Title: Walt Whitman to Thomas P. Sawyer, 21 April 1863
Date: April 21, 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), 1:90–93. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library
Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00180
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, Kathryn Kruger, and Alyssa Olson
Tom,1 I thought I would write you a few words, and take chances of its getting to you—though there is great excitement now about the Army of the Potomac,2 no passes allowed, mails held over, &c. &c.—still I thought I would write, and take chances.
There is nothing very special here about Washington—they seem to be shoving troops off from here now all the time, in small or large bodies—the convalescents are doing guard duty &c in the Hospitals—even the old regiments doing patrol, & provost, are sent off. So I suppose something is up. Tom, I was at Armory last evening, saw Lewy Brown,3 sat with him a good while, he was very cheerful, told me how he laid out to do, when he got well enough to go from hospital, (which he expects soon), says he intends to go home to Maryland, go to school, and learn to write better, and learn a little bookkeeping, &c.—so that he can be fit for some light employment. Lew is so good, so affectionate—when I came away, he reached up his face, I put my arm around him, and we gave each other a long kiss, half a minute long. We talked about you while I was there. I saw Hiram4 but did not speak to him. He lay pale and pretty sick, sound asleep. I could not help stopping before I came away, and looking at him—it was pitiful to see him, so pale, sound asleep—Poor Hiram—he is a good boy—he gets no better. Johnny Mahay5 does not get any better, in Ward E. He is going to have an operation performed on him by Dr. Bliss.6 Tom, I do not know who you was most intimate with in the Hospital, or I would write you about them.
As to me, there is nothing new with me, or my affairs. I manage to pay my way here in Washington, what I make writing letters for the New York papers, &c. When I stopped here, last January, on my return from Falmouth, I thought I would stop only a few days, before returning to New York, and see if I could not get some berth, clerkship or something—but I have not pushed strong enough—have not got anything—and I don't know as I could be satisfied with the life of a clerk in the departments anyhow. So I have hung along here ever since. I guess I enjoy a kind of vagabond life any how. I go around some, nights, when the spirit moves me, sometimes to the gay places, just to see the sights. Tom, I wish you was here. Somehow I don't find the comrade that suits me to a dot—and I won't have any other, not for good.
Well, Tom, the war news is not lovely, is it? We feel disappointed here about Charleston7—I felt as blue about it as anybody. I was so in hopes they would take the conceit out of that gassy city. It seems to me always as if Charleston has done the biggest business of blowing & mischief, on a small capital of industry or manliness, of any city the world ever knew. But for all our bad success at Charleston, and even if we fail for a while elsewhere, I believe this Union will conquer in the end, as sure as there's a God in heaven. This country can't be broken up by Jeff Davis, & all his damned crew. Tom, I sometimes feel as if I didn't want to live—life would have no charm for me, if this country should fail after all, and be reduced to take a third rate position, to be domineered over by England & France & the haughty nations of Europe &c and we unable to help ourselves. But I have no thought that will ever be, this country I hope would spend her last drop of blood, and last dollar, rather than submit to such humiliation.
O I hope Hooker8 will have good success in his plans, whatever they may be. We have been foiled so often in our plans, it seems as though it was too much. And our noble Army of the Potomac, so brave, so capable, so full of good men, I really believe they are this day the best in the world. God grant Hooker may have success, and his brave boys may at last achieve the victory they deserve. O how much I think about them though. I suppose that does no good. Tom, you tell the boys of your company there is an old pirate up in Washington, with the white wool growing all down his neck—an old comrade who thinks about you & them every day, for all he don't know them, and will probably never see them, but thinks about them as comrades & younger brothers of his, just the same.9
These lines may never reach you, as it is talked here that the Army of the Potomac is in for a real fighting march, at last, may be something desperate, it may continue some time when it once begins. Tom, I thought I would write you a few words, hoping they might reach you. Dear comrade, you must not forget me, for I never shall you. My love you have in life or death forever. I don't know how you feel about it, but it is the wish of my heart to have your friendship, and also that if you should come safe out of this war, we should come together again in some place where we could make our living, and be true comrades and never be separated while life lasts—and take Lew Brown too, and never separate from him. Or if things are not so to be—if you get these lines, my dear, darling comrade, and any thing should go wrong, so that we do not meet again, here on earth, it seems to me, (the way I feel now,) that my soul could never be entirely happy, even in the world to come, without you, dear comrade.10 And if it is God's will, I hope we shall yet meet, as I say, if you feel as I do about it—and if [it] is destined that we shall not, you have my love none the less, whatever should keep you from me, no matter how many years. God bless you, Tom, and preserve you through the perils of the fight.
