The Military Hospitals in Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the spring of 1864, the poet Walt Whitman wrote a series of letters to his family, including three addressed to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, and one to his brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, known as Jeff within the family. The letters, poignant in their honesty–a trait displayed by Whitman throughout his literary career–bring the reader directly inside the makeshift hospitals set up in Washington, DC, as the poet recounts the scenes of despair among the wounded while championing the fighting spirit of the men who lay before him. The personal nature of these eyewitness accounts of wounded Civil War soldiers provides a unique perspective of the illustrious writer that shows a man wholly disgusted by war and desperate for the alleviation of the soldiers’ suffering.

Summary Overview

In the spring of 1864, the poet Walt Whitman wrote a series of letters to his family, including three addressed to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, and one to his brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, known as Jeff within the family. The letters, poignant in their honesty–a trait displayed by Whitman throughout his literary career–bring the reader directly inside the makeshift hospitals set up in Washington, DC, as the poet recounts the scenes of despair among the wounded while championing the fighting spirit of the men who lay before him. The personal nature of these eyewitness accounts of wounded Civil War soldiers provides a unique perspective of the illustrious writer that shows a man wholly disgusted by war and desperate for the alleviation of the soldiers’ suffering.

Defining Moment

A quote from one of the letters is striking in its frank mention and positive appraisal of African American soldiers: “There were, I should think, five very full regiments of new black troops, under Gen. Ferrero. They looked and marched very well. It looked funny to see the President standing with his hat off to them just the same as the rest as they passed by.” Whitman’s word usage may convey a misunderstanding: he saw the event not as amusing but rather as amazing. It is vital to remember that less than ten years before Whitman witnessed these uniformed men marching past the president of the United States, Dred Scott, a slave from Missouri, had sued for his right to freedom following the death of his owner, and the case had found its way to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the court upheld his slave status; because slaves were not considered citizens according to the law at the time, Scott could not bring legal suit.

Keeping the example of Scott in mind, modern readers can understand the amazement felt by Whitman, and others of his ilk, when seeing President Abraham Lincoln saluting the black regiment as they marched past. The president did not alter his salute from that bestowed on the white troops; all soldiers were treated with equal respect.

Author Biography

As the United States found its footing during the nineteenth century, strengthening its stance during and after the War of 1812, cultural icons so familiar and commonplace today began to find their voices, contributing their skills and art to the identity of the growing nation. Born May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York, Whitman is a primary symbol of American poetry. Evocative, sensual, emotive, and at times controversial, Whitman’s work changed people’s perspectives on poetry.

He began his life in Long Island, the second son of a large family headed by Walter Whitman and Louisa Van Velsor. His family included his five brothers, three of whom were named after prominent Americans–Jesse, Edward, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson–and his two sisters, Mary and Hannah. Both during and after his lifetime, rumors about Whitman’s sexuality abounded; some historians insist he was homosexual, while others maintain otherwise. Like many others of history, this debate continues without any clear evidence pointing toward a resolution.

Whitman’s career, most notable for his poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855), was not solely within the literary realm. He spent a few years teaching in various parts of Long Island, though it was not a position in which he wished to continue; nor did he have any desire to take up his father’s career in agriculture, despite his father’s wishes. Aside from his forays into teaching and journalism, Whitman was a poet, and he shall be most remembered for his stirring work, especially those poems focused on the Civil War, its valiant soldiers, and Lincoln. Whitman died on March 26, 1892, in Camden, New Jersey.

Document Analysis

Whitman’s letters, all penned in the spring of 1864, about a year before the end of the war, present emotions of worry over his family and anxiety and desperation over the depravity of war and. Whitman suggests that he will feel a sense of surprise and self-abasement if his family comes out of the war unscathed while hundreds of thousands of families mourn the loss of sons, husbands, or brothers. Whitman’s words to his mother are fearful and genuine, but he is also at pains to assure her that future letters will have more cheer despite all he sees:

Mother, when I see the common soldiers, what they go through, and how everybody seems to try to pick upon them, and what humbug there is over them every how, even the dying soldier’s money stolen from his body by some scoundrel attendant, or from some sick ones, even from under his head, which is a common thing, and then the agony I see every day, I get almost frightened at the world. Mother, I will try to write more cheerfully next time but I see so much.

In 1864, Whitman was in his forties, yet he was unabashed in sharing his apprehensions with his mother. Beyond these family cares, though, he shares military news and was present to watch a regiment of African Americans march past President Lincoln, who saluted them just as he had the white soldiers. This was enough of a moment for the poet that he had to include it in his letter to his family. Though history has greatly benefited from more formal documents, informal missives such as these letters allow the modern reader a far more personal view of history. Whitman did not spend time at makeshift hospitals writing to his mother in the hopes of posterity, nor did he share these details for the same reasons. This candid view provides a true window to the past.

