult to speak of Washington, D.C. as merely a "place." Over the course of a decade (1862-1873) it was here where the poet lived, worked, and volunteered. In Specimen Days & Collect, Whitman spoke proudly of living in such close proximity to President Lincoln, writing that "[w]e have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones". Serving as a volunteer nurse for the Union army, Whitman developed close relationships with many of the soldiers—both Union and Confederate—many of whom would serve as models for the poet's collection of Civil War poems, Drum-Taps. He worked as a copyist in the Paymaster's office, and later was offered a clerkship in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior.

But Whitman's feelings toward Washington were not entirely positive, and at moments he could be unapologetically critical. Describing the Capitol's architecture, Whitman writes in a letter to his brother that "these days I say, Jeff, all the poppy-show goddesses and all the pretty blue & gold in which the interior Capitol is got up, seems to me out of place beyond any thing I could tell". Because of Whitman's experiences in the hospitals, he was simply unable to reconcile the horrors of war with what he then perceived as the nation's emblems of greed. Later in life, Whitman's ambivalence toward a stable Capitol city would intensify. In Specimen Days & Collect, he writes that "Our future national capital may not be where the present one is . . . it will migrate a thousand or two miles, will be re-founded, and every thing belonging to it made on a different plan, original, far more superb."