by Claudia Houston, New Bern Historical Society Researcher
Did you know that one of the most famous American poets, Walt Whitman, has a connection to New Bern?
After the fall of Ft. Sumter, Walt’s younger brother, George Washington Whitman, signed up with the 13th NY, a local militia unit. After the First Battle of Bull Run George realized, as did many, that the war was going to last longer than first expected. In 1861 he enlisted for a three year period with the 51st NY Volunteers. George fought in the Burnside Expedition first at Roanoke Island and then at New Bern. On March 19, 1862 in a letter to his sister, George wrote “… We got up at daylight on the morning of the 14th, marched 4 or 5 miles, when we came upon the enemy in strong forces behind breastworks as usual. We marched up under a terrible fire, formed line of battle, and at it we went. The enemy were posted in an almost impregnable position, but after 3 hours hard fighting (during which time our boys had crept nearer and nearer to the enemy’s works) the rebels ran and the day was ours. Our regiment suffered pretty bad, we had only about 651 men when we went into the fight, and lost about 100 in killed and wounded, among whom was some of my intimate friends.” (WaltWhitmanarchive.org) George Whitman would go on to serve in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, the Wilderness, and Petersburg and was rewarded for his heroism by numerous promotions, (sergeant, captain, major, brevetted lieutenant colonel). Walt, 10 years his senior, stayed at home in New York.
In 1862 Walt saw the name of his brother on a list of men of the 51st NY who were wounded at Fredericksburg. He rushed to Washington to try to find his brother to tend to him. Luckily, George’s wounds were not serious and he continued to serve in his unit. However, Walt found a new mission — he moved to Washington D.C. and visited soldiers in hospitals, wrote letters for them and lent great comfort and support. He also raised money to provide provisions for the men. In less than 3 years he would write “Drum Taps” and “Specimen Days”, poems about the war experience. Walt was a great admirer of his brother. However, George was not impressed with Walt’s writing ability. After the first edition of Leaves of Grass was published, George recalled: “I saw the book—didn’t read it all—didn’t think it worth reading—fingered it a little”…(WaltWhitmanarchive.org).
Along with most of his regiment, George Whitman was captured on September 30, 1864, at Poplar Grove Church, Virginia. He spent time in Libby Prison at Richmond, notorious for its overcrowded and harsh conditions, and was later transferred to the military prison hospital at Danville. While there, his personal effects were sent to his family, which included a diary he had kept during the first two years of the war. When Walt Whitman read the diary he concluded, “It does not need calling in play the imagination to see that in such a record as this lies folded a perfect poem of the war … ”
After a distinguished war career, George found a job inspecting pipes in Brooklyn and Camden, NJ. He married, moved to Camden and soon brought his ill mother and Brother Edward to live with him. After a debilitating stroke in 1873, Walter went to live with his brother as well, to convalesce. Later, George moved to his own home with his wife, causing a rift with Walt that never healed. Walt died in 1892 and George in 1901. They are buried in the Whitman Tomb along with other members of the family in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ.
A letter written by George Washington Whitman on paper confiscated while he was in New Bern can be seen at The New Bern Academy (on loan from Tryon Palace). Designed through a joint effort among the Tryon Palace Foundation, Tryon Palace, the New Bern Historical Society, and the North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, “Face to Face” will remain open throughout the year every Saturday and Sunday, from 12:30-4:30 p.m. Designed through a joint effort among the Tryon Palace Foundation, Tryon Palace, the New Bern Historical Society, and the North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, “Face to Face” will remain open throughout the year every Saturday and Sunday, from 12:30-4:30 p.m. Designed through a joint effort among the Tryon Palace Foundation, Tryon Palace, the New Bern Historical Society, and the North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, “Face to Face” will remain open throughout the year every Saturday and Sunday, from 12:30-4:30 p.m. The Academy currently has a special exhibit entitled “Face to Face: Civil War Sketches and Stories” which was designed through a joint effort by the New Bern Historical Society, the Tryon Palace Foundation, Tryon Palace and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. The New Bern Academy Museum is open from 12:30-5:30 on Saturdays and Sundays. Call 252-639-3500 for more info.
Submitted by: Kathy Morrison, New Bern Historical Society