Walt Whitman in Washington
Other than Abraham Lincoln, few characters are so associated with Civil War Washington, D.C. as Walt Whitman, the man who would become the poet laureate of the conflict with his 1865 book Drum Taps. A native New Yorker, Whitman found himself in Washington almost by accident after reading his brother’s name in the list of casualties from the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. Whitman rushed to the battlefield to find George Whitman with a small scratch on his face. Seeing how poorly the sick and wounded were treated, the poet spontaneously decided to remain in Washington to help out. He would remain in the nation’s capital for the next decade.
One of the great myths about Walt’s time in Washington was that he served as a nurse, a myth so oft-repeated that it has become fact to most. But no, Walt was never a nurse; rather, he was a hospital volunteer – more like a one-man USO who supported the comfort and morale of the soldiers.
“I am merely a friend visiting the Hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.”
Over the next three years, he estimated that he made more than 600 hospital visits and supported between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers. It was a profound humanitarian gesture, one made possible by friends who sent him funds for his soldiers’ missionary work.
Whitman was in his early forties, but looked much older with his shaggy gray beard. It allowed him to play the part of father or older brother to these soldiers, who were largely teenagers or in their early twenties. Just two months into his hospital volunteering, Walt wrote his brother Jeff about how much the experience had moved him: “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys.”
No building is more associated with Walt’s time in Washington than the old Patent Office building (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery). He made many hospital visits there and even got his first federal job working in the building in January 1865. As it was one of the largest public buildings in the city, it hosted President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball on March 6, 1865. Walt witnessed the ball’s preparations, which he wrote about for The New York Times:
“…what a different scene they presented to my view a while since, filled with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz; but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of old wounds and blood, and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for nurse to do, and much for surgeon.) Think not of such grim things, gloved ladies, as you bow to your partners, and the figures of the dance this night are loudly called, or you may drop on the floor that has known what this one knew, but two short winters since.”
Although Whitman spent most of his time volunteering at hospitals in Washington, he occasionally crossed the Potomac, visiting the Convalescent Camp hospital in Alexandria County (now the Nauck neighborhood in Arlington). He even visited the Mansion House Hospital, the setting for the Mercy Street PBS series.
Walt’s brother George – the same man who was wounded at Fredericksburg – was stationed with his regiment, the 51st New York, in Alexandria at the end of the war. He briefly served as the commander of the Prince Street Military Prison (200 S. Fairfax Street). “I have about 300 Prisoners (mostly thieves, Bounty jumpers and Deserters) to look after,” he explained in a letter. “There is about 20 Rebel Officers here (Paroled Prisoners) but they are used very different from what we were, when we were in Rebeldom.” George wrote from personal experience, having been held as a prisoner of war for five months. Like most survivors of Confederate POW camps, he returned emaciated and sick. Alexandria was a convenient place for the two brothers to reunite, as George wrote: “Walt come over and see us, the stage leaves Willards [Hotel] twice every day, and brings you right to camp, so jump in and come over.” Walt dined with George at least twice in the summer of 1865.
The Civil War may have ended, but the wounded remained in the hospitals for another year. Whitman gradually curtailed his visitations in 1866, even as his own literary life reached a new zenith. The hospitals, once so prominent in Alexandria and DC’s landscape, were closed and largely torn down. But Whitman left his mark on the city in many ways, large and small, and above all touched the lives of thousands of sick and wounded young men.
About the Author
Garrett Peck is the author of Walt Whitman in Washington, D.C.: The Civil War and America’s Great Poet. He is a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and earned his M.A. at the George Washington University. He leads local tours, including the Walt Whitman Tour and Alexandria’s Historic Breweries Tours. www.garrettpeck.comTags: Garrett Peck, Poetry, Real Characters, Real Characters of Civil War Medicine, Real Characters of Mercy Street, Walt Whitman Posted in: People