Poet inspired by American flag
Walt Whitman, one of America’s finest poets, spent much of the Civil War in Washington, D.C., working in hospitals and caring for wounded servicemen. In April 1864, he sent a letter to his mother to share how the American flag affected soldiers and himself.
“You don’t know,” he wrote, “what a feeling a man gets after being in the active sights & influences of the camp, the Army, the wounded &c. – he gets to have a deep feeling he never experienced before – the flag, the tune of Yankee Doodle, & similar things, produce an effect on a fellow never such before. I have seen some bring tears on the men’s cheeks, & others turn pale, under such circumstances.”
He then shared his own emotions: “I have a little flag (it belonged to one of our cavalry reg’ts) presented to me by one of the wounded. It was taken by the [Confederates] in a cavalry fight, & rescued by our men in a bloody little skirmish. It cost three men’s lives, just to get one little flag, four by three. Our men rescued it, & tore it from the breast of a dead rebel. All that just for…getting their little banner back again.”
The soldier who rescued the banner, the poet continued, “was very badly wounded, & they let him keep it. I was with him a good deal [and] he wanted to give me something….He didn’t expect to live, so he gave me the little banner as a keepsake. There isn’t a reg’t, cavalry or infantry, that wouldn’t do the same.”
Whitman’s love for the American flag was often evident in his poems, such as this paean to the banner:
FLAG of stars! thick-sprinkled bunting!
Long yet your road, fateful flag! – long yet your road, and lined with bloody death!
For the prize I see at issue, at last is the world!
All its ships and shores I see, interwoven with your threads, greedy banner!…
Walk supreme to the heavens, mighty symbol—run up above them all,
Flag of stars! thick sprinkled bunting!
In “Delicate Cluster,” the poet offered this salute to the American flag:
Delicate cluster! flag of teeming life!
Covering all my lands – all my seashores lining!
Flag of death! (how I watch’d you through the smoke of battle pressing!
How I heard you flap and rustle, cloth defiant!)
Flag cerulean – sunny flag, with the orbs of night dappled!
Ah my silvery beauty – ah my woolly white and crimson!
Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother!
One of Whitman’s most famous verses – “O Captain! My Captain!” – was written to mark the death of Abraham Lincoln. In one portion of the poem, the poet wrote:
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills….