Title: Letter from Washington
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: October 4, 1863
Publication information: New-York Times 4 October 1863: 2.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00198
Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Elizabeth Lorang
cropped image 1
LETTER FROM WASHINGTON.
Our National City, after all, has Some Big Points of Its Own—Its Suggestiveness Today—The Figure of Liberty Over the Capitol—Scenes, both Fixed and Panoramic—A Thought on Our Future Capital.
WASHINGTON, Thursday, Oct. 1, 1863.
It is doubtful whether justice has been done to Washington, D.C.; or rather, I should say, it is certain there are layers of originality, attraction, and even local grandeur and beauty here, quite unwritten, and even to the inhabitants unsuspected and unknown. Some are in the spot, soil, air and the magnificent amplitude of the laying out of the City. I continually enjoy these streets, planned on such a generous scale, stretching far, without stop or turn, giving the eye vistas. I feel freer, larger in them. Not the squeezed limits of Boston, New-York, or even Philadelphia; but royal plenty and nature's own bounty—American, prairie-like. It is worth writing a book about, this point alone. I often find it silently, curiously making up to me the absence of the ocean tumult of humanity I always enjoyed in New-York. Here, too, is largeness, in another more impalpable form; and I never walk Washington, day or night, without feeling its satisfaction.
Like all our cities, so far, this also, in its inner and outer channels, gives obedient reflex of European customs, standards, costumes, &c. There is the immortal black broadcloth coat [,?] and there is the waiter standing behind the chair. But inside the costume, America can be traced in glimpses. Item, here, an indolent largeness of spirit, quite native. No man minds his exact change. The vices here, the extravagancies, (and worse) are not without something redeeming; there is such a flowing hem, such a margin.
We all know the chorus: Washington, dusty, muddy, tiresome Washington is the most awful place, political and other; is the rendezvous of the national universal axe-grinding, caucusing, and of our never-ending ballot-chosen shysters, and perennial smouchers, and windy bawlers from every quarter far and near. We learn, also, that there is no society, no art, in Washington; nothing of the elaborated high-life attractions of the charming capitals (for rich and morbid idlers) over sea. Truly this particular sort of charm is not in full blossom here; n'importe. Let those miss it who miss it, (we have a sad set among our rich young men,) and, if they will, go voyage over sea to find it. But there are man's studies, objects here, nevermore exhilarating ones. What themes, what fields this national city affords, this hour, for eyes of live heads, and for souls fit to feed upon them!
This city, this hour, in its material sights, and what they and it stand for, the point of the physical and moral America, the visible fact of this war, (how at last, after sleeping long as it may, one finds war ever-dearest fact to man, though most terrible, and only arbiter, after all said about the pen being mightier, &c.) This city, concrete to-day of the inauguration of the new adjustment of the civilized world's political power and geography, with vastest consequences of Presidential and Congressional action; things done here, these days, bearing on the status of man, long centuries; the spot and the hour here making history's basic materials and widest ramifications; the city of the armies of the good old cause, full of significant signs, surrounded with weapons and armaments on every hill as I look forth, and THE FLAG flying over all. The city that launches the direct laws, the imperial laws of American Union and Democracy, to be henceforth compelled, when [prodded?] , at the point of the bayonet and the muzzle of cannon—launched over continental areas, three millions of square miles, an empire large as Europe. The city of wounded and sick, city of hospitals, full of the sweetest, bravest children of time or lands; tens of thousands, wounded, bloody, amputated, burning with fever, blue with diarrhœa. The city of the wide Potomac, the queenly river, lined with softest, greenest hills and uplands. The city of Congress, with debates, agitations, (petty, if you please, but full of future fruit,) of chaotic formings; of Congress knowing not itself, as its sits there in its rooms of gold, knowing not the depths of consequence belonging to it, that lie below the scum and eructations of its surface.
But where am I running to? I meant to make a few observations of Washington on the surface.
THE DOME AND THE GENIUS.
