Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Nathaniel Bloom and John F. S. Gray, 19–20 March 1863

Date: March 19, 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), 1:80-85. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia

Whitman Archive ID: uva.00345

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




Washington,
March 19, 1863.

Dear Nat,1 and Fred Gray:2

Since I left New York, I was down in the Army of the Potomac in front with my brother a good part of the winter, commencing time of the battle of Fredericksburgh3—have seen war-life, the real article—folded myself in a blanket, lying down in the mud with composure—relished salt pork & hard tack—have been on the battle-field among the wounded, the faint and the bleeding, to give them nourishment—have gone over with a flag of truce the next day to help direct the burial of the dead—have struck up a tremendous friendship with a young Mississippi captain (about 19)4 that we took prisoner badly wounded at Fredericksburgh—(he has followed me here, is in Emory hospital here, minus a leg—he wears his confederate uniform, proud as the devil—I met him first at Falmouth, in the Lacy house,5 middle of December last, his leg just cut off, and cheered him up—poor boy, he has suffered a great deal, and still suffers—has eyes bright as a hawk, but face pale—our affection is quite an affair, quite romantic—sometimes when I lean over to say I am going, he puts his arm round my neck, draws my face down, &c. quite a scene for the New Bowery.)

I spent the Christmas holidays on the Rappahannock—during January came up hither, took a lodging room here—did the 37th Congress, especially the night sessions the last three weeks, explored the Capitol then, meandering the gorgeous painted interminable senate corridors, getting lost in them, (a new sensation, rich & strong, that endless painted interior at night)—got very much interested in some particular cases in Hospitals here—go now steadily to more or less of said Hospitals by day or night—find always the sick and dying soldiers forthwith begin to cling to me in a way that makes a fellow feel funny enough. These Hospitals, so different from all others—these thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia, &c. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity, (I sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife,) tried by terrible, fearfulness tests, probed deepest, the living soul's, the body's tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and the tearfulest? Not old Greek mighty ones, where man contends with fate, (and always yields)—not Virgil showing Dante on and on among the agonized & damned, approach what here I see and take a part in. For here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain, man, our American man—how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations. It is immense, the best thing of all, nourishes me of all men. This then, what frightened us all so long! Why it is put to flight with ignominy, a mere stuffed scarecrow of the fields. O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? &c. In the Patent Office, as I stood there one night, just off the cot-side of a dying soldier, in a large Ward that had received the worst cases of 2d Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh, the surgeon, Dr. Stone, (Horatio Stone, the sculptor,)6 told me, of all who had died in that crowded ward the past six months, he had still to find the first man or boy who had met the approach of death with a single tremor, or unmanly fear. But let me change the subject—I have given you screed enough about death and Hospitals—and too much, since I got started. Only I have some curious yarns I promise you, my darlings and gossips, by word of mouth, whene'er we meet.

Washington and its points I find bear a second and a third perusal, and doubtless indeed many. My first impressions, architectural, &c. were not favorable;7 but upon the whole, the city, the spaces, buildings, &c make no unfit emblem of our country, so far, so broadly planned, every thing in plenty, money & materials staggering with plenty, but the fruit of the plans, the knit, the combination yet wanting—Determined to express ourselves greatly in a capital but no fit capital yet here—(time, associations, wanting, I suppose)—many a hiatus yet—many a thing to be taken down and done over again yet—perhaps an entire change of base—may-be a succession of changes. Congress does not seize very hard upon me—I studied it and its members with curiosity, and long—much gab, great fear of public opinion, plenty of low business talent, but no masterful man in Congress, (probably best so.) I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion. My notion is, too, that underneath his outside smutched mannerism, and stories from third-class county bar-rooms, (it is his humor,) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think, an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet captain, never ruler, had such a perplexing, dangerous task as his, the past two years. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums.

