Walt Whitman: Battle of Bull Run

September 16, 1861/2011
Volume 2, Issue 39 (49 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

 “Beat! Beat! Drums!”

On September 21, 1861, Walt Whitman’s patriotic poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” appeared simultaneously in the September 28 editions of the Boston Evening Transcript, the New York Leader, and Harper’s Weekly. The inspiration for the poem was the Battle of Bull Run, fought exactly two months earlier.

Whitman would later call Bull Run a ‘crucifixion;’ the Union defeat obsessed him for years. Randall Fuller, Professor of English at Drury University, writes:

Walt Whitman, 1862, by Mathew Brady, Library of Congress

Walt Whitman, 1862, by Mathew Brady, Library of Congress

“The poem is rich with hearty imperatives: Sweep away schools, work, even weddings: war is at hand! As with much patriotic verse of the era, Whitman’s poem not only celebrates the drums and bugles of war but attempts to become those drums and bugles — to embody the martial music that would lead an army to victory.

“Yet anxiety permeates every line of Whitman’s first significant war poem. Behind the call to abolish daily life is a keen nostalgia for all that will soon be destroyed. The sound of war bursts ‘like a ruthless force,/Into the solemn church,’ but instead of uniting the worshipers, it merely ‘scatter[s] the congregation.’ The sacrifice of the bridegroom, enacted throughout the nation, erodes the most basic unit of social life: ‘no happiness must he now have with his bride.’ Faith and domesticity, Whitman suggested, are the first casualties of the war.”


From Battlefields Rising, How The Civil War Transformed American Literature (2011) p. 28.


Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!–Blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows–through the doors–burst like a force
of armed men,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation;
Into the school where the scholar is studying;
Leave not the bridegroom quiet–no happiness must he
have now with his bride;
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace plowing his field or
gathering his grain;
So fierce you whirr and pound, you drums–so shrill you
bugles blow.

Beat! beat! drums! Blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities–over the rumble of wheels
in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
No sleepers must sleep in those beds;
No bargainers’ bargains by day–no brokers or speculators.
Would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before
the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums–and bugles wilder blow.

Beat! beat! drums! Blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley–stop for no expostulation;
Mind not the timid–mind not the weeper or prayer;
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties. Recruit! recruit!
Make the very trestles shake under the dead, where they
lie in their shrouds awaiting the hearses.
So strong you thump, O terrible drums–so loud you bugles blow.


Image of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” printed in Harper’s Weekly, September 28, 1861

Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection — Library of Congress

Civil War Lit Boston Globe

Walt Whitman, The Poetry Foundation

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1861

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