Kim Roberts on WALT WHITMAN
(May 31, 1819 - March 26, 1892)


Why don't we associate Walt Whitman with Washington? New York and New Jersey claim him with museums, art centers, bridges, and poetry prizes in his name. There's even a Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. But he barely registers in the nation's capital, so it's easy to forget that DC was Whitman's home by choice for ten years, a time Whitman himself considered the most significant period of his life.

In December 1863, Walt Whitman read an account in the New York Tribune of the 51st New York Regiment's casualties at Fredericksburg. Whitman's younger brother George's name was listed in the newspaper, but there were no details of the nature or severity of his injuries.

Whitman immediately took the train south. He was robbed in Philadelphia and arrived in Washington penniless, hungry, and confused. He was lucky to run into two friends from Boston who loaned him money--Charles Eldridge and William Douglas O'Connor. After wandering around hospitals for two days seeking news of George and fruitlessly seeking an audience with Moses Fowler Odell, his Congressional representative from New York, Whitman decided to hitch a ride to the front lines in Virginia on a military transport. He found George, who had indeed been wounded in battle but not badly. (George wrote, "We have had another battle and I have come out safe and sound, although I had the side of my jaw slightly scraped with a peice [sic] of shell which burst at my feet.") Whitman shared George's tent on the front line for nine days, helping the medics and making himself as useful as possible. On December 28 he returned to the capital--and proceeded to stay on in Washington for a decade.

He found that there was a true need for his services in Washington. His voluntary work as a nurse and his close association with sick and dying soldiers gave him a deeper connection to life and a fuller understanding of human nature. He was a natural nurse, loving and selfless. As he wrote in his journal, he had "an instinct & faculty" for easing the suffering of these young wounded men.

His initial plan, to stay in DC for a week or two, would have allowed him time to visit all the Brooklyn soldiers from his brother's regiment who were now in Washington hospitals. But those soldiers introduced him to others, and Whitman could not nurse one man and refuse care to another.

Whitman wrote a letter to friends in New York, saying: "These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity...For here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain, man, our American man--how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations. It is immense, the best thing of all, nourishes me of all men."

Two months after arriving, he wrote in a letter to his brother Jeff about why he stayed on in this city: "I cannot give up my hospitals yet. 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--I get very much attached to some of them, and many of them have come to depend on seeing me, and having me sit by them a few minutes, as if for their lives."

Whitman visited all the hospitals in Washington at one time or another. There were approximately 40 in all (in a city whose pre-war medical facilities had numbered only two). The place where he spent the most time by far was the Armory Square Hospital, the closest hospital to the 6th Street Wharves, the river landing where the wounded were first unloaded from the battlefields to the south. Whitman wrote to his mother, "I devote myself much to Armory Square Hospital because it contains by far the worst cases, the most repulsive wounds, has the most suffering & most need of consolation." By June of 1863, he reported that "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."

Whitman also often went to the makeshift hospital in the Patent Office, now the National Portrait Museum, where patients were lying between glass display cases. This same space where men experienced "the suffering and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees--occasionally, from some, a groan...could not be repress'd" was later the scene of Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Ball in 1865. Whitman wrote: "I have been up to look at the dance and supper-rooms, and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they represented to my view since, fill'd 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; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood." Whitman's later office at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he worked as a clerk, was also in the basement of that same building.

A friend reported in an article in the New York Herald: "I saw him, time and again, in the Washington hospitals, or wending his way there with basket or haversack on his arm, and the strength of beneficence suffusing his face. His devotion surpassed the devotion of woman...From cot to cot [soldiers] called him, often in tremulous tones or in whispers. They embraced him; they touched his hand; they gazed at him. To one he gave a few words of cheer; for another he wrote a letter home; to others he gave an orange, a few comfits, a cigar, a pipe and tobacco, a sheet of paper or a postage stamp...As he took his way toward the door, you could hear the voices of many a stricken hero calling, 'Walt, Walt, Walt! Come again! Come again!'"

Make no mistake: the work was extremely depressing and conditions were horrible. Roy Morris, Jr., in his book The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War, writes: "...'noxious effluvia'--bad smells--were still believed to be the chief cause of the rampant infections that raced unchecked through the hospital wards and carried off postoperative patients by the thousands...Medical care in the early 1860s was not much advanced from the Middle Ages...Typhoid fever, malaria, and diarrhea, the three most prevalent and deadly killers of the Civil War, tore through every hospital and camp, spread by infected drinking water, fecally contaminated food, and disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Meanwhile, attending physicians ascribed the ills to 'mephitic effluvia,' 'crowd poisoning,' 'sewer emanations,' 'depressing mental agencies,' 'lack of nerve force,' 'exhalations,' 'night air,' 'sleeping in damp blankets,' 'choleric temperament,' 'decay of wood,' 'odor of horse manure,' 'effluvia of putrefying corpses,' and 'poisonous fungi in the atmosphere'..."

