Walt Whitman, Civil War Nurse

3 January 1864 - Washington, D.C.

It is estimated as many as 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War. This is more than all the U.S. casualties of the Revolution, World War I and II, Vietnam and everything else in between. Of course, one is counting the fallen on both sides of this tragic war.

Millions of other soldiers were injured or fell ill. Washington, D.C., never far from the front, has been turned into a giant hospital. I have pointed out many of the buildings here, from churches to colleges and even government buildings, have been conscripted, for short or long term use, as a hospital. Despite these efforts, more than one patient has been forced to try to recover in a tent.

These hospitals are under-staffed, and the doctors poorly trained. Medicine is just coming out of the Dark Ages. However, the physicians are learning fast from their hands on experience. Unfortunately, hospital hygiene is not fully understood yet, or possible. Wounds too often get infections. The only cure, to keep the infection from spreading and killing the patient, is amputation.

The war has brought one new innovation. When Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton suggested that women volunteers could serve as nurses, the military laughed at the notion. Last thing they needed was a bunch of silly women flirting with the men or fainting at the sight of blood.

The ladies proved as valiant as any soldier. It is estimated 2,000 to 8,000 women volunteered on both sides. The actual number is unknown, for many did not wish to be recorded. They worked for little or no pay. With no credentials, other than a compassionate heart, the volunteers assisted doctors, tried to keep the hospital clean, cared for the sick, and kept up the spirits of their patients. How many soldiers would have died, being too sick to get up to get food or water for themselves, or too weak to even ask for help? Sometimes the nurses duty might be to just hold the hand of a dieing man. No wonder the soldiers called them “angels of the battlefield.”

The nurses had more to deal with than just the hard work and emotional trauma. Some were very close to the frontlines and we in danger of being hit by gunfire. Even more dangerous is the rampant disease. Probably twice as many soldiers died of sickness than wounds. The crowded, filthy camps are hotbeds of disease. Being exposed to these deadly illnesses everyday, takes its toll on the caregivers. One of the more famous of these nurses, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, will die young of complications from the typhoid she contracted while a nurse here.

I found out today that not all the volunteer nurses are women. Remember yesterday on my Twitter feed how I told you I saw a man that looked a lot like Walt Whitman? Today I returned to the Patent Office, now one of the many make-shift hospitals. There I found the same gentleman changing the dressing on a soldier who was missing a leg. I waited until he was done, and then went over to him and asked if he was a doctor.

He smiled at me. “No, I'm only a nurse.”

I introduced myself as Mr. Howe. (I didn’t want to be “drafted” as a doctor, over a misunderstanding. A history degree hardly prepares one for surgery.) The gentleman shook my hand and told me his name. It turns out I was right!

“Walt Whitman!” I said. “The poet? I thought you lived in New York?”

“I did. My brother, George, joined the Union Army. A little over a year ago, middle of December, I saw a name on a list of dead or wounded soldiers that looked like it could be my brother. All right, the name was G.W. Whitmore, but you know how records get confused in war. I headed south to find my brother. I searched through camp hospitals full of wounded soldiers.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I found piles of limbs outside most of them.”

Civil War Field Hospital
(Yes, those are patients laying on the ground)
 “Dear Lord! Did you ever find your brother?”

“Yes, he only had a minor wound on his cheek. He was fine. All those other men were not. They haunted me. So, just before the new year, I headed for Washington, determined to do something. I got a part-time job as a clerk to feed myself. My free time I spend here, doing whatever I can to help. I’m forty-four, probably too old to be a soldier. I doubt I could shoot anyone anyway. I think I’m doing far more good here as a nurse than I would on the battlefield trying to be a soldier.”

Looking at those gentle eyes, he was probably right.

“How long do you plan to stay?” I asked.

“I plan to stay here until there are no more wounded soldiers. I doubt they will all become well, simply because a peace treaty is signed. I may well spend the rest of my life here.”

A soldier groaned and asked for water. He acted delirious. Whitman excused himself and went to find a pitcher of water.

Walt Whitman (photo by Matthew Brady)
I checked my history files. Apparently this will not be a good year for the poor Walt. This coming September, his brother, George, will be captured and put in a Confederate prison. Next December, his brother, Andrew, will die of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism and his brother, Jesse, will have to be committed to an insane asylum.

Luckily 1865 will be rosier. Walt will get a better paying job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in this very building. Brother George will be released. The war will end, and Walt will publish, Drum Taps, a poem inspired by his experiences in the hospitals.

He will work with the Bureau until 1867, when they discover he was the author of Leaves of Grass, which many considered obscene. Whitman’s good friend, William O’Connor, from the Saturday Evening Post, will protest until the Attorney General hires him. After all, Whitman is the man that wrote the poem O Captain, my Captain as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.

He will work there until he has a stroke in 1871 that will leave him partially paralyzed. He will move to New Jersey and live another twenty years, constantly adding to his Leaves of Grass until it becomes a compilation of his life’s work.

Walt Whitman will always be remembered as an innovative poet. However, as I watch him tending the patients here, I think these men will remember Whitman as that chap that was there when them needed him the most.

Includes published works and letters from the Civil War

Civil War Medicine

1 comment:

  1. So Great to see it like it was.Well written..adds a depth to Walt Whitman that explains how he was such a Great writer. It was a horrible costly war.


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