This week I have selected two letters that arrive in succession to the mother of the famous American poet and writer, Walt Whitman. Today, his writing is mostly recognized for its soft and playful language often evoking images of dancing in fields and watching butterflies. What is often overlooked is Whitman’s time spent healing the wounded soldiers as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War.
After reading an obituary listing for a G.W. Whitmore, Walt was worried that his brother might have been killed while fighting for the North. He immediately travelled from New York to Washington where he found his brother, alive and well. Though during his journey, the images of wounded soldiers all around him affected Walt so much that he decided to stay and help as a nurse on the front line. Walt worked for two years before the toll it took on his health impeded his ability to continue.
“Washington, June 14, 1864.Dearest Mother. I am not feeling very well these days—the doctors have told me not to come inside the hospitals for the present. I send there by a friend every day; I send things and aid to some cases I know, and hear from there also, but I do not go myself at present. It is probable that the hospital poison has affected my system, and I find it worse than I calculated. I have spells of faintness and very bad feeling in my head, fullness and pain—and besides sore throat. My boarding place, 502 Pennsylvania av., is a miserable place, very bad air. But I shall feel better soon, I know—the doctors say it will pass over—they have long told me I was going in too strong. Some days I think it has all gone and I feel well again, but in a few hours I have a spell again. Mother, I have not heard anything of the 51st. I sent George’s letter to Han. I have written to George since. I shall write again to him in a day or two. If Mary comes home, tell her I sent her my love. If I don’t feel better before the end of this week or beginning of next, I may come home for a week or[Pg 198] fortnight for a change. The rumor is very strong here that Grant is over the James river on south side—but it is not in the papers. We are having quite cool weather here. Mother, I want to see you and Jeff so much. I have been working a little at copying, but have stopt it lately.
“Washington, June 17, 1864.Dearest Mother. I got your letter this morning. This place and the hospitals seem to have got the better of me. I do not feel so badly this forenoon—but I have bad nights and bad days too. Some of the spells are pretty bad—still I am up some and around every day. The doctors have told me for a fortnight I must leave; that I need an entire change of air, etc.
I think I shall come home for a short time, and pretty soon. (I will try it two or three days yet though, and if I find my illness goes over I will stay here yet awhile. All I think about is to be here if any thing should happen to George).
We don’t hear anything more of the army than you do there in the papers.