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History pop quiz! When did the American Civil War begin? Come on, you know this one… yep: 1861. And fancy that, that was the same year that Walt Whitman first published "Beat! Beat! Drums!" in Harper's Weekly. Coincidence? We think not.
Walt Whitman loved to write about his country: he's actually known as the founding father of American poetry. So it was kind of a big deal when something – namely, a civil war – threatened to either break up or redefine his beloved nation. It's no surprise, then, that he wrote a poem in response.
Throughout his life as a poet, Whitman often praised the newness and diversity that he thought America represented, but he also celebrated ideals of camaraderie, unity, and solidarity. So you can imagine that the outbreak of a war pitting Americans against Americans was a big deal to him. And although the information we have about Mr. Whitman during the early years of the war is pretty sparse, we do know that he was definitely invested in it: he visited many of the wounded in the Brooklyn hospital, and two of his brothers fought in the war (one died, one was wounded).
Like he did for many of his poems, Whitman revised "Beat! Beat! Drums!" later on in his life. We've used the first version here because it's the one written in the midst of the war's escalation, and because, well, we like it a little better. Hey, we're allowed.
Yeah, we know. The Civil War was a long stinkin' time ago. There have been plenty of wars since, and surely those things they were arguing about – you know, like states' rights and slavery – have no relevance in today's world.
Wait, what's that? You've heard politicians still arguing about the balance of power between federal and state governments? You've noticed that racial tensions still exist? You've seen news stories about controversies concerning the Confederate flag? Maybe this whole Civil War thing isn't so irrelevant.
Of course, like most great poetry, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" doesn't have meaning for just one historical moment. The poem confronts the impact of war on communities and families throughout history. The way it bursts in, turning the normal order of things on its head and totally disrupting people's everyday lives. Regardless of your political opinions, it's fair to say that the realities of war are relevant to pretty much all people throughout all human history.
So yeah, we'd say it deserves a poem.
Get the basic dish on Mr. Whitman here: biography, pictures, poems, links, and more.
The Whitman Archive
Here, you'll find absolutely everything about Walt Whitman. We kid you not.
The Poet .org
You know you've made it when you've got yourname.org. Check out Walt's birthplace on this site, and if you ever find yourselves in West Hills, New York, check it out in person!
Visions of New York
"Beat! Beat! Drums!" gives us a nice vision of America before and during the war. Here, you can zoom in and take a look at "Whitman's New York."
Walt Whitman's American Experience
Check out this short video biography from PBS, part of the American Experience series. And if Whitman didn't have an American experience, no one did.
Ken Burns Does the Civil War
Check out some clips from this revealing documentary. If you poke around a bit, you can find some great information on civil war bands, too!
In His Handwriting
Here's Whitman's handwritten manuscript of "Beat! Beat! Drums!" Come on, how cool is that?
Check out the original New York Times obituary for Walt Whitman, who came to a "peaceful end" in 1892.
The original 1861 publication. No joke.
Put to Music
Listen as a group of choirs sings the words of "Beat! Beat! Drums!" – is this how you would have orchestrated it?
Young Adult Reads Whitman
Whitman is for everyone, and this guy makes him shine.
Coolest Dude Ever
Now this is guy we'd like on our side.
He Ages Well
Just as cool as an older guy.
Civil War Bands
Can you spot the bugles and drums?