We are soon to see a thing accomplished here which I have often exercised my mind about, namely, the putting of the Genius of America away up there on the top of the dome of the Capitol.1 A few days ago, poking about there, eastern side, I found the Genius, all dismembered, scattered on the ground, by the basement front—I supposed preparatory to being hoisted. This, however, cannot be done forthwith, as I know that an immense pedestal surmounting the dome, has yet to be finished—about eighty feet high—on which the Genius is to stand, (with her back to the city).
But I must say something about the dome. All the great effects of the Capitol reside in it. The effects of the Capitol are worth study, frequent and varied; I find they grow upon one. I shall always identify Washington with that huge and delicate towering bulge of pure white, where it emerges calm and lofty from the hill, out of a dense mass of trees. There is no place in the city, or for miles and miles off, or down or up the river, but what you see this tiara-like dome quietly rising out of the foliage; (one of the effects of first-class architecture is its serenity, its aplomb.)
A vast eggshell, built of iron and glass, this dome—a beauteous bubble, caught and put in permanent form. I say a beauty and genuine success. I have to say the same, upon the whole, (after some qualms, maybe,) with respect to the entire edifice. I mean the entire Capitol is a sufficient success, if we accept what is called architecture the orthodox styles, (a little mixed here,) and indulge them for our purposes until further notice.
The dome I praise, with the aforesaid Genius, (when she gets up, which she probably will by the time next Congress meets,) will then aspire about three hundred feet above the surface. And then, remember that our National House is set upon a hill. I have stood over on the Virginia hills, west of the Potomac, or on the Maryland hills, east, and viewed the structure from all positions and distances; but I find myself, after all, very fond of getting somewhere near, somewhere within fifty or a hundred rods, and gazing long and long at the dome rising out of the mass of green umbrage, as aforementioned.
The dome is tiara or triple. The lower division is surrounded with a ring of columns, pretty close together. There is much ornament everywhere, but it is kept down by the uniform white; then lots of slender oval-topt windows. Ever as I look, especially when near, (I repeat it,) the dome is a beauty, large and bold. From the east side it shows immensely. I hear folks say it is too large. Not at all, to my eye. Some say too, the columns front and rear of the Old Capitol part, there in the centre, are now so disproportionably slender by the enlargement, that they must be removed. I say no; let them stand. They have a pleasant beauty as they are; the eye will get accustomed to them, and approve them.
Of our Genius of America, a sort of compound of handsome Choctaw squaw with the well-known Liberty of Rome, (and the French revolution,) and a touch perhaps of Athenian Pallas, (but very faint,) it is to be further described as an extensive female, cast in bronze, with much drapery, especially ruffles, and a face of goodnatured indolent expression, surmounted by a high cap with more ruffles. The Genius has for a year or two past been standing in the mud, west of the Capitol; I saw her there all Winter, looking very harmless and innocent, although holding a huge sword. For pictorial representation of the Genius, see any five-dollar United States greenback; for there she is at the left hand. But the artist has made her twenty times brighter in expression, &c., than the bronze Genius is.
I have curiosity to know the effect of this figure crowning the dome. The pieces, as I have said, are at present all separated, ready to be hoisted to their place. On the Capitol generally, much work remains to be done. I nearly forgot to say that I have grown so used to the sight, over the Capitol, of a certain huge derrick which has long surmounted the dome, swinging its huge one-arm now south, now north, &c., that I believe I shall have a sneaking sorrow when they remove it and substitute the Genius. (I would not dare to say that there is something about this powerful, simple and obedient piece of machinery, so modern, so significant in many respects of our constructive nation and age, and even so poetical, that I have even balanced in my mind, how it would do to leave the rude and mighty derrick atop o' the Capitol there, as fitter emblem, may be, than Choctaw girl and Pallas.)
ARMY WAGONS AND AMBULANCES.
