The following guest post is by Barbara Bair, historian in the Library’s Manuscript Division. This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the life and work of Walt Whitman. The Library of Congress will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth with events and exhibits in May and June (to be announced).
During his time as a resident of the nation’s capital from the middle of the Civil War to spring of 1873, poet and journalist Walt Whitman filed stories with New York newspapers to raise awareness of the needs of wounded soldiers. He made a sparse income as a Federal government office worker. He weathered censorship over sexualized content in Leaves of Grass and participated in a remaking of his public reputation orchestrated by close allies and friends. During the war years, he volunteered with intense compassion to help meet the emotional needs of stricken soldiers in the wards of the city’s makeshift military hospitals. After the war was over, he famously memorialized much of what he had witnessed, through both poetry and prose.
Whitman arrived in Washington in late December 1862 a vigorous man. He had worked in his family business as a carpenter and contractor in New York, as well as in teaching, printing, journalism, freelance writing, and newspaper publishing. His fresh, new, and exuberant poetry in Leaves of Grass had been heralded before the war by Transcendentalists and embraced by radicals and reformers. He was a stalwart friend to working men. He exulted in physicality and sexuality, honored spirituality and mysticism, loved Nature, and celebrated the miraculous physiology of male and female bodies.
When Whitman volunteered in military hospitals in his first years in Washington, he became acquainted with many Civil War soldiers from different states of the nation. They were farm boys and tradesmen and clerks. He corresponded with many of them, or with their families, and they people his writings.
As a walker and passenger on the streetcars of the city, Whitman frequented Washington’s neighborhoods, rooming houses, theaters, and saloons. He spent Sundays grazing a friend’s cow on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, its partly-finished dome looming overhead. He visited Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court in session, and saw other leaders in positions of power. While clerking in the U.S. Army Paymaster’s office, and during visits to outlying Army camps, he witnessed the war as it was enacted by ordinary participants. These included his brother, George Whitman, who served throughout the war as a Union volunteer from New York.
Ever the journalist and eye-witness, Whitman jotted notes on hospitalized soldiers’ conditions. He recorded descriptions of the blood-soaked hay in a barn used for triage on the battlefield at Antietam. He listed the oranges, candies, and notepaper he carried to bedridden men. He wrote a letter home to his mother, Louisa, describing the pile of amputated limbs he saw outside the emergency military hospital at the Lacy mansion at Falmouth, Virginia. He wrote of his mission to stay and succor, and bear witness to the impact of the war from the perspective of fighting and emotionally and physically hampered men.
Many of the hospitalized were young and away from home for the first time. They were sons, brothers, and lovers. Most came from working-class families not unlike Whitman’s own. In his poetry and prose accounts of the wards, he focused on the virtue he found among ordinary soldiers, the deep-felt camaraderie among those on the field, and the stoicism of families who went about their lives far away, waiting for news of loved ones who were called into duty. Whitman regarded their human and spiritual worth with the utmost respect. “Every now and then in Hospital or Camp, there are beings I meet—specimens of unworldliness . . . and heroism–perhaps some unconscious Indianian, or from Ohio or Tennessee–on whose birth the calmness of heaven seems to have descended” he wrote in Memoranda during the War (published in 1876, based on his notebooks written while in Washington). “The power of a strange, spiritual sweetness, fibre and inward health . . . I have met them . . . in the Army, in Camp, and in the great Hospitals.”
In his most well-known poem about the Washington hospitals, “The Wound Dresser” (originally published just as “The Dresser” in 1865), Whitman paid tribute to the hospital wound-dresser, a solitary hero whom bestowed empathy, as well as bandages, upon patients who were often in gruesome or fatal condition in the wards. The poem pays tribute as well to Whitman’s own returning visits to the hospitals, and his many bedside vigils spent beside patients hovering between life and death. It speaks as well to the wounded condition of the nation itself, struggling in the throes of war.
The fourth and final section of the poem is memorialized today in the upper wall of the Dupont Circle Metro Station in Washington. That poetic memorial connects the vigils of the battlefield and Civil War hospital to later vigils spent with victims of AIDS.
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and 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.).
By the time Whitman departed Washington in the spring of 1873, he was partially crippled and prematurely old. He was disabled from a series of strokes and illnesses that affected his well-being for the rest of his life. Despite the personal costs, he produced from his time in Washington a key body of literary work that captured core truths and tragedies of the nation’s war experience. He also cast a keen eye on the “democratic vistas” of the re-united states, as the still-divided post-war country struggled to engage in an expanded post-war democracy in political, commercial, and aesthetic ways.
Such a touching story about a complicated, creative, passionate and many-leaved man. Few people of that day or this could have been so loving and so steadfast in caring for the wounded and suffering. It’s perhaps just as well PTSD wasn’t known or ? invented in Whitman’s time. People like him (including many women who tended to the wounded and dying) just got on with the job and absorbed the consequences of witnessing and caring for suffering.