Walt Whitman, known mostly from his poetry, made regular visits to the sick and wounded in hospitals throughout the Civil War.
His journey started when he travelled to Fredericksburg, Virginia in December 1862 when his brother, George, was reported by the New York Herald as being a wounded soldier from the Battle of Fredericksburg.
After obtaining a pass to cross into the South, Whitman found his brother wounded only slightly in the jaw from an exploding artillery shell fired near Mary’s Heights. Happy that his brother was doing well, he started visiting the nearby hospital at the Lacy House in Falmouth, Virginia. He was very taken by the hospital scene which included piles of amputated legs and arms, hands and feet.
He stayed for two weeks, recording his visits to the sick and wounded. Then he was asked to accompany some wounded soldiers to Washington area hospitals.
Whitman started the journey, later recalling that “several wanted word sent home to parents, brothers, wives, etc. which I did for them.”
When he returned to Washington, he regularly visited those he had befriended in Falmouth. Then he started visiting others. His visits became something he did every single day. And he documented his visits. The hospital visits became a ministry of sorts, and also provided inspiration to his writings.
He wrote to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson saying “I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulcher of Washington itself.”
He wrote several articles for the New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle about his experiences and later a book of poems about the war entitled “Drum Taps”.
It is estimated that Whitman’s visits numbered over 600 and that he encountered some 80,000 to 100,000 of the sick and wounded. His service included writing letters for them, bringing them particular kinds of cookies or candy they requested, or passing the time playing games like twenty questions. Once he distributed ice cream through all the 18 wards of the Carver Hospital.
Whitman was as liked as he was disliked, sometimes by the same people. His poetry and writings were controversial. He was shunned by high society.
But he was highly praised for his work in the hospitals. Amory Square Hospital Superintendent D. Willard Bliss said “no other person had done more good for the soldiers in Washington’s hospitals than Whitman.”
Nurse Amanda Akin had a totally different view of the poet saying “He took a fancy to my fever boy, and would watch with him sometimes half the night. He is a poet, and I believe has written some very queer books about ‘Free Love,’ etc.” Describing Whitman’s personal appearance, Akin wrote, “He is an odd-looking genius, with a heavy frame, tall, with a turned-down Byronic collar, high head with straggling hair, and very pink rims to his eyes. When he stalks down the ward I feel the ‘prickings of my thumbs,’ and never speak to him, if not obliged to do so, though I hear some of the other ladies offer him a cup of tea, which he enjoys with the relish of a little talk with them. With all his peculiar interest in our soldier boys he does not appeal to me.”
Her reactions today would be called “homophobic”. Historians believe Whitman was more than likely “gay”.
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