Good bye, my darling comrade, my dear darling brother, for so I will call you, and wish you to call me the same.11
1. This, apparently the first extant letter Whitman addressed to a soldier, is a revealing—and in many respects a pathetic—document. For Whitman was destined to write many others like it, and with the same results. Always Whitman was both an anxious father-figure and an ardent comrade desirous of establishing permanent ties with soldiers whom he had known and nursed in Washington hospitals. Like some of the others, Sawyer was evidently perplexed, possibly frightened, by Whitman's extravagant protestations of enduring friendship. The reply to Whitman's letter, dated April 26, though it is signed "Thos. B. Sawyer," is not in Sawyer's holograph, as Whitman noted in a letter on May 27, 1863. The author of the letter addressed Whitman as "Dear Brother," and continued: "I fully reciprocate your friendship as expressed in your letter and it will afford me great pleasure to meet you after the war will have terminated or sooner if circumstances will permit." However, on April 12, 1863, Sawyer himself had written to Brown: "I want you to give my love to Walter Whitman and tell him I am very sorry that I could not live up to my Prommice because I came away so soon that it sliped my mind and I am very sorry for it, tell him that I shall write to him my self in a few days, give him my love and best wishes for ever" (Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library). Though Whitman wrote several times during 1863, Sawyer did not reply until January 21, 1864: "Dear Brother, I hardly know what to say to you in this letter for it is my first one to you. . . . I hope you will forgive me and in the future I will do better and I hope we may meet again in this world." [back]
2. The Army of the Potomac was preparing for the assault at Chancellorsville, Virginia. [back]
3. Lewis Kirke Brown (1843–1926) was wounded in the left leg near Rappahannock Station on August 19, 1862, and lay where he fell for four days. Eventually he was transferred to Armory Square Hospital, where Whitman met him, probably in February 1863. In a diary in the Library of Congress, Whitman described Brown on February 19, 1863, as "a most affectionate fellow, very fond of having me come and sit by him." Because the wound did not heal, the leg was amputated on January 5, 1864. Whitman was present and described the operation in a diary (Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman, The Library of Congress, Notebook #103). Brown was mustered out in August 1864, and was employed in the Provost General's office in September; see Whitman's letter from September 11, 1864 . The following September he became a clerk in the Treasury Department, and was appointed Chief of the Paymaster's Division in 1880, a post which he held until his retirement in 1915. (This material draws upon a memorandum which was prepared by Brown's family and is now held in the Library of Congress.) [back]
4. Hiram Sholes lay next to Brown in Armory Square Hospital, according to Sholes's letter to Walt Whitman on May 24, 1867 (Charles E. Feinberg Collection); see also "Letter from Walt Whitman to Hiram Sholes, May 30, 1867" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:331–332). Charles I. Glicksberg, ed., (Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 155) records: "Hiram Scholis—bed 3—Ward E.—26th N. York—wants some pickles—a bottle of pickles. [back]
5. John Mahay, private in Company A of the 101st New York, was wounded in the bladder at second Bull Run, August 29, 1862, and held on for fifteen months at Armory Square Hospital before dying in 1864. "Poor Mahay," Whitman writes in Specimen Days, "a mere boy in age, but old in misfortune" (Richard Maurice Bucke, ed., The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 10 vols. (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902). Whitman notes that Mahay, despite his pain, "was of good heart" and "was delighted with a stick of horehound candy I gave him" (4:46). Mahay is referred to as in poor health in letters from Whitman to Lewis K. Brown from August 1, 1863 and August 15, 1863 . See also Glicksberg, 149. [back]
6. D. Willard Bliss (1825–1889) was a surgeon with the Third Michigan Infantry, and afterward in charge of Armory Square Hospital. See John Homer Bliss, Genealogy of the Bliss Family in America, from about the year 1550 to 1880 (Boston: John Homer Bliss, 1881), 545. He practiced medicine in Washington after the war; see "Letter from Walt Whitman to Hiram Sholes, May 30, 1867" (Correspondence, 1:331–332). When a pension for Whitman was proposed in the House of Representatives in 1887, Dr. Bliss was quoted: "I am of opinion that no one person who assisted in the hospitals during the war accomplished so much good to the soldiers and for the Government as Mr. Whitman" (Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man [New York: F. P. Harper, 1896], 169). [back]
7. Admiral Samuel F. du Pont was severely defeated at Charleston, South Carolina, on April 7, 1863, in the worst naval loss of the Civil War. [back]
8. Joseph Hooker (1814–1879) replaced Burnside as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. He was defeated at Chancellorsville, Virginia, on May 2–4, 1863, and was succeeded by Meade on June 28, 1863, a few days before the battle of Gettysburg. [back]
9. Edwin Haviland Miller's footnote from the Correspondence reads: "At this point Whitman deleted the following sentence: 'My old mother, in Brooklyn, New York, when she sees the troops marching away, or returning, always begins to cry'" (1:92–93). It is unclear from Miller's note whether this line was deleted from a draft document rather than from a (perhaps now lost) final copy of the letter, or whether Whitman had struck through this line so that it was still visible to Sawyer. [back]
10. Miller's footnote from the Correspondence reads: "The following sentence, corrected several times, was omitted: 'What I have written is pretty strong talk, I suppose, but I mean exactly what I say'" (1:93). Again, it is unclear from Miller's note whether this line was omitted from a draft document rather than from a (perhaps now lost) final copy of the letter, or whether Whitman had struck through this line so that it was still visible to Sawyer. [back]
Endorsed (in unknown hand): "21 April 1863."
Draft letter. [back]