Journalist of Mercy: Walt Whitman Remembered

26 Sep

Journalist of Mercy: Walt Whitman Remembered

Hundreds of letters on behalf of the incapacitated, the suffering, the frightened, the dying soldiers during the U.S. Civil War to their families were written by the loving handwritten pen of one of our eras greatest journalist/poets 

By Nate Thayer

September 26, 2013

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.)”—Walt Whitman, from his poem “The Wound Dresser “, as inscribed in marble at my local underground train station in Dupont Circle, Washington D.C.

I read those words again tonight as they loomed in the cavernous space emerging  above me as I rode the long escalator up from underground,  the large, carved words lingering in the marble and concrete above , words that I have read a hundred times, words which leave a near cathartic, unsettling impression on me, every time.

Tonight, on my walk home I couldn’t stop thinking of the communion of crafted words–disturbing, mundane, heartbreaking, unspeakable– and how true they were for every war and every soldier before and remain for every organized carnage after they were  the reflection of truth for the U.S. Civil War when Whitman wrote them. I thought of the present and how seamlessly true they remain for the wars that seem to have metastasized over the last decade, for all soldiers and civilians, in all countries, on all sides, wars that have uncomfortably etched themselves in the world’s unconscious as routine, acceptable, inevitable, the new cadence of of the collective global failure of diplomacy.

When I came home tonight, I looked into what was behind these words that never fail to move me, deeply.

Walt Whitman was a well-known writer when he arrived in Washington in 1862. His seminal work Leaves of Grass was first published on July 4, 1855, an account of what Whitman called “the divine Average” American. But many American readers were shocked at his raw prose and his open sexualized emotions.

During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a volunteer nurse and visited wounded soldiers daily in Washington, D.C., hospitals, ministering to their needs and recording the experience in newspaper articles, letters, and poems. The poet and journalist considered his years with the wounded soldiers the defining period of his life.

Whitman was gay and elicited scorn from many in Washington official society. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase dismissed the poet’s Leaves as a “very bad book,” and the poet himself as “a decidedly disreputable person.”  The Secretary of Interior and War refused to hire him based on his immoral character. Whitman supported himself copying reports and doing minor clerical chores in the Paymaster’s Office. To supplement this small income, Whitman also wrote free-lance news articles.

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Walt Whitman

At the start of the U.S. civil war, Walt Whitman, an anti-slavery and pro-Union journalist, was angered at the failure of the country’s leaders to resolve the conflict peacefully. He decided to remain in Washington to serve the Union through ministry to its wounded and to chronicle it from the hospital bedside of the war wounded. Armed with pencil and paper, he wrote down the small requests of the soldiers—candy for one, rice pudding for another, writing a letter home, feeding a sweet tooth, passing the time by playing a game of “Twenty Questions.” He transferred patients between beds, pushed wheelchairs,  he talked to them. Hundreds of letters from incapacitated soldiers to their families were written in the handwriting of one of our histories greatest poets . Whitman knew that the greatest need for many was human warmth and caring and he paid attention to each soldier. He talked to them. He held their hands. He left each night making the rounds hugging and kissing the wounded, suffering and dying. The experience provided inspiration for poetry and prose.

On June 3, 1864, Whitman wrote his mother about a gift of ice cream he arranged for the wounded.

Washington | June 3 1864

Dearest mother

Your letter came yesterday — I have not heard the least thing from the 51st since — no doubt they are down there with the Army near Richmond — I have not written to George lately — I think the news from the Army is very good — Mother, you know of course that it is now very near Richmond indeed, from five to ten miles —

Mother, if this campaign was not in progress I should not stop here, as it is now beginning to tell a little upon me, so many bad wounds, many putrified, & all kinds of dreadful ones, I have been rather too much with — but as it is I shall certainly remain here while the thing remains undecided — it is impossible for me to abstain from going to see & minister to certain cases, & that draws me into others, & so on — I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy — he is in a dying condition — there is no hope for him — it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him — he is all wasted away to a skeleton, & looks like some one fifty years old — you remember I told you a year ago, when he was first brought in, I thought him the noblest specimen of a young western man I had seen, a real giant in size, & always with a smile on his face — O what a change, he has long been very irritable, to every one but me, & his frame is all wasted away — the young Massachusetts 1st artillery boy, Cutter, I wrote about is dead — he is the one that was brought in a week ago last Sunday, badly wounded in breast — the deaths in the principal hospital I visit, Armory Square, average one an hour — I saw Capt Baldwin of the 14th this morning, he has lost his left arm — is going home soon—

Mr Kalbfleisch & Anson Herrick, (M C from New York) came in one of the wards where I was sitting writing a letter this morning, in the midst of the wounded — Kalbfleisch was so much affected by the sight that he burst into tears — O I must tell you I gave the boys in Carver hospital a great treat of ice cream a couple of days ago, went round myself through about 15 large wards, (I bought some ten gallons, very nice) — you would have cried & been amused too, many of the men had to be fed, several of them I saw cannot probably live, yet they quite enjoyed it, I gave everybody some — quite a number western country boys had never tasted ice cream before — they relish such things, oranges, lemons, &c — Mother, I feel a little blue this morning, as two young men I knew very well have just died, one died last night, & the other about half an hour before I went to the hospital, I did not anticipate the death of either of them, each was a very, very sad case, so young — well, mother, I see I have written you another gloomy sort of letter — I do not feel as first rate as usual —

