Tom Chaffin in the NYT:
On the evening of April 12, 1861, Walt Whitman attended a performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Linda di Chamounix” at the Academy of Music, on 14th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan. Just before midnight he was walking down the west side of Broadway, toward the Fulton Ferry to return to his home, in Brooklyn. Suddenly, he later recalled, he “heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side more furiously than usual.”
Whitman bought a paper and, near Prince Street, crossed Broadway, where he found a crowd reading the papers under the gas lamps of the Metropolitan Hotel. Fort Sumter, they reported, had been shelled in the wee hours of that same day. “For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud, while all listen’d silently and attentively,” he wrote. “No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increas’d from thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispers’d.”
In the coming days, the news from Charleston unified skeptics in the North behind a belief that “secession slavery” constituted a palpable evil that had to be confronted. But perhaps no one more so than Whitman: “The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Fort Sumter, proved for certain something which had been previously in great doubt.” Indeed, the beginning of the war would mark the end of his bohemian days and set him on another, more purposeful course.