Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 20 October 1863

Date: October 20, 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), 1:166-169. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

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

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00799

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




Washington
October 20, 1863

Dearest mother,

I got your last letter Sunday morning, though it was dated Thursday night. Mother, I suppose you got a letter from me Saturday last, as I sent one the day before, as I was concerned about Andrew—If I thought it would be any benefit to Andrew I should certainly leave everything else & come back to Brooklyn—mother, do you recollect what I wrote last summer about throat diseases,1 when Andrew was first pretty bad—well that's the whole groundwork of the business, any true physician would confirm it—there is no great charm about such things—as to any costly & mysterious baths, there are no better baths than warm water, or vapor, (& perhaps sulphur vapor,) there is nothing costly or difficult about them—one can have a very good sweating bath, at a pinch, by having a pan of warm water under a chair & heating a couple of bricks or stones or any thing to put in one after another, & sitting on the chair with a couple of blankets around him to enclose the vapor—it is a very wholesome sweat too, & not to be sneezed at if one wishes to do what is salutary, & thinks of the sense of a thing, & not what others do—Andrew mustn't be discouraged, those diseases are painful & tedious, but he can recover & will yet—

Dear mother, I sent your last letter to George with a short one I wrote myself, I sent it yesterday—I sent a letter last Wednesday 14th to him also, hoping that if one don't reach him another will—hasn't Jeff seen Capt Sims or Lieut McReady2 yet, & don't they hear whether the 51st is near Nicholasville, Kentucky, yet? I send George papers now & then—Mother, one of your letters contains part of my letter to the Union,3 (I wish I could have got the whole of it.) It seems to be mostly as I intended it, barring a few slight misprints—was my last name signed at the bottom of it? tell me when you write next4—Dear mother, I am real sorry & mad too that the water works people have cut Jeff's wages down to $505—this is a pretty time to cut a man's wages down—the mean old punkin heads—mother, I can't understand it at all—tell me more the particulars—Jeff, I often wish you was on here, you would be better appreciated, there is big salaries paid here sometimes to civil engineers—Jeff, I know a fellow, E C Stedman,6 has been here till lately, is now in Wall street, he is poor but he is in with the big bankers (Hallett & Co) who are in with Fremont7 in his line of Pacific railroad—I can get his (Stedman's) address, & should you wish it any time I will give you a letter to him—I shouldn't wonder if the big men, with Fremont at head, were going to push their route, works, road, &c &c. in earnest, & if a fellow could get a good managing place in it, why it might be worth while—I think after Jeff has been with the Brooklyn W[ater] W[orks] from the beginning, & so faithful & so really valuable, to put down to $50, the mean low-lived old shoats. I have felt as indignant about it, the meanness of the thing, & mighty inconvenient too, $40 a month makes a big difference—Mother, I hope Jeff won't get & keep himself in a perpetual fever, with all these things & others & botherations, both family & business ones—if he does, he will just wear himself down before his time comes—I do hope, Jeff, you will take things equably all round, & not brood or think too deeply—So I go giving you all good advice—

O Mother, I must tell you how I get along in my new quarters, I have moved to a new room, 456 Sixth street, not far from Pennsylvania avenue, (the big street here,) & not far from the Capitol—it is in 3d story, an addition back, seems to be going to prove a very good winter room, as it is right under the roof & looks south, has low windows, is plenty big enough, I have gas—I think the lady will prove a good woman, she is old & feeble, (there is a little girl of 4 or 5, I hear her sometimes calling grandma, grandma just exactly like Hat, it made me think of you & Hat right away)—one thing is I am quite by myself, there is no passage up there except to my room, & right off against my side of the house is a great old yard with grass & some trees back, & the sun shines in all day &c. & it smells sweet & good air, good big bed, I sleep first rate—there is a young wench of 12 or 13, Lucy, (the niggers here are the best & most amusing creatures you ever see)—she comes & goes, gets water &c., she is pretty much the only one I see—then I believe the front door is not locked at all at night—(in the other place the old thief the landlord had two front doors, with four locks & bolts on one, & three on the other—& a big bull-dog in the back yard—we were well fortified I tell you—sometimes I had an awful time at night getting in)—I pay $10 a month, this includes gas, but not fuel—Jeff, you can come on & see me easy now—Mother, to give you an idea of prices here, while I was looking for rooms, I went in to see a couple of furnished rooms about like our two in Wheelers houses8 (2d story), nothing extra about them, either in location or any thing, & the rent was $60 a month—yet quite curious vacant houses here are not so very dear, very much the same as in Brooklyn—dear mother, Jeff wrote in his letter9 latter part of last week you was real unwell with a very bad cold, (& that you didn't have enough good meals)—mother, I hope this will find you well & good spirits—I think about you every day & night—Jeff thinks you show your age more, & failing like—O my dear mother, you must not think of failing yet—I hope we shall have some comfortable years yet. Mother, don't you allow things, troubles, to take hold of you—write a few lines whenever you can, tell me exactly how things are—Mother, I am first rate & well, only a little of that deafness again—good bye for present.