Washington may be described as the city of army wagons also. These are on the go at all times, in all streets, and everywhere around here for many a mile. You see long trains of thirty, fifty, a hundred, and even two hundred. It seems as if they never would come to an end. The main thing is the transportation of food, forage, &c. Then ambulances for wounded and sick, nearly as numerous. Then other varieties; there will be a procession of wagons, bright-painted and white-topped, marked "Signal Train," each with a specific number, and over all a Captain or Director on horseback overseeing. When a train comes to a bad spot in the road this Captain reins in his horse and stands there till they all get safely by. If there is some laggard left behind, he will turn and gallop back to see what the matter is. He has a good riding horse, and you see him flying around busy enough.
Then there are the ambulances. These, indeed, are always going. Sometimes from the river, coming up through Seventh-street, you see a long, long string of them, slowly wending, each vehicle filled with sick or wounded soldiers, just brought up from the front from the region once down toward Falmouth, now out toward Warrenton. Again, from a boat that has just arrived, a load of our paroled men from the Southern prisons, viá Fortress Monroe.2 Many of these will be fearfully sick and ghastly from their treatment at Richmond, &c. Hundreds, though originally young and strong men, never recuperate again from their experience in these Southern prisons.
The ambulances are, of course, the most melancholy part of the army-wagon panorama that one sees everywhere here. You mark the forms huddled on the bottom of these wagons; you mark yellow and emaciated faces. Some are supporting others. I constantly see instances of tenderness in this way from the wounded to those worse wounded.
Then some smaller train of military wagons will be labeled "Officers' supplies." The magic initials U. S. A. are, of course, common. The regimental wagons have their regiment's number also lettered on them. There are generally four horses or mules, and the wagons are mostly covered with strong canvas. The drivers and teamsters sleep in them. They live a wild, hard life. Some of these teamsters are very handsome, vagabondish and picturesque. I go among them in their camps occasionally, and to their hospitals, for there are two or three here. In some respects I have found them the most interesting of the hospitals. Many of the teamsters are invalid soldiers.
The Transportation Department of the War-office is an immense branch. Few outsiders realize the countless wagons of all kinds, with more countless horses and mules, now owned and in the service of the Government for our campaigns. Few realize the great army of drivers and teamsters. These number tens of thousands. As a general thing they are left much to themselves, although ostensibly under military discipline. As to the ambulance and the driver thereof, they have become an institution. In Washington and all the war region you see them everywhere, and, indeed, gradually through other places. Every army has its hundreds; every post, every officer of rank here, every hospital, every headquarters and every State agency is continually employing them and wanting more. To-day here they far outnumber all the other vehicles in the city.
As an item I feel to note something peculiarly intense and beautiful here in the quality of the daylight. The forenoon I indite this particular paragraph, (Aug. 31,) I have been wandering all around, quite smitten with the superb clearness, luxuriance, brilliancy, yet perfect softness, of the atmosphere and light. I have noticed it generally for months, but this forenoon set myself to give it particular attention. I know the effects of atmosphere and sky very well at New-York and Long Island, but there is something here that outvies them. It is very pure and very gorgeous. Somehow richer, more liberal, more copious of strength than in the North.
Then the trees and their dark and glistening verdure play their part. Washington being full of great white architecture, takes through the Summer a prevailing color-effect of white and green. I find this everywhere, and very pleasing to my sight. So, seen freed from dust, as of late, and with let up from that unprecedented August heat, I say I find atmospheric results of marked individuality and perfection here, beyond Northern, Western and farther Southern cities. (Our writers, writing, may pen as much as they please of Italian light, and of Rome and Athens. But this city, even in the crude state it is to-day, with its buildings of to-day, with its ample river and its streets, with the effects above noted, to say nothing of what it all represents, is of course greater, materially and morally to-day than ever Rome or Athens.)
OUR COUNTRY'S PERMANENT CAPITAL.
