Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 8 September 1863

Date: September 8, 1863

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 1:143-146. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00788

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Kathryn Kruger, Tim Jackson, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Alyssa Olson

September 8 1863

Dearest mother,

I wrote to Jeff Sunday last that his letters sent Sept 3d containing your letter & $5 from Mr Lane had miscarried—this morning when I came down to Major Hapgood's office I found it on my table, so it is all right—singular where it has been all this while as I see the post mark on it is Brooklyn Sept 3 as Jeff said1—Mother, what to do about Andrew I hardly know—as it is I feel about as much pity for you as I do for my poor brother Andrew, for I know you will worry yourself about him all the time—I was in hopes it was only the trouble about the voice &c but I see I was mistaken, & it is probably worse—I know you & Jeff & Mat will do all you can—& will have patience with all (it is not only the sick who are poorly off, but their friends—but it is best to have the greatest forbearance, & do & give &c whatever one can—but you know that, & practice it too, dear mother)2

Mother, if I had the means, O how cheerfully I would give them, whether they availed any thing for Andrew or not—yet I have long made up my mind that money does not amount to so much, at least not so very much, in serious cases of sickness—it is judgment, both in the person himself, & in those he has to do with—& good heart is every thing—(Mother, you remember Theodore Gould,3 how he has stuck it out, though sickness & death has had hold of him as you may say for fifteen years)—but any how I hope we will all do what we can for Andrew—Mother, I think I must try to come home for a month—I have not given up my project of lecturing, I spoke about before,4 but shall put it in practice yet, I feel clear it will succeed enough. (I wish I had some of the money already, it would be satisfaction to me to contribute something to Andrew's necessities, for he must have bread)—I will write to you of course before I come—

Mother, I hope you will live better—Jeff tells me you & Jess & Ed live on poor stuff, you are so economical5—Mother, you mustn't do so, as long as you have a cent—I hope you will at least four or five times a week have a steak of beef or mutton, or something substantial for dinner—I have one good meal of that kind every day, or at least five or six days out of the seven—but for breakfast I never have any thing but a cup of tea & some bread or crackers, (first rate tea though with milk & good white sugar)—well I find it is hearty enough—more than half the time I never eat any thing after dinner, & when I do it is only a cracker & cup of tea—Mother, I hope you will not stint yourselves—as to using George's money for your & Jess's & Ed's needful living expenses, I know George would be mad & hurt in his feelings, if he thought you was afraid to—Mother, now have a comfortable time as much as you can, & get a steak occasionally, won't you?

I suppose Mat got her letter last Saturday, I sent it Friday—O I was so pleased that Jeff was not drawn,6 & I know how Mat must have felt too, & you too—I have no idea the government will try to draft again, whatever happens—they have carried their point, but have not made much out of it—O how the conscripts & substitutes are deserting down in front, & on their way there—you don't hear any thing about it, but it is incredible—they don't allow it to get in the papers—Mother, I was so glad to get your letter, you must write again—can't you write to-morrow, so I can get it Friday or Saturday?—you know though you wrote more than a week ago I did not get it till this morning—I wish Jeff to write too, as often as he can—mother, I was gratified to hear you went up among the soldiers7—they are rude in appearance, but they know what is decent, and it pleases them much to have folks, even old women, take an interest & come among them—mother, you must go again, & take [Hat]—Well, dear mother, I must close—I am first rate in health, so much better than a month & two mo's ago—my hand has entirely healed—I go to hospital every day, or night—I believe no men ever loved each other as I & some of these poor wounded, sick & dying men love each other—good bye, dearest mother, for present—



1. Jeff wrote to Whitman twice on September 3 or 5, 1863; the earlier letter contained the contribution from Moses Lane; the second, written in the evening after a visit to Dr. Ruggles with Andrew, arrived in Washington first. [back]

2. Andrew's condition was rapidly deteriorating. Toward the end of August 1863 he went off to the country with one of his cronies, after he had gone on his first spree in three months. "He went home to get his things," Mrs. Whitman wrote to her son on September 3, "and nancy had not put them up. she told him to put them up himself and his having drank some he was very angry and he went away without taking any thing." Later in the same letter, the mother admitted that Andrew looked "very bad indeed," and reported that "he says he wouldent care about living only for his children. i think nance might do better at any rate. she might keep things a little cleaner" (Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library).Jeff, devoting almost an entire letter to Andrew's illness, reported Dr. Ruggles' diagnosis: "That he could think of no medicine that would be likely to do him any good, That…what would cure him would be to take heart, go in the country again, and to resolve to get well." Jeff had proposed to his mother that she permit Andrew to occupy a room in her house while Martha nursed and fed him. Mrs. Whitman refused because she feared Andrew's entire family would move in. "I tell her to send the whole family back again, but she saing that 'she cant let him have it and that is the end of it.'…Perhaps it would not do any good, but I think it would save his life" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). Since the family was feuding, Mrs. Whitman, on September 3(?), suggested to Whitman, "Write on a piece of paper [apart?] from the letter if you say any thing you dont want all to read" (Trent Collection). Though he was tactful, Jeff was not pleased that Whitman remained in Washington and thus escaped direct participation in the family crisis: "What do you think about coming to Brooklyn. I think you better, for awhile any way. I wish you would write to Andrew" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection).  [back]

3. Not identified. [back]

4. See Whitman's letters from June 9, 1863 and June 22, 1863[back]

5. Jesse was not in good health, according to the mother's letter of September 3: "Jesse aint very well. he has such sick spells. he rocks the cradle for martha day in and day out" (Trent Collection). In his letter of the same day, Jeff agreed that Jesse was "a mere shadow of what he ought to be," but attributed the condition to his mother's frugality: "I have not the least doubt in my own mind that it all comes of his not having anything to eat that he can eat. Somehow or another, Mother seems to think that she ought to live without spending any money. Even to-day she has 25 or $30 in the house and I will bet that all they have for dinner will be a quart of tomats and a few cucumbers, and then Mother wonders why Jess vomits up his meals" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). See also notes to the letter from October 10–15, 1863[back]

6. Jeff was not drafted, as he reported in the earlier letter on September 3: "I was not one of the elected, I feel thankful. In our ward the screws were put rather tight, out of a little over 3000 names they drew 1056, nearly one in three. . . . If this is the last of it I feel thankful but I believe Uncle Abe left off some on account of [Governor Horatio] Seymour, if so I suppose there will be another spurt. However we wont worry till the time comes" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). The letter to Martha is apparently lost. [back]

7. Mrs. Whitman had noted that "there is part of two regments encamped on fort green. the indiana and 94th california . . . sis and i went up there this afternoon. poor fellows, they looked like hard times. i spoke to some of them" (Trent Collection). [back]


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