By Karen, 2-17-14
Walt Whitman was 43 and already a well-known poet in 1862 when word reached his family that his brother George, who’d enlisted in the Union army, had been wounded in a battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Whitman immediately left to find George, anxious to see him and discover the extent of his injuries. George, as it turned out, had only received a cheek wound, but Whitman’s experience searching for his brother among the military hospitals had left an impression on him. For the next three years—the remainder of the war and then some—Whitman, who moved to Washington DC for this purpose, visited wounded and sick soldiers almost daily in the capital’s many military hospitals.
While some people today refer to Whitman as a nurse during this time, he wasn’t anything so official. While he did help change bandages and definitely observed many bloody surgeries, his role was more that of a really dedicated and concerned frequent visitor. Funded by his part-time job at the army paymaster’s office and by generous Northern philanthropists, Whitman brought with him on his visits countless little gifts for the soldiers. He brought treats like apples, oranges, figs, crackers, fruit-flavored syrups, and ice cream, and when a soldier requested a specific food—from rice pudding to pickles—Whitman did his best to obtain it for him. Whitman also brought reading materials for the men: magazines, newspapers, and almanacs for individuals, and books to pass around the ward. He also provided the wounded with stamped envelopes and paper to write letters to their loved ones, and when they were too ill or illiterate to write themselves, he wrote the letters for them. In addition to these items, Whitman also passed out small sums of money to the soldiers, since many came to the hospital with no money in their pockets, and Whitman discovered that giving them even small amounts helped raise their spirits. At the end of the war, he estimated he had passed on thousands of dollars of philanthropists’ money to hospitalized soldiers.
But beyond these simple gifts, Whitman felt the best way he could help the wounded was with his cheerful presence. Disregarding whether the man was from North or South, Whitman went around the wards talking to the men and learning not only how they’d been injured but about their families and lives before the war as well. And when the men were too hurt to hold a conversation, Whitman would sit by their bedside and give them comfort in silence. He remarked, “I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying; but I cannot leave them. Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively, and I do what I can for him; at any rate, stop with him and sit near him for hours, if he wishes it.” Whitman’s hospital visits lasted anywhere from a couple hours to all day or all night, if a dying soldier needed him that long. By his own estimation, Whitman “made over six hundred visits or tours, and went, as I estimate, counting all, among from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand of the wounded and sick.”
Whitman’s mission of mercy inevitably affected his writing. He wrote many poems about his own and others’ wartime experiences in a collection called Drum-Taps. Those poems captured the quiet, stalwart bravery of common soldiers and the close camaraderie they shared. He would also later compile his hastily jotted down notes and observations from his visits into a book called Specimen Days, which provides keen insight into life in Civil War hospitals and in wartime Washington DC.