Walt

Mother, I am of course every day in hospitals—they are pretty full now, some very bad wounds—Mother, it is the opinion here this morning that Lee has vamosed back into lower Virginia again but there's no telling—he's a cunning old fox—he may make a dash at us here before we know it10


Notes:

1. See Whitman's letter from April 15, 1863. Whitman was obviously trying to allay Jeff's fears, as related in the first footnote to his letter from October 13, 1863[back]

2. Samuel H. Sims, a captain in George Washington Whitman's Fifty-first New York Volunteer Regiment, had been the subject in part of Walt Whitman's article, "Our Brooklyn Boys in the War," which appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on January 5, 1863. Sims died on July 30, 1864, of wounds received near Petersburg, Virginia (see George Washington Whitman's letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman from August 9, 1864). Walt Whitman may have lived in Sims's tent during part of his stay at Falmouth, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg—a trip that Walt took in search of George after reading his brother's name in the New York Herald listed among the wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862. As it turned out, George only suffered a minor injury; George wrote in a letter to his mother on December 16, 1862: "I have come out safe and sound, although I had the side of my jaw slightly scraped with a peice of shell which burst at my feet." On September 22, 1863, George informed Jeff that Captain Sims was in Brooklyn to recruit for the regiment. Evidently McReady (see the letter from May 13, 1863) had also gone to Brooklyn for the same purpose, since George referred to both in a letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman on October 16, 1863. According to a notation on the verso of a letter from November 20, 1863, Whitman saw McReady while he was in New York in November. The Fifty-first Regiment was still on guard duty at Camp Nelson, Kentucky. [back]

3. See the letter from September 29, 1863[back]

4. Whitman, evidently, inked through the next three lines of this letter. [back]

5. Whitman misunderstood his mother's letter (now lost), and Jeff explained the situation on October 22, 1863: "It is not like you think in regard to cutting down my wages. I was working for the two boards of Commissioners, one at $40 and the other at $50 per month, and I have got all the work for one board finished (the one at $40) . . . It is not the meanness or anything of that kind of anybody and they would pay me more if they could and will probably in a short time." [back]

6. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was a man of diverse talents. He edited for a year the Mountain County Herald at Winsted, Connecticut, wrote "Honest Abe of the West," presumably Lincoln's first campaign song, and served as correspondent of the New York World from 1860 to 1862. In 1862 and 1863 he was in the Attorney General's office until he entered the firm of Samuel Hallett and Company in September, 1863. The next year he opened his own brokerage office. He published many volumes of poems and was an indefatigable compiler of anthologies, among which were Poets of America , 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885) and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time , 11 vols. (New York: C. L. Webster, 1889–90). [back]

7. After Congress had endowed a Pacific Railroad, John Charles Frémont (1813–1890) was ready to take charge, with the assistance of Hallett. They planned to build a railroad from Kansas City to the West. Stedman was engaged by Hallett to edit The American Circular, which propagandized for the new railroad. Frémont was one of the New York Tribune's candidates to succeed Lincoln in 1864. See Allan Nevins, Frémont: Pathmarker of the West (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1939), 570; and Laura Stedman and George M. Gould, Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman (New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1910), 1:322–323. [back]

8. Whitman probably referred to the house his mother purchased on April 10, 1856, from John H. and George Wheeler, at the corner of Graham Street and Willoughby Avenue. See Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967), 600. [back]

9. On October 15, 1863, Jeff wrote: "Mother, Mat and Sis are all suffering from bad colds, Mother particularly I think is failing rapidly." [back]

10. The postscript was omitted in earlier printings. [back]


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