I am living here without much definite aim, (except going to the hospitals)—yet I have quite a good time—I make some money by scribbling for the papers, and as copyist. I have had, (and have,) thoughts of trying to get a clerkship or something, but I only try in a listless sort of way, and of course do not succeed. I have strong letters of introduction from Mr. Emerson to Mr. Seward and Mr. Chase, but I have not presented them.8 I have seen Mr. Sumner several times anent of my office-hunting—he promised fair once—but he does not seem to be finally fascinated. I hire a bright little 3d story front room, with service, &c. for $7 a month, dine in the same house, (394 L st. a private house)—and remain yet much of the old vagabond that so gracefully becomes me. I miss you all, my darlings & gossips, Fred Gray, and Bloom and Russell and every body. I wish you would all come here in a body—that would be divine. (We would drink ale, which is here of the best.) My health, strength, personal beauty, &c. are, I am happy to inform you, without diminution, but on the contrary quite the reverse. I weigh full 220 pounds avoirdupois, yet still retain my usual perfect shape—a regular model. My beard, neck, &c. are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever. I wear army boots, with magnificent black morocco tops, the trousers put in, wherein shod and legged confront I Virginia's deepest mud with supercilious eyes. The scenery around Washington is really fine, the Potomac a lordly river, the hills, woods, &c all attractive. I poke about quite a good deal. Much of the weather here is from heaven—of late, though, a stretch decidedly from the other point. To-night (for it is night, about 10) I sit alone writing this epistle, (which will doubtless devour you all with envy and admiration,) in the room adjoining my own particular. A gentleman and his wife,9 who occupy the two other apartments on this floor, have gone to see Heron10 in Medea—have put their little child to bed, and left me in charge. The little one is sleeping soundly there in the back room, and I, (plagued with a cold in the head,) sit here in the front, by a good fire, writing as aforesaid to my gossips & darlings. The evening is lonesome & still. I am entirely alone. "O solitude where are the charms," &c &c.

Now you write to me good long letters, my own boys. You, Bloom, give me your address particular, dear friend. Tell me Charles Russell's address, particular—also write me about Charles Chauncey.11 Tell me about every body. For, dearest gossips, as the hart panteth, &c. so my soul after any and all sorts of items about you all. My darling, dearest boys, if I could be with you this hour, long enough to take only just three mild hot rums, before the cool weather closes.

Friday Morning, 20th—I finish my letter in the office of Major Hapgood, a paymaster, and a friend of mine. This is a large building, filled with paymasters' offices, some thirty or forty or more. This room is up on the fifth floor, (a most noble and broad view from my window.) Curious scenes around here—a continual stream of soldiers, officers, cripples, &c &c. some climbing wearily up the stairs. They seek their pay—and every hour, almost every minute, has its incident, its hitch, its romance, farce or tragedy. There are two paymasters in this room. A sentry at the street door, another half way up the stairs, another at the chief clerk's door, all with muskets & bayonets—sometimes a great swarm, hundreds, around the side walk in front, waiting. (Every body is waiting for something here.) I take a pause, look up a couple of minutes from my pen and paper—see spread, off there, the Potomac, very fine, nothing petty about it—the Washington monument,12 not half finished—the public grounds around it filled with ten thousand beeves, on the hoof—to the left the Smithsonian with its brown turrets—to the right, far across, Arlington Heights, the forts, eight or ten of them—then the long bridge, and down a ways, but quite plain, the shipping of Alexandria—opposite me, and in stone throw, is the Treasury building—and below the bustle and life of Pennsylvania avenue. I shall hasten with my letter, and then go forth and take a stroll down "the avenue" as they call it here.

Now, you boys, don't you think I have done the handsome thing by writing this astounding, magnificent letter—certainly the longest I ever wrote in my life. Fred, I wish you to present my best respects to your father.13 Bloom and all, one of these days we will meet, and make up for lost time, my dearest boys.


Walt.

Address me, care Major Hapgood, paymaster, U.S. Army, cor 15th & F sts. Washington. How is Mullen?14 give him my respects—How is Ben Knower?15 how the twinkling and temperate Towle? remember me to them.16


Notes:

1. Nathaniel Bloom operated a fancy-goods store on Broadway for many years. What appears to be an early description of him was printed by Richard Maurice Bucke, ed., in Notes and Fragments from The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902), 9:142; Trent Collection, Duke University): "Bloom—Broad-shouldered, six-footer, with a hare-lip. Clever fellow, and by no means bad looking… Direct, plain-spoken, natural-hearted, gentle-tempered, but awful when roused—cartman, with a horse, cart &c, of his own—drives for a store in Maiden lane." Whitman referred to him in one of his notebooks (Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman, The Library of Congress, Notebook #109). Later in life Bloom was listed as an importer; his name does not appear in the Directories after 1900. [back]

2. John Frederick Schiller Gray was a captain in the Twentieth New York Infantry and later held the same rank in the Assistant Adjutant General's Volunteers. He became a major on January 4, 1865, and resigned on December 6 of the same year; see Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 2 vols. (Washington D.C.: Government Publications Office, 1903). In 1862 he fought in the battle at Antietam, and at Charles Pfaff's beer cellar located in lower Manhattan, he gave Whitman "a fearful account of the battlefield at ½ past 9 the night following the engagement." (For discussion of Whitman's activity at Pfaff's, see "The Bohemian Years.") See Whitman's notations in Frederick W. Hedge's Prose Writers of Germany, reprinted in Emory Holloway, ed., Walt Whitman—Complete Poetry & Selected Prose and Letters (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938), 1099. In 1864, according to one of Whitman's notebooks (Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman, The Library of Congress, Notebook #103), Gray was stationed at New Orleans. He graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York in 1871, and briefly practiced medicine with his father in New York. Whitman referred to him during this period in a notebook (The Library of Congress, Notebook #109). Later he practiced in Paris, Nice, and Geneva. He died of Bright's disease at St. Clair Springs, Michigan, on April 18, 1891; obituaries appeared in the New York Herald and the New York Tribune on August 19, 1891. [back]

