The war of 1861-65, between the Federal Government and the Southern Confederacy, was the most important period of Whitman's life.
In Specimen Days he narrated the story of the outburst of patriotic feeling in the North—the confident anticipations of easily suppressing what at first appears to have been mistaken for something of but little more consequence than a riot—the battle of Bull Run; and the feeling of stupor in the North consequent upon the result of that engagement; and the reaction following the defiant attitude of the great New York dailies.
The enthusiasm—for the war—aroused in New York is powerfully drawn in First, 0 Songs for a Prelude!1 The forcible call to arms, Beat! Beat! Drums!2was probably inspired by recollections of the same circumstances.
In December, 1862, at the battle of Fredericksburgh, Whitman's brother George, a captain (subsequently lieutenant-colonel) in the 51st New York Volunteers, received a wound in the face,3 and the poet, having hurried South to look after his brother, was now introduced to experiences which made a lasting impression upon his mind. After being at the front but a very short time, he realised that, for the present, the work of his life lay with the army, in the hospitals and camps.
1 Leaves of Grass, p. 219.
2 Ibid, p. 222.
3 Prose, p. 71: "My brother, George W. Whitman—in active service all through, four years, re-enlisting twice—was promoted, step by step (several times immediately after battles), lieutenant, captain, major, and lieut.-colonel—was in the actions at Roanoke, Newbern, 2d. Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburgh, Vicksburgh, Jackson, the bloody conflicts of the Wilderness, and at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and afterwards around Petersburgh."