What a combo: Walt Whitman and Jimmy Stewart!
That’s on offer Thursday evening, free, at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus on Culpeper County’s historic Pony Mountain.
The library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center will screen “Shenandoah,” a 1965 Universal Pictures film with humanitarian and antiwar themes that resonated with Americans who, at home every night, watched TV news footage of U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
The Jimmy Stewart classic will complement brief remarks beforehand by Virginia historian Clark B. Hall on poet and journalist Walt Whitman’s experiences in Culpeper County during the Civil War.
This spring and beyond, the Library of Congress and other institutions are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth on a farm in Long Island, N.Y. May is also the anniversary of publication of his ground-breaking 1855 “Leaves of Grass,” one of his best-known works.
But it wasn’t literature that brought Whitman, 44 at the time, to Virginia; it was a family emergency. Northern newspapers reported his brother George among the casualties of the Battle of Fredericksburg in mid-December 1862. Walt hurried from New York City to Philadelphia to Washington to Fredericksburg to claim George’s body.
Reaching the camp of his brother’s regiment, the 51st New York Infantry, he was delighted to learn George was alive, recovering from a head wound.
In conveying his happiness about George, Whitman also describes the poor conditions confronting soldiers in camp and on the march, plus the trauma of battle-wound treatment.
War changed him
Whitman’s experience with the Union field hospital at Chatham, an 18th-century plantation house in Stafford County that overlooks Fredericksburg, was his first close contact with the war. It transformed him.
Volunteering as a nurse at Chatham, he remembered: “Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.—about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.”
Today at the historic site, gnarled and stooped catalpa trees stand outside a room that Union doctors used as a surgery. One of them may be Whitman’s tree.
Seeing death and suffering up close changed the course of the poet’s life.
“For Whitman, understanding the nature and intensity of the war also accorded it purpose,” said John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. “He would dedicate his life for the next three years to helping, working in hospitals, writing letters for soldiers—as men unfamous shaped the spirit and will of one of America’s great writers, facing things, doing things that Whitman knew he could never do himself.”
What Whitman jotted during wartime in his pocket notebooks, he mined to write articles, essays, poems and books, including “The Wound-Dresser,” “Drum Taps,” “O Captain! My Captain! (about Abraham Lincoln), and his 1865 elegy about the slain president, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
“Whitman used his Civil War-era letters and notebook entries to write further about his experience coming to Virginia, and then staying in Washington to visit the ill and wounded soldiers in the makeshift Army hospitals in the city, and visiting men in camps, including at Culpeper,” Manuscript Division historian Barbara Bair said Monday.
When the library’s landmark Jefferson Building in Washington holds its Whitman Open House on June 3, among the treasures it will exhibit are the author’s Dec. 29, 1862, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, in Brooklyn about George, penned near Falmouth, and a Dec. 11, 1864, New York Times article he wrote to raise awareness about the needs of soldiers and the wounded, Bair said.
The library holds the world’s largest collection of Whitman-related materials, including his handwritten drafts, original letters, published poems, portraits, and other rarely seen items.
Sojourn in Culpeper
After the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman ventured into the Virginia countryside in the winter of 1863-1864.
For two months, Whitman resided in Culpeper County while volunteering in the Army of the Potomac’s field hospitals, visiting the county seat, Brandy Station and Hansborough’s Ridge near Stevensburg.
In spite of the war’s ravages, he called Culpeper “even now ... all broken down, one of the pleasantest towns in Virginia” and appreciated the natural beauty of the Piedmont and Blue Ridge.
Whitman recognized Southerners as his “erring countrymen,” saying he came to “know them well and love them well.”
To Hall, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, that is phenomenal.
“It’s amazing that he didn’t break bad and get bitter,” Hall said Monday of Whitman. “He saw as much of human suffering as anyone, and it never colored his outlook. That sticks with me, having been to war and seen casualties, and knowing how it devastated me. He saw what war wrought on humankind, day in and day out, week after week, month after month. But he never despaired.”
At hospitals in the field and in Washington, “he approached each patient as a human being, showing them kindness,” Hall said.
Whitman was always generous in his comments about soldiers, and recognized the seriousness of their service, the former Marine said: “He knew that it wasn’t gifts or medals that they most appreciated. What they most valued was human love and compassion.
“I’ve been in hospital wards, and wounded soldiers appreciate someone sitting down and chatting with them more than they do a Purple Heart or the Silver Star. Whitman was right about that,” Hall said.
He calls Whitman “inspirational.” Hall read his work in high school, in college, and after he returned home from Vietnam.
Jimmy Stewart’s best
Inspiration of another sort comes in “Shenandoah,” where Jimmy Stewart stars as a Virginia farmer intent on keeping his family out of the Civil War.
The Monthly Film Bulletin called Stewart’s work “one of the best performances of his career.”
The film “serves as a reminder of homely virtues and homilies, as spoken, mostly, by James Stewart,” The Los Angeles Times judged. “He creates a unique character and sustains it convincingly through stress and tragic change.”
Stewart plays widower opposing the war on moral grounds. But with battles fought nearly on his doorstep, the Virginian is caught up in the conflict when the Union army captures his youngest son, his son-in-law enlists in the Confederate army, and looters killed another son and his pregnant daughter-in-law.
The film broke box office records in Virginia, and was adapted as a hit Broadway musical in 1975.