As historical documents, letters hold a special place. Like diaries, letters are typically, though not always, written without publication in mind; therefore, the writer did not foresee the especial need for applying final polishes to the product. Letters are in essence private communication with the intended recipients, a reaching out in the distance, no matter the reason. When examining history through any document, it is important to consider the following before making conjectures: who wrote it, for whom was it written, and why was it written? In the case of these four letters, the questions are easily answerable. Whitman, while away from the family home in New York, kept in touch with his mother and brother Jeff and kept them informed of exactly what was happening in the nation’s capital during the final years of the war. In writing to his family, there is genuine emotion for how his family fared, including Jeff’s wife, Martha, whom Whitman refers to as Mat. While some documents may require a reading between the lines, Whitman’s letters do not appear to sanction such a reading.

Based on the beginning of the first letter to his mother in March 1864, Whitman feels anxious about his ill sister and wonders if his brother George received his trunks. During the Civil War, postal service could be delayed for any number of reasons, and the shipment of goods to camps and hospitals carried the risk of theft. Luckily for George Whitman, according to a letter catalogued on the Whitman Archive, his trunks did arrive safely; this is mentioned in a letter by George to his mother, dated March 6, 1864, just four days after his brother’s inquiry: “I found my trunk up at Fort Schuyler all right the morning I left home.”

George Washington Whitman, one of Whitman’s illustriously named younger brothers, has been well documented by countless historians as the indirect catalyst for bringing his brother Walt’s attention to the plight of wounded Civil War soldiers. Fourteen years younger than his literary brother, George served in New York’s Fifty-First Regiment. Whitman made great haste to the site of the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought during the second week of December 1862, after reading in a newspaper article that his brother had been seriously injured. As it happened, George only suffered a minor wound, but Whitman stayed with him, living like a soldier; he soon became afflicted by the sight of the wounded soldiers in his brother regiment.

Military Hospitals

During the Civil War, medicine was comparatively primitive; full knowledge of the benefits of sterilization and the use of anesthesia was not yet commonplace, and many times the treatment was worse than the ailment. Some men did benefit from the alleviating effects of chloroform and ether, the former of which had seen a rise in popularity in the previous decade, particularly after its much-publicized use by Queen Victoria during childbirth. The hospitals themselves did not necessitate a specialized building but could be a simple tent set up in a field or a nearby house. Robert Roper, in his article, “Collateral Damage,” states, “These hospitals–hard to distinguish from foul charnel houses, especially early in the war, before a reformist surgeon general began to clean them up–were where the casualties of Antietam and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg ended up, and where thousands died of their wounds or of hospital-borne infections” (77). William Morton has been noted by N. H. Metcalfe, a writer for the Center for the History of Medicine in Birmingham, England, as more than likely the first anesthesiologist of the American military, having used his knowledge on the soldiers at the Battles of Fredericksburg and the Wilderness; coincidentally, George Whitman fought in both of these battles.

Medical treatment on the battlefield was comparable to an assembly line; men were moved from a stretcher to a table for examination and then to a bed. When the men died, their bodies were removed, and the bed was filled again. With sterilization not yet commonplace and cleaning limited–not to mention the questionable availability of materials to do so–each new deposit of a wounded soldier brought with it more germs and cross-contamination. Although he makes no specific mention of these conditions or of painkillers, Whitman, after approximately three years tending to the soldiers, was not reconciled to what he saw:

One poor boy… seemed to be quite young, he was quite small… he groaned some as the stretcher bearers were carrying him along…. They set down the stretcher and examined him, and the poor boy was dead. They took him into the ward, and the doctor came immediately, but it was all of no use. The worst of it is, too, that he is entirely unknown there was nothing on his clothes, or any one with him to identify him, and he is altogether unknown. Mother, it is enough to rack one’s heart such things. Very likely his folks will never know in the world what has become of him. Poor, poor child, for he appeared as though he could be but 18.

For the men and boys tended to affectionately by Whitman, the care they received was in equal measure to the respect felt by Whitman toward them for their sacrifices for their country. Historian Stanley Plumly cites another Whitman quote involving his desire to be of service to the soldiers:”I try to give a word or trifle to everyone without exception… I make regular rounds among them… I give all kinds of sustenance, blackberries, peaches, lemons… shirts & all articles of clothing” (15). Whitman’s role as a Civil War nurse seems to have been the turning point in his poetry, ignited by his emotion.