Yet, a gloomy and ominous shape sits back there in the shade. It seems strange that one never meets here, in the people's talk or deeds, any consciousness of Washington's one day necessarily ceasing to be the Capital of the Union. None sees that the locale of America's Government must be permanently founded far West before many years. I say I never hear this alluded to here. Everything proceeds irrespective of it. Costly and large additions are this day being made to most of the public buildings—especially the Treasury—and the prices of real estate are kept up at high and advancing rates. So much architecture and outlay—and must all indeed be lost? A handsome and stately city, designed for a future it may never see; admirable in plan, only time and filling up needed. Yet, its fate would seem stern, certain, relentless. How can the prairie America, the boundless and teeming West, the region of the Mississippi, the California, Idaho and Colorado regions (two-thirds of our territory lies west of the Mississippi River) be content to have its Government lopsided over on the Atlantic, far, far from itself—the trunk, the real genuine America? How long before the change, the abandonment, will be proposed, nay, demanded? When demanded in earnest who can gainsay it? Will that territorial, productive and populous two-thirds west of the Great River, with half the remaining one-third along its eastern line, not prove certainly potential over the Atlantic thin strip—commercial, financial, with European proclivities—whose nerves concentrate in Washington? There are questions affecting this question deeper still; after the war what new combinations? Given the change of Capital twenty, forty years hence, where the new one located? In the tongue formed by the Missouri and Mississippi? In Kansas? Nebraska? Illinois? Missouri?
But why may not Washington more and more tend toward a large city on its own hook, (perhaps, even, a first-class one in time,) apart from its political character? Its situation deserves it and its destiny points that way, far more than at first thought appears.
A SUNSET VIEW OF THE CITY.
In my walks I never cease finding new effects and pictures, and I believe it would continue so if I went rambling around here for fifty years. The city being on a great V, and the shores backed with small and large hills up and down without end, and Georgetown with elevated grounds that overtop all from the upper end. You can go on looking forever, and never hit the same combination in two places.
I often watch the city and environs from the roof of an elevated building near the Treasury. Perhaps it is sunset. Sweep the eye around now on the scene. The dazzle of red and gold from over Virginia heights there, west, is thrown across full upon us. Turning, we see the dome of the Capitol lifting itself so calmly, southeast, there, with windows yellow-red. Not far below the sombre-brown Smithsonian stands in the midst of shadows.3 Due east of us the severe and noble architecture of the Patent Office takes the last rich flood of the sun.4 The mist grows murky over in distance on the Maryland side. Northward the white barracks of the hospitals and on a hill the Soldiers' Home;5 southward the queenly Potomac, and the trailing smoke of a single steamer moving up this side the Long Bridge. Further down, the dim masts of Alexandria. Quite near again, the half-monument of the first President. Off far again, just visible, southeast, the low turrets of the United States Insane Asylum, on the Maryland side. But the day is fading fast.
In the street below me a long string of army wagons defiling along Fifteenth-street, and around into Pennsylvania-avenue. White canvas coverings arch them over, and each wagon has its six-mule team. The teamsters are some of them walking along the sides of the mules, with gads in their hands. Then I notice in the half-light squads of the Provost Guard. Then a galloping cavalry company, in their yellow-braided jackets.
1. The Genius of America is the name of the group of three sculpted figures on the tympanum of the Rotunda portico of the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. Designed by John Quincy Adams and sculpted by Luigi Persico, the sculpture depicts the female figures of America, Justice, and Hope; they were installed in the 1820s. Whitman has confused The Genius of America with the Statue of Freedom, originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace when it was put atop the completed dome in December 1863. This statue, nearly twenty feet tall, depicts a helmeted female figure with a sword in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other. [back]
2. Fortress (or Fort) Monroe was a Union fort located on the Chesapeake Bay. Fort Monroe's location near the waters of Virginia and Maryland made it one of the most important forts of the war. In May 1865 it became the location of Confederate president Jefferson Davis's incarceration. [back]
3. The Smithsonian, founded in 1846, had to cut back on events during the Civil War, but its main building (called the "Castle") was largely unaffected by the nearby battles. [back]
4. The U. S. Patent Office building became a hospital by necessity during the war. This same building housed the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where Whitman worked in 1865. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]
5. The Soldiers' Home has been described as a "kind of Camp David for President Lincoln" by Matthew Pinsker. The Home was established in the 1850s as an institution for disabled veterans, the first of its kind in the United States, and soon became a retreat for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. For more on the Soldiers' Home, see Pinsker, Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). [back]