Now the Drum of War Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War

Robert Roper

Walker & Company



432 Pages


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Walt Whitman's work as a nurse to the wounded soldiers of the Civil War profoundly affected his worldview as well as his poetry. Much less well known is the extraordinary war record of his younger brother George Washington Whitman, who led his men in twenty-one major battles almost to die in a Confederate prison camp as the fighting ended. Drawing on the compelling letters between Walt, George, their mother, and other brothers, and on original interpretations of the great poet, Now the Drum of War chronicles the experience of an archetypal American family enduring its own long crisis alongside the anguish of the nation.


Praise for Now the Drum of War

"Via letters and notebook entries, Now the Drum of War fills in important blanks; we end up with a sense of the individual as part of an impressive collective entity called Whitman."—Nicholas Delbanco, The Washington Post Book World

"In Now the Drum of War, Robert Roper captures a turning point in Whitman's life—the transformation of his poetry but also the dramatic new chapter in the story of the Whitman family."—Daniel Mark Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

"In this vivid and engaging biographical study, Roper focuses on Whitman's early life and family as a path to understanding the poet's intense years as a 'Soldier's Missionary' . . . Roper gives us a superbly nuance depiction."—Robert Faggen, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Meticulously researched . . . by turns fresh, illuminating, and touching."—Jay Winik, author of April 1865

"Roper is often a cinematic writer, deftly shifting point of view to reveal telling physical details as well as large psychological ones . . . But ultimately this book celebrates Whitman and his choice to stand so closely to the wreckage of war. It's a choice that resounds loudly in the present where war is still a grim fact, but where Americans tend to stand at greater distances, taking in only as much sanitized content as the news delivers, or even less."—Alyssa Haywoode, The Boston Globe

"At its heart, despite so much suffering and death, Roper's book is a moving, vivid exploration of love in many forms . . . Roper comes to narrative nonfiction . . . as an experienced, widely praised master. His craft shows in the way he takes care to evoke settings and scenes, giving us much more than a mere compilation of quotes from the Whitman family's writings. The result is a book that makes readers feel the force of what these people endured, and how their mutual love found expression in acts of bold, brave, honorable service."—Floyd Skloot, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Walt Whitman once wrote that the real Civil war would never get in the books. The war gets into this book, however, with excerpts from letters of Walt and his brother George Whitman and other members of their family. As an officer in the 51st New York Infantry, George Whitman saw more action than most soldiers and wrote about it with vivid clarity, while Walt described his experiences as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals in his inimitable prose-poetry. Robert Roper has blended this rich material into a moving narrative."—James M. MacPherson, author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and Battle Cry of Freedom

"This is more definitely not the Walt Whitman you encountered in high school, or the 'Good Gray Poet' you thought you understood in college. In fact, forget virtually everything you thought you knew about Whitman, because Robert Roper has some serious surprises in store for you."—Michael J. Bonafield, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"In this groundbreaking study, Roper reveals the degree to which a poet famous for his depictions of the Civil War actually witnessed the carnage of clashing armies through the eyes of a younger brother, a daring Union officer . . . In the correspondence between the seasoned soldier and his family, Roper locates the conduit for raw material artistically transformed by the acclaimed bard. Readers soon realize how profoundly George's letters influenced Walt, who adroitly melded George's accounts of torrid battles in his verse with his own experience as a visitor to military hospitals. But as Roper probes Walt's poetry, he illuminates not only the writer's abiding fraternal commitment to his decorated brother but also his transitory sexual ties to other men in and out of uniform. Behind the tangle of familial affections and sexual passions, readers discern the imaginative genius that wove very diverse strands into panoramic literature. Whitman's many admirers will find here a wealth of insights.—Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

"Robert Roper, award-winning author of works of fiction and nonfiction, explores the brothers' relationship and, by extension, the many wounded Civil War soldiers Walt visited in hospitals in the superb Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War . . . Roper's evocative narrative impressively conveys the life and times of one of America's greatest writers in a time of the nation's greatest crisis."—Roger Bishop, BookPage

"In his astonishing frankness and sweep, Walt Whitman is the quintessential visionary American poet. His life spanned the beginnings of modern urbanization, the rupture of the Civil War and almost into the 20th century. In keeping with this larger-than-life figure, Roper (Fatal Mountaineer) skillfully weaves several books into one. Framed as an insightful literary critique, especially of Whitman's coded writings, as well as a biographical chronicle of his remarkable and dysfunctional family, the book is also a historical examination of Civil War battlefield traumas and tragedies, principally as the poet experienced them. At the center of the book, Roper focuses on Whitman's emotional relations with the young wounded soldiers he nursed, showing in effect that these homoerotic bonds can be seen as the semipaternal manifestation of his relationships with his much younger brothers, George Washington Whitman—with whom he was closest, and who had a distinguished war record—and Thomas Jefferson Whitman. The 'brothers' of the subtitle refer not only to George and Jeff, but to the poet's many comrades."—Publishers Weekly

"Roper has written a well-researched, highly ambitious, thoroughly engaging, and humane history of the Civil War by means of a family portrait, presenting the war through the eyes and words of the Whitman family. Roper refers to recent Walt Whitman scholarship, as well as to the original correspondence, and tells a fascinating tale about an exceptional family amid the horrors of war. The book provides a simultaneous historical perspective on the war and on an exceptional family, giving general readers and students a vivid depiction of both and a deeper understanding of one of America's greatest poets."—Library Journal

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Robert Roper has won awards for his fiction and nonfiction alike. His previous book, Fatal Mountaineer, won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize given by London’s Royal Geographical Society. His journalism appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, and other publications. He teaches at Johns Hopkins and lives in Baltimore and California.
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  • Robert Roper

  • Robert Roper's journalism appears in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, and other publications. His book Fatal Mountaineer won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize. He teaches at Johns Hopkins, and lives in Baltimore and California.