Weekly Whitman: … and the war came

New Year’s Day in 1861 New York City

With a new year upon us—after being crushed by 2020—we gift you with a poem. “1861.” Manhattan was a separate part of New York City at that time, and Walt Whitman spent a great deal of time there, reporting on New York’s war preparations. Just like the rest of the country—North and South—Whitman was under the delusion that the war would be short and glorious. Daily he saw New York men sign up with a variety of units, then regiments, in response to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men to “put down the rebellion.” These newly-minted soldiers marched the streets and stayed in makeshift armories, wearing everything from farm clothing to gorgeous bespoke uniforms, waiting for an army uniform of their own. And Walt Whitman, just like the rest of New York City, cheered them onward, flags unfurled.

The Union Army–New York City, 1861



ARM’D year! year of the struggle!

No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you,
terrible year!

Not you as some pale poetling, seated at a desk, lisp-
ing cadenzas piano;

But as a strong man, erect, clothed in blue clothes,
advancing, carrying a rifle on your shoulder,

With well-gristled body and sunburnt face and hands—
with a knife in the belt at your side,

As I heard you shouting loud—your sonorous voice
ringing across the continent;

Your masculine voice, O year, as rising amid the great

Amid the men of Manhattan I saw you, as one of the
workmen, the dwellers in Manhattan;

Or with large steps crossing the prairies out of Illinois
and Indiana,

Rapidly crossing the West with springy gait, and de-
scending the Alleghanies;

Or down from the great lakes, or in Pennsylvania, or on
deck along the Ohio river;

Or southward along the Tennessee or Cumberland rivers,
or at Chattanooga on the mountain top,

Saw I your gait and saw I your sinewy limbs, clothed
in blue, bearing weapons, robust year;

Heard your determin’d voice, launch’d forth again and

Year that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round
lipp’d cannon,

I repeat you, hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted year.

…and 1861 in the South

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