Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition
In August of 1863 Private Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteers died of typhoid fever in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter his parents received a long letter from a stranger. “I was very anxious [Erastus] should be saved,” the stranger wrote,
& so were they all—he was well used by the attendants…. Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside…—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots…& this dear young man close at hand…—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to….
I write you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown young American men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones…. 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 there.
The letter was signed “Walt Whitman,” with a Brooklyn address.
Writing letters of condolence was just one of the duties that Whitman took upon himself as a Soldiers’ Missionary. Doing the rounds of the hospitals in Washington, he brought the soldiers gifts of fresh underwear, fruit, ice cream, tobacco, postage stamps. He also chatted to them, consoled them, kissed and embraced them, and if they had to die tried to ease their dying. “I never before had my feelings so thoroughly and (so far) permanently absorbed, to the very roots, as by these huge swarms of dear, wounded, sick, dying boys,” he wrote. “I have formed attachments in hospital, that I shall keep to my dying day, & they will the same, without doubt.”
Between 1862 and 1865, Whitman by his own count ministered to some one hundred thousand men. Though his interventions were not universally welcomed—“That odious Walt Whitman, [come] to talk evil and unbelief to my boys,” wrote one nurse—he was nowhere denied entry. One might wonder whether in our day a middle-aged man, a reputed pornographer, would be allowed to haunt the wards, drifting from the bedside of one attractive young man to another, or whether he would not soon find himself hustled to the door by a couple of aides.
Whitman kept notes on his Washington experiences, later working these up into newspaper articles and lectures, which in 1876 he published in a limited edition under the title Memoranda During the War. This in turn became part of Specimen…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.