Walt Whitman and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Historical research, while not glamorous, is not without its moments of intrigue. Questions are important in research because they help historians formulate their arguments and lead to examination of documents. Therefore, it is vital that history is read with at least a small degree of skepticism. One historian may expound on a topic of which their counterparts have made no mention; in these cases, especial attention needs to be given to the sources used. One researcher, David Hsu, has deduced that Whitman possibly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a modern diagnosis most commonly associated with soldiers in combat and individuals who have experienced violent encounters.

Hsu, a medical doctor, focuses on PTSD in his article “Walt Whitman: An American Civil War Nurse Who Witnessed the Advent of Modern American Medicine.” He maintains that Whitman “began to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder… with associated psychosomatic illness. Nightmares, triggers, and hypervigilance are evidenced in his writing” (238). While historians take multiple sources into account during investigations, Hsu’s focus relies on his interpretations of Whitman’s writings and his background in medical knowledge. He continues, “Whitman frequently re-experienced the traumatic event in his mind, as evidenced by his vivid memories, distressing dreams, and seeing of ‘ghosts.’… He avoided thoughts, feelings, activities, and even symbolic representations of his experiences, such as his notebook pages, which would trigger spurts of emotional pain” (238). Although it is possible Whitman did suffer from PTSD, a definitive diagnosis requires the dedication of further research and would certainly create a new direction for the study of Whitman and his poetry.

Essential Themes

The marching of the black regiment past President Lincoln, while Whitman watched from the crowd, was a momentous occasion for Whitman, for the troops, and for the country at large. African Americans had only been in active combat since the year before. The most widely known regiment of black soldiers was the Fifty-Fourth Regiment Massachusetts, headed by Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw; their modern notoriety was enhanced in part by the 1989 film Glory, though this film is mildly inaccurate. It should be noted that there existed “contraband” troops made up of black men before this; however, official organizations of black regiments did not begin until 1863.

Although it is entirely unknown if Whitman came into contact with members of black regiments, historian Jane E. Schultz, researching the challenges women faced as nurses on the front lines, found writings of a nurse who cared for soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth after their regiment was nearly wiped out at Fort Wagner in July 1863. On discovering the theft of items meant for the soldiers, Esther Hill Hawks writes, “The fowl which I had obtained for the sick were all eaten by those in the office. Not one was ever cooked for a patient…. A box of luxuries sent out to the 54th wounded… was disposed of in the same way…. I endeavored with my whole heart, to make this dreary hospital life, as home-like as possible” (qtd. in Schultz 383–84). Whatever her personal feelings may have been toward black soldiers, Hawks demonstrated her desire to give the men of the Fifty-Fourth the best treatment, and she was furious with the open disregard of her superiors. Women like Hawks fought for African Americans as they had, in turn, fought for her; to use Whitman’s phrase, it is “funny” that that which had recently seemed incomprehensible–black men in sanctioned military uniforms–had become integral to the Union war effort.

Bibliography
  • Bradford, Adam. “Recollecting Soldiers: Walt Whitman and the Appreciation of Human Value.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 27.3 (2010): 127–52. Print.
  • Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. “Walt Whitman.” Walt Whitman Archive. Ctr. for Digital Research in the Humanities at the U of Nebraska-Lincoln, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.
  • Hsu, David. “Walt Whitman: An American Civil War Nurse Who Witnessed the Advent of Modern American Medicine.” Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health 65.4 (2010): 238–39. Print.
  • Metcalfe, N. H. “Military Influence upon the Development of Anaesthesia from the American Civil War (1861–1865) to the Outbreak of the First World War.” Anaesthesia 60.12 (2005): 1213–17. Print.
  • Plumly, Stanley. “Whitman’s Compost.” Virginia Quarterly Review 88.2 (2012): 13–16. Print.
  • Price, Angel. “Whitman’s Drum Taps and Washington’s Civil War Hospitals.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.
  • Roper, Robert. “Collateral Damage.” American Scholar 78.1 (2009): 75–82. Print.
  • Schultz, Jane E. “The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine.” Signs 17.2 (1992): 363–92. Print.
  • Whitman, George Washington. Letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. 6 Mar. 1864. Walt Whitman Archive. Ctr. for Digital Research in the Humanities at the U of Nebraska-Lincoln, n.d. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
  • “Wound Dresser.” Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. Lib. of Cong., 16 Aug. 2010. Web. 5 Apr. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Alcott, Louisa May. Civil War Hospital Sketches. Mineola: Dover, 2006. Print.
  • Kurant, Wendy. “‘Strange Fascination’: Walt Whitman, Imperialism, and the South.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 29.2/3 (2012): 81–95. Print.
  • Loving, Jeremy. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. Print.
  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. Print.
  • Roper, Robert. Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. New York: Walker, 2008. Print.
  • Whitman, Walt. Drum Taps. Miami: HardPress, 2010. Print.
  • ---. Leaves of Grass. New York: Simon, 2013. Print.
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