WALT WHITMAN, SOLDIERS’ MISSIONARY
WASHINGTON DC — With the Civil War raging, death haunted the nation’s capital. Long rows of cots stretched through makeshift hospitals, filling churches, taverns, and schools. By the end of 1862, some 13,000 men lay shattered, sick, clinging to life. Then early in January, a gray-bearded man with gentle eyes and a flower in his lapel began roaming these scenes of suffering. He was neither doctor nor nurse. He was a poet.
Walt Whitman had never dressed a wound, never heard a shot fired in anger. His brother had enlisted but Whitman, though still trim and energetic, refused. “Could there be anything more shocking and incongruous than Whitman killing people?” a friend noted. “One would as soon expect Jesus Christ to go to war.” But if he could not fight, he could share himself, his empathy, his hope. He might not save a single life, but Walt Whitman would humanize the inhuman slaughter of war.
Whitman had left his “New York stagnation” to search for his brother, George, wounded at Fredericksburg. Roaming DC hospitals, he saw “the greatest suffering I ever experienced in my life.” After finding George in Virginia, Whitman knew he could not turn away from the ongoing human catastrophe. Returning to Washington, he got a room, a part-time job, and permission from one of many relief associations. Then, signing his notebook “Walt Whitman — Soldiers’ Missionary,” he descended into living hell.
Doctors warned him. Visiting hospitals fouled by typhoid, malaria, and other diseases, he might succumb to “hospital fever.” But “America,” Whitman wrote, had been “brought to hospital in her fair youth,” and he felt drawn to the nation’s sorrow.
Approaching soldiers’ lying in lonely despair, he shook hands, sat, began talking. He sometimes read his poems, but mostly he listened. And asked questions. And made each member of this “great army of the sick” know that someone cared.
In the New York Times, Whitman wrote: “Reader, how can I describe to you the mute and appealing look that rolls and moves from many a manly eye, from many a sick cot following you as you walk slowly down one of these wards? To see these, and to be incapable of responding to them except in a few cases is enough to make one’s heart crack.”
Dressed in a dark suit and felt hat, he visited day and night, tending to some 80,000 men. Calling them “my own children or younger brothers,” he watched hundreds die, held their hands, closed their eyes. Evenings he walked the streets, sometimes spotting President Lincoln. He soon came to love this “hoosier Michelangelo.” “Who can see that man without losing all wish to be sharp upon him personally? Who can say he has not a good soul?”
Lincoln and Whitman never met, but Whitman befriended many doctors and nurses. Some resented his bond with the wounded and suspected his motives. “There comes that odious Walt Whitman to talk evil and unbelief to my boys,” one nurse wrote. But though Leaves of Grass shocked readers with its gay sensuality, Whitman’s love of the fallen was not sexual. He had compassion for all, marveling at how nurses and doctors toiled, “everything bent to save a life from the very grip of the destroyer.”
And the wounded welcomed Whitman, dictating letters home, telling of their lives back in Ohio, Michigan, Vermont. He handed out fruit, pickles, candy, wine, tobacco. . . One hot day, Whitman brought ice cream, enough for the entire hospital.
“I never shall forget what pains you took to help pass away our weary hours,” one soldier wrote Whitman after the war. Another added, “There is many a soldier now that never thinks of you but with emotions of the greatest gratitude. . . I never think of you but it makes my heart glad to think I have been permitted to know one so good.”
Yet as the war dragged on, hospitals became death camps. Whitman witnessed amputations with rusty saws, soldiers dying of sepsis or gangrene, limbs shattered, lives spent. By the spring of 1864, he wearied of “just the same old story, poor suffering young men, great swarms of them come up here now, every day, all battered & bloody.” Whitman suffered insomnia, night sweats, dizziness, headaches. . . Finally that June, unable to bear it any longer, he went home to Brooklyn.
Having seen the terrible toll, he wrote, “the real war will never get in the books.” But he had done what he could to counter its cost. And in the end, among the countless spirits he had revived was his own.
“Before I went down to the field and among the hospitals, I had my hours of doubt about These States; but not since. And curious as it may seem, the War, to me, proved Humanity, and proved America and the Modern.”