Whitman changed dressings, bathed patients, administered medications, emptied bedpans, and sometimes even held soldiers during amputations and other surgeries.

It was not all hardship and hospitals, however. It was also here that Whitman met the man who was the greatest love of his life, sometime in the winter of 1865, near the end of the war. Peter Doyle was an Irish immigrant and a former Confederate soldier, about half Whitman's age. They met one night on the Washington and Georgetown horsecar, where Doyle was working as a fare collector. Years later, Doyle recalled, "We felt [drawn] to each other at once. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once--I put my hand on his knee--we understood... from that time on we were the biggest sort of friends..."

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle in 1865 (Library of Congress)

Doyle remembered all the times he met Whitman at the end of his work day: "In the afternoon I would go up to the Treasury building and wait for him to get through if he was busy, then we'd stroll out together, often without any plan, going where we happened to get...We took great walks together--off towards or to Alexandria, often. We went plodding along the road, Walt always whistling or singing. We would talk of ordinary matters. He would recite poetry, especially Shakespeare--he would hum airs or shout in the woods. He was always active, happy, cheerful, good-natured...We would tackle the farmers who came into town, buy a water-melon, sit down on the cellar door of Bacon's grocery, Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue, halve it and eat it. People would go by and laugh. Walt would only smile and say, 'They can have the laugh--we have the melon.'"

Whitman had mixed opinions about his adopted city. The unpaved, muddy streets, the stench of the swamps, the insects, the whole chaos of the place, were in sharp contrast to the white marble government buildings. In 1863 he wrote: "A spell of good weather. I wander about a good deal, sometimes at night under the moon. To-night took a long look at the President's house. The white portico--the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow--the walls also--the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble, and making peculiar faint languishing shades, not shadows...the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon..."

Whitman famously loved Lincoln. He wrote: "I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion...I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums."

He conceded, "Washington is a pleasant place in some respects--it has the finest trees, and plenty of them everywhere, in the streets and grounds. The Capitol grounds, though small, have the finest cultivated trees I ever see--there is a great variety, and not one but is in perfect condition--After I finish this letter I am going out there for an hour's recreation--The great sights of Washington are the public buildings, the wide streets, the public grounds, the trees, the Smithsonian Institute & grounds--I go to the latter occasionally--the institute is an old fogy concern, but the grounds are fine."

He also visited Congress, and watched debates from the visitors' gallery. He considered the beauty of the capital paradoxical, and wrote of the contrast: "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 not knowing itself, as it 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."

The Capitol's dome was still unfinished when he arrived, although the building was in use. He visited often, taking a reporter's interest in the proceedings of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court. He wrote, "I never saw anything more beautiful than the scene around Washington...the great white Capitol, with its huge paper tiara looking dome lifts itself calmly on Capitol hill with windows gilded."

Once while he was visiting the Hall of Representatives, a thunderstorm hit suddenly. "It beat like a deluge on the heavy glass roof of the hall, and the wind literally howl'd and roar'd. For a moment, (and no wonder,) the nervous and sleeping Representatives were thrown into a confusion...some started for the doors, some look'd up with blanch'd cheeks and lips to the roof, and the little pages began to cry; it was a scene...But the House went ahead with its business, then, I think, as calmly and with as much deliberation as at any time in its career."

Whitman suffered his own physical decline during his Washington years. Increasingly tired and full of aches, he sought advice from a doctor at Armory Square Hospital, who recommended that he give up nursing. (We now know he had tuberculosis and lung abscesses--including a large one that was eroding his fifth rib on his right side.) He did go to Brooklyn for six convalescent months, but he returned to DC to renew his commitment to his dear soldiers. ("It is impossible for me to abstain from going to see and minister to certain cases, and that draws me into others, and so on.") He often stayed up overnight to attend dying men he had forged emotional links to, and his symptoms immediately returned.

During his time in Washington (from the age of 44 to 54), Whitman wrote Drum-Taps (published in 1865), Democratic Vistas (1871), Passage to India (1871), and prepared two new editions of Leaves of Grass (1867 and 1871). He wrote drafts of material that would eventually become the basis for his books Memoranda During the War (1875), and Specimen Days and Collect (1882). It was an extremely prolific period that resulted in almost one hundred new poems and a prodigious number of journalistic essays.

Long after the end of Civil War--indeed for the rest of his life--Whitman continued to write and publish poetry and prose on the war's impact on American identity. Whitman even claimed that Leaves of Grass could not have been written without his wartime experiences (despite the fact that three earlier editions had been published prior to his moving to Washington). For him, the Civil War and how the nation reacted to it were more revealing, and more ennobling, than any other time. Of the years he spent in DC, Whitman concluded that "...I consider [them] the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life."


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