Sunday, January 10, 2016

Whitman in Washington

By Jamie Stiehm, 12-28-12

Among the countless Northerners shocked by the Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862 was the Brooklyn poet and journalist Walt Whitman. In Whitman’s case the shock was personal: his brother George was among the wounded. He quickly packed his bags and rushed south to the Union position. When Whitman arrived at the field hospital set up in a mansion, he found a scene from hell, watched over by an imposing angel: Clara Barton moved amid screams of surgery, ministering to youths, bandaging the bleeding and soothing the dying with low-spoken words and water.

Whitman never wrote a poem about her, but Barton’s caring solace to the wounded made a clear first impression on him. Rather than returning to New York after finding his brother, the poet felt compelled to move to Washington and serve as a hospital volunteer. There he could aid the wounded and observe the war firsthand.

Moving quickly, Whitman set up a new life in the federal city, finding work as a government copyist. But he also worked as an unpaid hospital visitor to a sea of soldiers, coming late in the day and sometimes staying all night. He himself called it “peculiar.” Later, he said his Civil War experience bearing witness — he came from a Quaker family — “saved” him. He found meaning in befriending the weak and wounded, bearing small gifts, playing games and writing letters home to their families, often farewells. He seemed to believe that tangible things like a pipe, a romance book, a comb, fruit, stamps, wine, socks and underwear, along with his jovial presence, might help heal the “dismembered” Union, represented by the patients he saw.

But it was not only that. Whitman passionately loved men (more openly than any other 19th-century American artist) and a spring of affection poured forth as he made rounds to bring a bit of cheer to countless young men, their health and limbs held hostage to a Hobbesian state of medical knowledge. Though Whitman was not a nurse, some of his poetry, notably “The Wound Dresser,” indicates he may have assisted in the messy business of operations and tried to mitigate the pain afterward:

I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad

Today those words are etched on the gray marble of Washington’s Dupont Circle Metro station.

In view of the half-finished Capitol dome, Whitman stayed squarely in the nexus of the volcanic struggle to save or split the Union. His “ministrations” included consoling embraces. He felt the wrong of dying young men in a strange dusty city, unknown among strangers. Continuing the passage above, the poet reveals more of his part in the Army hospital scenes:

(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

Above all, Whitman studied the stars and waves of Lincoln’s mercurial character the way a great sculptor might gaze at his craggy countenance or larger-than-life hands. The poet came to know the routes of the president’s carriage. When he saw it passing by, he stood with hat in hand. He kept a lookout in the summer months, when Lincoln rode daily along Seventh Street out to a peaceful family retreat at the Soldiers Home, three miles away from crush of his callers. Whitman was once inside the executive mansion to see John Hay, the president’s secretary. He was standing close to Lincoln, who was animatedly engaged in another conversation, but went on his way, loath to interrupt him.

As Whitman later recounted, he exchanged nods, bows and waves with Lincoln several times over a few years and saw the president shake hundreds, if not thousands, of hands at a party. But not Whitman’s. In one of American history’s closest calls, the two never spoke a word to each other. (Though it is believed that Lincoln, 10 years older, read some of the poet’s work aloud back in Springfield, Ill.)

Whitman nevertheless felt he got a good fix on Lincoln. “I love the president personally,” he declared. Well he might, because years earlier he had imagined a bearded president from the prairie, the West who was “heroic, shrewd, fully informed.” Lincoln was nothing if not a shrewd, strong outsider, which helped make him the one man alive capable of settling the old sectional divide sundering the nation.

Except that one cruel April day Lincoln was no longer alive. The commander in chief was the final, most bitterly mourned casualty of the Civil War. He died the ultimate good death, laying down his life to become martyr and legend all at once the moment the giant stopped breathing on April 15, 1865, seven hours after a single shot was fired in the back of his head. The war was won days earlier, but the Northern part of the nation was heartbroken on every funeral train stop back to Springfield. It was as if all the sorrow and weeping of the war was now met in this one man.

Whitman, too, was moved to speak, to sing on the page as he never had before. He wrote “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day,” a paean for the soldiers he came to cherish. He wrote “O Captain! My Captain,” as if he knew that later schoolchildren and families would memorize it together. But the greatest poem he wrote for Lincoln’s death is the unforgettable masterpiece, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman writes in his familiar individual voice:

Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

But he breaks from the first person and broadens the long poem to give it an extraordinary inclusiveness, making the consciousness a collective, grieving nation. Lilacs, luscious spring flowers, become an inescapable reminder of loss. The poem is almost like a wailing wall for a republic that had never seen such suffering before.

Whitman’s journey south turned out to take years, not days.

Sources: David S. Reynolds, “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography”; Daniel Mark Epstein, “Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington”; Roy Morris Jr., “The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War”; Philip Callow, “From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman”; Drew Gilpin Faust, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”

Jamie Stiehm
Jamie Stiehm is a columnist for Creators Syndicate, covering history, politics and culture. She lives in Washington.

Image: Walt Whitman and his friend Peter Doyle, taken while the two were in Washington. Credit Library of Congress



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