—Walt

[Postscript] You don’t know how I want to come home & see you all, you, dear Mother, & Jeff & Mat & all — I believe I am homesick, something new for me — then I have seen all the horrors of soldier’s life & not been kept up by its excitement — it is awful to see so much, & not be able to relieve it —

Whitman worked daily as a nurse for no pay and for no government agency. He had contempt for the United States governmental bodies charged with nursing the soldiers. Whitman’s mission was as eccentric as his poetry. “He was, in the act of nursing the wounded, trying to define and demonstrate a new kind of affection,” wrote one biographer. He said his hospital service “the greatest privilege and satisfaction . . . and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life.”

Whitman found the soldiers desperate for affection. In one letter he wrote: “Abby, you would all smile to see me among them—many of them like children, ceremony is mostly discarded—they suffer & get exhausted & so weary—lots of them have grown to expect as I leave at night that we should kiss each other, sometimes quite a number, I have to go round—poor boys, there is little petting in a soldier’s life in the field, but, Abby, I know what is in their hearts, always waiting, though they may be unconscious of it themselves.” 

On February 26, 1863, he wrote  In the New York Times about wounded Pvt. John Holmes: “I sat down by him without any fuss; talked a little; soon saw that it did him good; led him to talk a little himself; got him somewhat interested; wrote a letter for him to his folks in Massachusetts.” Holmes said he would like some milk and Whitman gave him enough of his own pocket money to do so. Holmes burst into tears, later telling Whitman that he had saved his life.

The Whitman family suffered during that war. Whitman’s brother George was captured by Confederates and another brother, Andrew Jackson, died of tuberculosis. His brother Jesse was committed to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. At the end of the war, Whitman was fired by Secretary of the James Harlan, on moral grounds after Harlan read Leaves of Grass.

The mild and sensitive poet 42 year old Whitman, wrote his friend and biographer John Burroughs, could never have been a soldier. “Could there be anything more shocking and incongruous than Whitman killing people?” Burroughs wrote. “One would as soon expect Jesus Christ to go to war.”

Whitman estimated that he attended to “some 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need”

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“While I was with wounded and sick in thousands of cases from the New England States, and from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and all the Western States, I was with more or less from all the States, North and South, without exception…I was with many rebel officers and men among our wounded, and gave them always what I had, and tried to cheer them the same as any. . . . Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them.”

“What an attachment grows up between us, started from hospital cots, where pale young faces lie & wounded or sick bodies,” he wrote; “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield.” 

D. Willard Bliss, the chief surgeon of Armory Square civil war hospital in Washington said of Whitman “From my personal knowledge of Mr. Whitman’s labors in Armory Square and other hospitals, I am of [the] opinion that no one person who assisted in the hospitals during the war accomplished so much good to the soldier and for the Government as Mr. Whitman.” 

Outside the hospital were piles of amputated limbs. “I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying,” he wrote; “but I cannot leave them.”

Erastus Haskell, a carpenter from Elmira, New York played the fife for the 141st New York Infantry band when he wounded. After Haskell’s death, Whitman fulfilled a promise to write to the soldier’s parents. Whitman relayed Erastus’ love to them, and described their son’s last days: “Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying here—it is as well as it is, perhaps better—for who knows whether he is not better off, that patient & sweet young soul, to go, than we are to stay? So farewell, dear boy—it was my opportunity to be with you in your last rapid days of death—no chance as I have said to do anything particular, for nothing could be done—only you did not lay here & die among strangers without having one at hand who loved you dearly, & to whom you gave your dying kiss”

Recently, on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass, one critic wrote this: “If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse. You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Emerson’s two series of Essays and The Conduct of Life. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of Leaves of Grass.”

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Today, in Washington Whitman’s legacy of mercy lives on through the Whitman-Walker Clinic, A free clinic that has primarily served those suffering from HIV and AIDS, named in honor of the Civil War ministers of mercy: female physician Mary Walker and the gay poet Walt Whitman.

Here is the entire poem:

The Wound Dresser

AN old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge
relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d
myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these
chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally
brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest
remains?

2.

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking
recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and
dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the
rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works-yet lo, like a swift-running river they
fade,
Pass and are gone they fade-I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or
soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well-many the hardships, few the joys, yet I was
content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the
sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up
there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d
again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,

One turns to me his appealing eyes- poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that
would save you.

3.

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage
away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through
examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life
struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and
blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side
falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the
bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so
offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and
pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast
a fire, a burning flame.)

4.

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.)

One Response to “Journalist of Mercy: Walt Whitman Remembered”

  1. JO September 27, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    hmmm..this sounds different from all your other material..and i do have Leaves of Grass sitting right over there

    Like

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