Sunday, September 15, 2013

September 15, 1863: Walt Whitman to his mother


On this day 150 years ago, poet Walt Whitman wrote a long letter to his mother. Whitman continued to nurse and care for sick and wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. and he wrote of the young men who passed through the hospital where he worked.
Washington, Sept. 15, 1863.

Dear Mother—

Your letters were very acceptable—one came just as I was putting my last in the post office—I guess they all come right. I have written to Han and George and sent George papers. Mother, have you heard anything whether the 51st went on with Burnside, or did they remain as a reserve in Kentucky? Burnside has managed splendidly so far, his taking Knoxville and all together—it is a first-class success. I have known Tennessee Union men here in hospital, and I understand it, therefore—the region where Knoxville is is mainly Union, but the Southerners could not exist without it, as it is in their midst, so they determined to pound and kill and crush out the Unionists—all the savage and monstrous things printed in the papers about their treatment are true, at least that kind of thing is, as bad as the Irish in the mob treated the poor niggers in New York. We North don’t understand some things about Southerners; it is very strange, the contrast—if I should pick out the most genuine Union men and real patriots I have ever met in all my experience, I should pick out two or three Tennessee and Virginia Unionists I have met in the hospitals, wounded or sick. One young man I guess I have mentioned to you in my letters, John Barker, 2nd Tennessee Vol. (Union), was a long while a prisoner in Secesh prisons in Georgia, and in Richmond—three times the devils hung him up by the heels to make him promise to give up his Unionism; once he was cut down for dead. He is a young married man with one child. His little property destroyed, his wife and child turned out—he hunted and tormented—and any moment he could have had anything if he would join the Confederacy—but he was firm as a rock; he would not even take an oath to not fight for either side. They held him about eight months—then he was very sick, scurvy, and they exchanged him and he came up from Richmond here to hospital; here I got acquainted with him. He is a large, slow, good-natured man, somehow made me often think of father; shrewd, very little to say—wouldn’t talk to anybody but me. His whole thought was to get back and fight; he was not fit to go, but he has gone back to Tennessee. He spent two days with his wife and young one there, and then to his regiment—he writes to me frequently and I to him; he is not fit to soldier, for the Rebels have destroyed his health and strength (though he is only 23 or 4), but nothing will keep him from his regiment, and fighting—he is uneducated, but as sensible a young man as I ever met, and understands the whole question. Well, mother, Jack Barker is the most genuine Union man I have ever yet met. I asked him once very gravely why he didn’t take the Southern oath and get his liberty—if he didn’t think he was foolish to be so stiff, etc. I never saw such a look as he gave me, he thought I was in earnest—the old devil himself couldn’t have had put a worse look in his eyes. Mother, I have no doubt there are quite a good many just such men. He is down there with his regiment (one of his brothers was killed)—when he fails in strength he gets the colonel to detach him to do teamster’s duty for a few days, on a march till he recruits his strength—but he always carries his gun with him—in a battle he is always in the ranks—then he is so sensible, such decent manly ways, nothing shallow or mean (he must have been a giant in health, but now he is weaker, has a cough too). Mother, can you wonder at my getting so attached to such men, with such love, especially when they show it to me—some of them on their dying beds, and in the very hour of death, or just the same when they recover, or partially recover? I never knew what American young men were till I have been in the hospitals. Well, mother, I have got writing on—there is nothing new with me, just the same old thing, as I suppose it is with you there. Mother, how is Andrew? I wish to hear all about him—I do hope he is better, and that it will not prove anything so bad. I will write to him soon myself, but in the meantime you must tell him to not put so much faith in medicine—drugs, I mean—as in the true curative things; namely, diet and careful habits, breathing good air, etc. You know I wrote in a former letter what is the cause and foundation of the diseases of the throat and what must be the remedy that goes to the bottom of the thing—sudden attacks are to be treated with applications and medicines, but diseases of a seated character are not to be cured by them, only perhaps a little relieved (and often aggravated, made firmer).

Dearest mother, I hope you yourself are well, and getting along good. About the letter in the Times, I see ever since I sent they have been very crowded with news that must be printed—I think they will give it yet. I hear there is a new paper in Brooklyn, or to be one—I wish Jeff would send me some of the first numbers without fail, and a stray Eagle in same parcel to make up the 4 ounces. I am glad to hear Mat was going to write me a good long letter—every letter from home is so good, when one is away (I often see the men crying in the hospital when they get a letter). Jeff too, I want him to write whenever he can, and not forget the new paper. We are having pleasant weather here; it is such a relief from that awful heat (I can’t think of another such siege without feeling sick at the thought).

Mother, I believe I told you I had written to Mrs. Price—do you see Emma? Are the soldiers still on Fort Greene? Well, mother, I have writ quite a letter—it is between 2 and 3 o’clock—I am in Major Hapgood’s all alone—from my window I see all the Potomac, and all around Washington—Major and all gone down to the army to pay troops, and I keep house. I am invited to dinner to-day at 4 o’clock at a Mr. Boyle’s—I am going (hope we shall have something good). Dear mother, I send you my love, and some to Jeff and Mat and all, not forgetting Mannahatta (who I hope is a help and comfort to her grandmother). Well, I must scratch off in a hurry, for it is nearly an hour [later] than I thought. Good-bye for the present, dear mother.

Walt.

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