1. Foley, Sylvia
  2. Sofer, Dalia
  3. Jacobson, Joy


Walt Whitman, Civil War poet-and nurse.


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FIGURES 1-2 In December 1862, seven years after self-publishing the exuberant and controversial Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman rushed from New York to Washington, DC, to the bedside of his brother George, wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. His brother had only a minor jaw injury, but what Whitman saw when he arrived changed him forever. The man who had described himself in an 1860 poem as "fresh, savage ... luxuriant, self-content" was devastated by what he witnessed in the makeshift hospitals-the churches, schools, hotels, jails, stables, and homes turned into chaotic and disease-ridden infirmaries. He spent the remainder of the war caring for its soldiers.

Figure 1 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 1. Walt Whitman, 1862, captured here by Mathew B. Brady. Already a renowned portrait photographer, Brady set out to document the war by organizing a corps of photographers to follow the troops in the field. In 1862, he exhibited photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam, exposing the carnage of the war for the first time. "[Brady has brought] home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of the war," said the
Figure 2 - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure 2. Armory Square Hospital in Washington, DC, where Whitman spent much of his time. Constructed in 1862, the hospital was located on Seventh Street, across from the grounds of the Smithsonian Institute. (Library of Congress)

During the Civil War, Washington hospitals were "places to be feared and despised by any soldier," according to Whitman biographer Roy Morris, Jr. "Medical care in the early 1860s was not much advanced from the Middle Ages.... Typhoid fever, malaria, and diarrhea, the three most prevalent killers of the Civil War, tore through every hospital and camp, spread by infected drinking water, fecally contaminated food, and disease-transmitting mosquitoes." Undaunted, Whitman visited the wounded daily, bringing them fruit, tobacco, candy, jelly, ice cream, pickles, wine, brandy, shirts, and socks-items he could barely afford. He also gave them writing supplies, and when a soldier was unable to write a letter, Whitman wrote it for him. Boston novelist John Townsend Trowbridge, who had befriended Whitman shortly before the war, wrote in 1902 in the Atlantic Monthly: "He was then engaged in his missionary work in the hospitals; talking to the sick and wounded soldiers ... cheering and comforting them sometimes by merely sitting silent beside their cots, and perhaps soothing a pallid brow with his sympathetic hand."


Yet the poet who cared for countless young soldiers at the brink of death believed that he was the one being saved by them. "These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men," Whitman wrote in a letter, "... open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity." The soldiers restored Whitman's optimism; indeed, the hospitals opened new ground for his writings, propelling him our of a long depression. In 1865, he published Drum Taps, poems chronicling the savagery of war as seen in the hospitals and paying homage to the soldiers, not as faceless boys with muskets but as people with names, pasts, and often, futures lost.


But freethinkers don't appeal to everyone. Harriet Hawley, member of the United States Sanitary Commission, an aid organization whose philosophy was for hospital nurses to "put away all feelings" and to "act like machines," wrote in a letter to her husband, a colonel in the Union army: "There comes that odious Walt Whitman to talk evil and unbelief to my boys.... I shall get him out as soon as possible." But luckily for the soldiers, Hawley's plans failed. Except for a period of six months when he was ill, Whitman arrived at the hospitals every day, firm and cheery.


It's hard to imagine this legendary bohemian, "so large and well-indeed like a great wild buffalo," as he described himself, gently stroking the forehead of a dying soldier. Yet the poems bring his largesse to life, immortalizing what innumerable nurses have thought and felt since Whitman's time: "poor boy! I never knew you / Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you if that would save you."-Sylvia Foley, senior editor, Dalia Sofer, senior editor, and Joy Jacobson, managing editor


from The Dresser (Drum Taps, 1865)


Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,


Straight and swift to the wounded I go,


Where they lie on the ground, after the battle brought in;


Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground;


Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital;


To the long rows of cots, up and down, each side, I return;


To each and all, one after another, I draw near-not one do I miss;


An attendant follows, holding a tray-he carries a refuse pail,


Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.



I onward go, I stop,


With hinged knees and steady hand, to dress wounds;


I am firm with each-the pangs are sharp, yet unavoidable;


One turns to me with his appealing eyes-(poor boy! I never knew you,


Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you if that would save you).



On, on I go (open, doors of time! Open, hospital doors!)-


The crush'd head I dress (poor crazed hand, tear not the bandage away);


The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine;


Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard.


(Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death!


In mercy come quickly.)



From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,


I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood;


Back on his pillow the soldier bends, with curv'd neck, and side-falling head;


His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,


And has not yet looked on it.



I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep;


But a day or two more-for see, the frame all wasted and sinking,


And the yellow-blue countenance see.



I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet wound,


Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,


While the attendant stands behind aside me, holding the tray and pail.



I am faithful, I do not give out;


The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,


These and more I dress with impassive hand (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).



Thus in silence, in dream's projections,


Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;


The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand,


I sit by the restless all the dark night-some are so young;


Some suffer so much-I recall the experience sweet and sad.


(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,


Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)




Morris R, Jr. The better angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2000.


Price A. Whitman's Drum Taps and Washington's civil war hospitals [online].


Trowbridge JT. Reminiscences of Walt Whitman. Atlantic Monthly 1902 Feb;89(2):163-75.


Whitman W. Selected poems, 1855-1892: a new edition. Schmidgall G, editor. New York: St. Martin's Press; 1999.