What does gender have to do with the Civil War? That is, what does the bloodiest war in American history to that time have to do with traditional assumptions about masculinity and femininity, about how men and women "properly" behave, think, and act in the world?
At first glance, this may seem like an easy question. Indeed, the gender division of war seems clear enough: while the men go off to battle, the women stay at home and look after the family. But Walt Whitman's service as a nurse in Civil War hospitals, as well as the women soldiers who served on both sides (sometimes dressed as men), help to remind us that the situation may not be as straightforward as we think.
Whitman's nursing career began shortly after he and his family read in the New York Herald that his brother George Washington Whitman had been wounded in a battle near Fredricksburg, Virginia in December, 1862. Whitman traveled south from Brooklyn to find out about the severity of George's injuries (they weren't serious at all), and when he was called upon to help transport wounded men to the hospital, his life took an unexpected turn. Moved by the suffering of the injured soldiers, and finding that he could lend a hand, Whitman spent most of the next three years in the hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., visiting the sick and wounded, delivering sweets, fruits, and ice cream, writing letters home, and generally cheering and assisting the bedridden.
Taking as its point of departure Whitman's service as a nurse during the Civil War, this website asks: what does it mean for a man to nurse other men, and in so doing to perform a role that was widely understood as women's work? What are the consequences for "manliness" and "womanliness" when soldiers are injured and dependent upon women? How are these consequences re-figured (if they are) when these dependent men receive their assistance from another man? Can women in the nineteenth century exhibit manliness?
Looked at one way, the Civil War, like World War II in the twentieth century, might be thought of as a watershed moment in which commonsensical assumptions about gender and the relations between men and men, men and women, and women and women were worked out anew on a national scale.
Brothers in Arms is divided into three parts, and readers are encouraged to follow a path through the site that seems most productive for them. "Poet, Nurse, Soldier" examines Whitman's earliest notebooks, in which he worked out some of his earliest conceptions about poetry and the poet. "Gender During Wartime" treats the question of "masculinity" during the war, finding some unexpected intersections between representations of nursing and soldiering. Finally, "Men During Wartime" looks at relations between men during the war and in Whitman's writings, reading a range of photographs and texts in the light of recent theoretical writings about photography, the history of homosexuality, and male friendship.
Research assistance provided by Hunt Howell, Marcy Dinius, Coleman Hutchison, and James Lebeck