Life & Letters

Correspondence

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Title: Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 30 June 1863

Date: June 30, 1863

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 1:111-114. For a detailed description of discrepancies between this electronic edition and the print source, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00183




Washington
June 30 1863

Dearest Mother,

Your letter with Han's I have sent to George, though whether it will find him or not I cannot tell, as I think the 51st must be away down at Vicksburgh—I have not had a word from George yet—Mother, I have had quite an attack of sore throat & distress in my head for some days past, up to last night, but to-day I feel nearly all right again. I have been about the city same as usual, nearly—to the Hospitals, &c, I mean—I am told that I hover too much over the beds of the hospitals, with fever & putrid wounds, &c. One soldier, brought here about fifteen days ago, very low with typhoid fever, Livingston Brooks,1 Co B 17th Penn Cavalry, I have particularly stuck to, as I found him in what appeared to be a dying condition, from negligence, & a horrible journey of about forty miles, bad roads & fast driving—& then after he got here, as he is a simple country boy, very shy & silent, & made no complaint, they neglected him—I found him something like I found John Holmes2 last winter—I called the doctor's attention to him, shook up the nurses, had him bathed in spirits, gave him lumps of ice, & ice to his head, he had a fearful bursting pain in his head, & his body was like fire—he was very quiet, a very sensible boy, old fashioned—he did not want to die, & I had to lie to him without stint, for he thought I knew everything, & I always put in of course that what I told him was exactly the truth, & that if he got really dangerous I would tell him & not conceal it.

The rule is to remove bad fever patients out from the main wards to a tent by themselves, & the doctor told me he would have to be removed. I broke it gently to him, but the poor boy got it immediately in his head that he was marked with death, & was to be removed on that account—it had a great effect upon him, & although I told the truth this time it did not have as good a result as my former fibs—I persuaded the doctor to let him remain—for three days he lay just about an even chance, go or stay, with a little leaning toward the first—But, mother, to make a long story short, he is now out of any immediate danger—he has been perfectly rational throughout—begins to taste a little food, (for a week he eat nothing, I had to compel him to take a quarter of an orange, now & then)—& I will say, whether any one calls it pride or not, that if he does get up & around again, it's me that saved his life. Mother, as I have said in former letters, you can have no idea how these sick & dying youngsters cling to a fellow, & how fascinating it is, with all its hospital surroundings of sadness & scenes of repulsion & death.

In this same hospital, Armory Square, where this cavalry boy is, I have about fifteen or twenty particular cases I see much too, some of them as much as him—there are two from East Brooklyn, George Monk,3 Co A 78th N Y, & Stephen Redgate,4 (his mother is a widow in E[ast] B[rooklyn], I have written her,) both are pretty badly wounded—both are youngsters under 19—O mother, there seems to me as I go through these rows of cots, as if it was too bad to accept these children, to subject them to such premature experiences—I devote myself much to Armory Square Hospital because it contains by far the worst cases, most repulsive wounds, has the most suffering & most need of consolation—I go every day without fail, & often at night—sometimes stay very late—no one interferes with me, guards, doctors, nurses, nor any one—I am let to take my own course.

