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Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly

[Detail] Walt Whitman holding butterfly

Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s presents four of the poet's notebooks and a cardboard butterfly that were stolen from and subsequently returned to the Library's Whitman collection. These four notebooks contain notes in poetry and prose which, the user should be advised, do not always appear in sequence, as Whitman was wont to skip pages and then use them later. In addition to providing information about the poet, the collection is also a resource for studying the Civil War, nineteenth-century culture, and interrelated historical themes.

The Civil War

Over the course of the war, Whitman visited thousands of soldiers in Washington, D.C. hospitals. His notes from these visits give students a sense of the the times, of the great number of soldiers and scope of the war, and of the soldiers as individuals. Refer students to the following notebooks and pages:

Go to page 18 of Notebook #101 and page 126 of Notebook #94 to read about how young most Civil War soldiers were. Ask students what other indications they can find of the soldiers' youth.

Students can get a better understanding of what service in the army entailed by reading a detailed account of the history of Fererro's 51st New York regiment, including its battles at Roanoke and Antietam:

Whitman's continuing account of the regiment's loss of men will impress upon students the likelihood for survival in a regiment as active as the 51st. Another instructive highlight is Whitman's account of an exhausting 100 day march:

The quieter side of army life, namely camp life, is illustrated in Whitman's description of a tent dwelling and his records of the soldiers' vernacular, the food they ate, and the stories they told around the campfires. Students can make a drawing or write a soldier's journal entry based on the following pages: 109, 111, 115, 120, 124, 126, 139, and 141 of Notebook #94.

Finally, the notebooks also bring home the violence of the war through descriptions of battle, death, injury, and amputation. Refer students to a description of battle on pages 143, 145, and 147 of Notebook #94. Whitman vividly reproduces the sounds of weapons and the sight of the dead. Or, have them read some of Whitman's comments on death. Pictures from Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865 can also be helpful in bringing home the reality of war.