Much has been said about Whitman's direct experience of the Civil War as a volunteer nurse in Washington hospitals [LINK: Stephanie, Jay sites]. But the trauma of the War was direct and immediate to him in another way as well: his brother George fought in the Union Army and, in 1864, was captured in the fall of 1864 and shuffled between military prisons in Salisbury, North Carolina, Richmond, and Danville, Virginia. The exchange of letters between the poet and his brother Thomas Jefferson ("Jeff") reveal the anxiety that the Whitmans, like the families of many other captive soldiers, had about imprisonment and its unknown tortures. Whitman's artistic response to this personal event has to be understood in terms of his earlier poetics, as he establishes them in the 1855 Leaves of Grass.

Personal and political liberation are, of course, central themes in Whitman's early writing. In the 1855 Preface, he uses the figure of the prisoner to suggest Liberty's opposite, the man who needs to be freed by comradely democracy. The poet, he claims, will win the battle, free the prisoners:

Poets [...] are the voice and exposition of liberty [...] Liberty relies on itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement. The battle rages with many a loud alarm and frequent advance and retreat . . . . the enemy triumphs . . . . the prison, the handcuffs, the iron necklace and anklet, the scaffold,   garrote and leadballs do their work . . . . the cause is asleep . . . . the strong throats are choked with their own blood . . . . the young men drop their eyelashes toward the ground when they pass   each other . . . . and is liberty gone out of that place? No never.

"Song of Myself" carries out this claim with Whitman's revolutionary call for liberating his readers -- "prisoners" of their self- and socially-imposed limitations:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
   Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs! [...]

   I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy;
   By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on
     the same terms.

And in the poem that would later become "The Sleepers," he uses the figure of the prisoner in a catalogue of human types, which has the effect of leveling socially imposed distinctions between people. (It is useful to compare Whitman's postwar poem, "The singer in the prison," with the democratizing comments about prisoners in "The Sleepers." In the later work, he repeats the refrain "O fearful thought--a convict soul" and depicts a group of "sear-faced murderers" who are moved to better thoughts by a female singer, who performs a Sunday hymn for them.")

Despite the close call of Whitman's captive brother George, however, the Civil War poems in Drum-Taps are remarkable for the complete absence in them of any commentary on the military prison experience. There are realistic poems about bravery on the field (e.g., "The artilleryman's vision,") about nursing horrendously wounded soldiers in hospitals (e.g., "The Wound-Dresser,") and about the final, bittersweet dispersing of the armies (e.g., "Return of the Heroes,") but not a one about prison experiences. It is as if Whitman's powerful imagination, which does not shrink from describing scenes of terrible physical suffering, does not want to go there-- perhaps because his poetics of freedom and open spaces made confinement seem a terrible fate. Perhaps, as well, the widely circulated accounts of the sometimes brutal treatment of prisoners by their fellow soldiers undermined his vision of the comradely love between individual men in the Army (e.g., "Vigil strange I kept on the field one night.")

In the journals and "memoranda" he kept during the War, however, Whitman shows that he was quite well aware of the conditions of military prisons. He recounts the tragic tale of a Union-sympathizing Southerner, a noncombatant, who was incarcerated in Salisbury prison by the Confederates.  And in the final passage of these war memoranda, he very movingly "sums up" the casualties, both moral and material of the War, closing with a description of the ruins of Andersonville Prison: "Even at Andersonville, to-day, innocence and a smile." It is perhaps significant he mentions the infamous prison last, as if it were the worst atrocity to be overcome in the healing process of the Union. One of the final poems in Drum-Taps, "Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice," suggests that only by replacing the bonds of prisons with the ties of mutual affection can this be accomplished: "these shall tie you and band you stronger than hoops of iron."