Well, mother, I suppose you folks think we are in a somewhat dubious position here in Washington, with Lee in strong force almost between us & you northerners5—Well it does look ticklish, if the rebs cut the connection, then there will be fun—The reb cavalry come quite near us, dash in & steal wagon trains, &c—It would be funny if they should come some night to the President's country house, (soldier's home,) where he goes out to sleep every night—it is in the same direction as their saucy raid last Sunday—[Mr. Lincoln passes here (14th st) every evening on his way out—I noticed him last evening about ½ past 6, he was in his barouche, two horses, guarded by about thirty cavalry. The barouche comes first under a slow trot, driven by one man in the box, no servant or footman beside—the cavalry all follow closely after with a lieutenant at their head—I had a good view of the President last evening—he looks more careworn even than usual—his face with deep cut lines, seams, & his complexion gray, through very dark skin, a curious looking man, very sad—I said to a lady who was looking with me, "Who can see that man without losing all wish to be sharp upon him personally? Who can say he has not a good soul?" The lady assented, although she is almost vindictive on the course of the administration, (thinks it wants nerve &c., the usual complaint).6 The equipage is rather shabby, horses indeed almost what my friends the Broadway drivers would call old plugs. The President dresses in plain black clothes, cylinder hat—he was alone yesterday—As he came up, he first drove over to the house of the Sec[retary] of War, on K st about 300 feet from here, sat in his carriage while Stanton came out & had a 15 minutes interview with him (I can see from my window)—& then wheeled around, & slowly trotted around the corner & up Fourteenth st., the cavalry after him—I really think it would be safer for him just now to stop at the White House, but I expect he is too proud to abandon the former custom—] Then about an hour after, we had a large cavalry regiment pass, with blankets, arms, &c, on the war march over the same track—the reg't was very full, over a thousand, indeed thirteen or fourteen hundred—it was an old reg't, veterans, old fighters, young as they were—they were preceded by a fine mounted band of sixteen, (about ten bugles, the rest cymbals & drums)—I tell you, mother, it made every thing ring—made my heart leap, they played with a will—then the accompaniment—the sabres rattled on a thousand men's sides—they had pistols, their heels spurred—handsome American young men, (I make no acc't of any other)—rude uniforms, well worn, but good cattle, prancing—all good riders, full of the devil, nobody shaved, all very sunburnt. The regimental officers (splendidly mounted, but just as roughly drest as the men) came immediately after the band, then company after company, with each its officers at its head—the tramping of so many horses (there is a good hard turnpike)—then a long train of men with led horses, mounted negroes, & a long long string of baggage wagons, each with four horses—& then a strong rear guard—I tell you it had the look of real war—noble looking fellows—a man looks & feels so proud on a good horse, & armed—They are off toward the region of Lee's (supposed) rendezvous, toward the Susquehannah, for the great anticipated battle—Alas, how many of these healthy handsome rollicking young men will lie cold in death, before the apples ripe in the orchards7

Mother, it is curious & stirring here, in some respects—smaller or larger bodies of troops are moving continually—many just well men are turned out of the hospitals—I am where I see a good deal of them—There are getting to be many black troops—there is one very good reg't here black as tar—they go armed, have the regular uniform—they submit to no nonsense—others are constantly forming—it is getting to be a common sight—they press them. [Incomplete]


Notes:

1. Eventually Brooks recovered and, after a furlough, returned to his regiment. He wrote to Whitman on November 21, 1863, from Culpepper, Virginia. (Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library); Whitman's reply of December 19, 1863 is lost (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 140). Whitman noted the case in his diary (Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [1933], 149–150). [back]

2. See Whitman's letters from January 2–4, 1863[back]

3. In July, 1863, Whitman recorded the case of George W. Monk in his hospital notes: "Brooklyn boy—father Wm D. Monk, Brooklyn E[ast] D[istrict]—gun shot wound in head—feet benumbed—fine manly quiet boy" (Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [1933], 149). The father was listed as a roof maker in the Directory of 1861–1862, as a ropemaker in 1865. [back]

4. A drummer in the Seventy-eighth Regiment; see A Record of the Commissioned Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers, and Privates, of the Regiments Which Were Organized in the State of New York and Called into the Service of the United States to Assist in Suppressing the Rebellion (Albany: Comstock and Cassidy, 1864), 3: 229. [back]

5. The New York Times reported that Lee was in Pennsylvania, at or near Chambersburg. [back]

6. Perhaps in part Whitman was directing these words to Jeff, who was no admirer of Lincoln. On May 27, 1863, apparently in answer to a lost letter, Jeff wrote: "I cannot agree with you, Walt, in relation to the President. I think that he is not a man for the times, not big enough. He dont seem to have even force enough to stop bickerings between his own Cabinet and Generals nor force enough to do as he thinks best. . . . No, A. L. is not the man and I hardly know if we have one that is equal to the thing." Jeff returned to the subject on June 13, 1863: "Well, Walt, you and I cannot agree in regard to 'Uncle Abe.' . . . He lends himself to the speculators, in all the ways that it can be done. He says 'yes' to the last man or 'No' as that man wants him to. Everything he does reminds me of an old woman" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). [back]

7. Compare the lines in "Come Up from the Fields Father," which appeared in Drum-Taps, 39: "Lo, 'tis autumn; . . . / Where apples ripe in the orchards hang, and grapes on the trellis'd vines . . ."  [back]


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