3. William E. Barton, in Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1928), 48–49, attacks Whitman's gross overstatement, which was undoubtedly intended to impress his New York friends. [back]

4. Whitman referred with more restraint to this rebel officer in "Hospital Visits," which appeared in the New York Times, December 11, 1864, and later in The Wound Dresser: "One, a Mississippian—a captain—hit badly in the leg, I talked with some time; he asked me for papers, which I gave him. (I saw him three months afterward in Washington, with leg amputated, doing well)" (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 7:102–103). [back]

5. Whitman scribbled "Sight at the Lacy House" in his diary on December 22, 1862, when he was in the field with George: "At the foot of tree, immediately in front, a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening—in the garden near, a row of graves; some distance back, a little while afterwards, I saw a long row of them" (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 69–70), a description substantially repeated in "Hospital Visits" (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 7:102). [back]

6. See Whitman's letter from January 17, 1863 . Whitman retold this incident in "Democracy," The Galaxy, 4 (1867): 922. [back]

7. See the letter from February 13, 1863 . Whitman became eloquent about the beauty of Washington in the article he published in the New York Times on October 4, 1863. [back]

8. See Emerson's letters to Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward from January 10, 1863, and Whitman's letter from February 13, 1863[back]

9. William and Ellen O'Connor. [back]

10. Matilda Agnes Heron (1830–1877) was a famous interpreter of Camille and of Legouvé's Medea; see George C. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage (New York: Columbia University Press, 1928), 6:534–536. [back]

11. A Charles W. Chauncey was listed as an importer in the New York Directories of the period. In his reply on May 1, 1863, Gray wrote: "Charles Chauncey, of whose illness you have heard, is said to be much better. . . . Charley Russell was in town some weeks ago, he told me not to fail to send his warmest love to you. He is on Genl. Meade's staff as Medical Inspector General of the 5th Corps d'Armée—a first rate position and one that he has earned by his industry and talents." [back]

12. Construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848; construction was abandoned from 1855 to 1877; and finally it was completed in 1884. [back]

13. Dr. John F. Gray (1804–1882) was a celebrated homeopath. [back]

14. In Old Friends, Being Literary Recollections of Other Days (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1909), 66, 88, William Winter mentions Edward F. Mullen, an artist and a Pfaffian. On August 16, 1881, in Specimen Days (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 5:21), Whitman recorded a visit to Pfaff's Restaurant, during which the proprietor and he recalled "ante-bellum times" and the deaths of old habitués like "Mullin." [back]

15. Benjamin Knower was listed as a clerk (1862–1863) and later as a New York merchant. In an 1863 diary, Whitman noted the receipt of a letter from Knower on May 6 [Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 135]; Knower was also mentioned in two other diaries (The Library of Congress #104 and #108). [back]

16. This letter was sent to Charles S. Kingsley, who replied on March 21, 1863: "I received your letter and I delivered the enclosed one to Gray (not knowing where to find Bloom)." On May 5, 1863, one of John Burroughs's friends wrote to Kingsley: "He lent me some letters from some of his young friends in New York. They call him 'Walt,' and by reading you would judge him to be a young fellow, and indeed, he is young, with his perfect health and youthful tastes" (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931], 4).On May 1, 1863, Gray excused his neglect in replying because of his military duties and "bothering my brain with the detestable clerical duties incidental to my position": "I have just come from my Mother, who, together with my Father, desires to be kindly remembered to you. . . .I lead a very different life from what I did last summer—no more beer houses and disreputable 'cakes and ale.' Sometimes when I think of my poor little Clothilde and you I feel as if I were not as happy now as then. However, a man must work and woman must weep, I suppose! . . . I detest writing letters to a dear friend like you—it's such a devilish slow and insufficient way of communicating your thoughts. . . . the other day I took a walk in the central park with Perk; the park was so heavenly that it actually made me as sentimental and lachrymose as a school boy. I'm damned if I wouldn't have given up all my hopes in the future to have had you and my little girl with me then. Don't fail to write me, will you, old Boy! Be Christlike and forgive!" (Emory Holloway supplied a typescript of this letter to Miller).  [back]


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