Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps and Poetry as Historical Data


Above is an article written about Walt Whitman’s Civil War poem “Drum-Taps”. It asks the question of why he imbedded the poem within the text of “Leaves of Grass” several years after he published it on it’s own. While I find the discussion too speculative and a lot like mental mastication for my taste, something about this article got me thinking about poetry and it’s significance as historical data, especially, since contemporary poetry is written by many people from all different walks in life and there is much to be preserved there. In fact, Whitman was one of those great trail blazing poets who contributed to the literary diversity that we take pleasure in today and will hopefully continue to enjoy in the future. Hopefully, who really knows; freedom is such a fickle blessing.

One of poetry’s true beauties is that it serves as both a historical and sociological primary source for anybody’s research and much of it accessible for free on the internet. If it’s not free, it’s contemporary and you will just have to pay for the book and support a living artist, who is probably doing their best, with limited resources, to curate a garden of truth, culture, and freedom, while keeping the seeds alive for the hope of future generations. You might not agree with me, but if you are reading this than you are benefitting from the work of those who did this kind of curating in the past.

Drum-taps is a perfect example of a great historical primary source.  It is one of the few pieces of literature contemporaneously written about the Civil War from the quotidian perspective. In other words, it was not written by an “out of touch” populous of politicians, aristocrats, and scholars. Nope, it was written by a philosophically libertarian man living in Manhattan while observing his city’s response to war. It’s full of shock mixed with an ordinariness that is so real it seems strange and almost satirical. He presents his world using sights, sounds, and the rhythm of a city’s inhabitants at the brink of uncertainty.  It’s the archaeology of one man’s soul, who is known for being the voice of the collective soul.

Drum-Taps is available to anyone who would like to read and interpret it on their own and I posted the link on a subsequent post since it seems I am not allowed to share two links in one post. Someone, please correct me if I am wrong.

Much of the history available to non-historians is the product of many revisions and interpretations, to the point, in my opinion, that the greater truth exists in edit histories instead of in the newly revised narrative. They are written, supported, and celebrated by people with an agenda. This is why I love primary sources like poetry, journals, photos…  They are to history what the discovery of T-Rex bones, Iceman, and DNA is to science. Only, they do not need to be dug-up or studied using special instruments, for they are right there at the touch of our fingertips – – for any truth-seeker to discover.

Drum-Taps is one of those primary sources. It is preservation of one man’s thoughts, at moment of their first spark 150 years ago. Yes, he edited them lots, but only to magnify and illuminate the spark so that his audience might witness it as fireworks.

If you are familiar with Whitman’s work and history,  you will know, he was antithesis of the stuffy, scholarly gent. He did not conform, nor did he live in an ivy league tower in isolation of the common man. He had no college degree and he self-published.  His ideas germinated from living amongst the bustling crowd of early urban life, as opposed from within the impenetrable stone walls of a quiet institution with a two hundred year old view.

Drum-taps is an essential document of Civil War history. So, if you know a Civil War historian who refuses to read poetry, this is the perfect opportunity to shame them.  However, seriously, I can’t imagine how this poem could be ignored by a Civil War historian.

Anyway…I do have a few questions.

Currently, there are thousands and thousands of poets out there documenting our times from their perspective and self-publishing on the net – – that is a ton of Invaluable data for future historians, however, it is all digital, meaning it could all disappear in an instant. And, all of those books that are only available on an e-reader can be wiped out without even a whiff of smoke.

Here is another nibble for thought; the worst,the most common, and self-indulgent poetry out there, might actually contain the most valuable data for future archives. Think about it.

Also, what do you think is the best way to preserve these data and better protect the History of our future?

One last question for anyone who is a historian or knows one: Do historians use poetry as a data source?