Title: The Soldiers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: March 6, 1865
Publication information: New-York Times 6 March 1865: 2.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00203
Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Elizabeth Lorang
cropped image 1
Soldiers in the Streets of Washington—Extracts from a Diary—Four Brothers, but One Left—Boys in the Army—An Unknown Hero.
From An Occasional Correspondent.
WASHINGTON, February 28, 1865.
This city, its suburbs, the Capitol, the front of the White House, the places of amusement, the avenue, and all the main streets swarm with soldiers this Winter more than ever before. Some are out from the hospitals, some from the neighboring camps, &c. Out of one source or another they pour in plenteously, and make, I should say, the marked feature in the human movement and costume appearance of our national city. Their blue pants and overcoats are everywhere. The clump of crutches is heard, and up the stairs of the Paymasters' offices; and there are characteristic groups around the doors of the same, often waiting long and wearily in the cold.
Toward the latter part of the afternoon you see the furloughed men, sometimes singly, sometimes in small squads, making their way to the Baltimore depot. At all times, except early in the morning, the patrol detachments are moving around, especially during the earlier hours of the evening, examining passes and arresting all without them. They do not question the one-legged, or men badly disabled or maimed, but all others are stopped. They also go around through the auditoriums of the theatres, and make officers and all show their passes, or other authority, for being here.
FOUR BROTHERS—BUT ONE LEFT.
JAN. 28.—As I turned off the avenue into Thirteenth-street, a soldier, with knapsack and overcoat on, stood at the corner inquiring his way. I found he wanted to go part of the road in my direction, so we walked on together. We soon fell into conversation. He was small and not very young, and a tough little fellow, as I judged in the evening light, catching glimpses by the lamps we passed. His answers were short, but clear. His name was CHARLES CARROLL; he belonged to one of the Massachusetts regiments, and was born in or near Lynn.1 His parents were living, but were very old. There were four sons, and all had enlisted. Two had died of starvation and misery in the prison at Andersonville, Georgia, and one had been killed in battle in the West. He only was left. He was not going home, and, by the way he talked, I inferred that his time was nearly out. He made great calculations on being with his parents to comfort them the rest of their days. Some small offers of hospitality I made he declined.
A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN HOSPITAL.
JAN. 29.—I have been in Armory-square Hospital this afternoon.2 The wards are very comfortable, with new floors and plaster walls, and models of neatness. I am not sure but this is a model hospital, after all, in the most important respects. I found several sad cases of old, lingering wounds. One Delaware soldier, WM. H. MILLS, from Bridgeville, whom I had been with after the battle of the Wilderness,3 last May, where he received a very bad wound in the chest, with another in the left arm, and whose case was serious (pneumonia had set in) all last June and July, I now find well enough to do light duty. For three weeks at the time mentioned, he just hovered between life and death. To Dr. ROBBINS, the ward Surgeon, Dr. BLISS,4 the Surgeon in charge, and the lady nurse of Ward B, he probably owes his life.
BOYS IN THE ARMY.
As I walked home about sunset, I saw in Fourteenth-street, a very young soldier, thinly clad, standing near the house I was about to enter. I stopped a moment in front of the door and called him to me. I knew that an old campaign Tennessee Union regiment, and also an Indiana regiment, were temporarily stopping in new barracks, near Fourteenth-street. This boy I found belonged to the Tennessee regiment. But I could hardly believe he carried a musket. He was but 15 years old, yet had been twelve months a soldier, and had borne his part in several battles, even historic ones.
I asked him if he did not suffer from the cold and if he had no overcoat. No, he did not suffer from cold, and had no overcoat, but could draw one whenever he wished. His father was dead and his mother living in some part of East Tennessee; all the men were from that part of the country.
The next forenoon I saw the Tennessee and Indiana regiments marching down the avenue. My boy was with the former, stepping along with the rest. There were several other boys no older. I stood and watched them as they tramped along with slow, strong, heavy, regular steps. There did not appear to be a man over 30 years of age, and a large proportion were from 15 to perhaps 22 or 23. They had all the look of veterans, worn, stained, impassive, and a certain unbent, louping gait, carrying in addition to their regular arms and knapsacks frequently, a frying-pan, broom, &c. They were all of pleasant, even handsome physiognomy; no refinement, nor blanched with intellect, but as my eye picked them, moving along, rank by rank, there did not seem to be a single repulsive, brutal or markedly stupid face among them.
BURIAL OF A LADY NURSE.
Here is an incident that has just occurred in one of the hospitals. A lady named Miss or Mrs. BILLINGS,5 who has long been a practical friend of soldiers and nurse in the army, and had become attached to it in a way that no one can realize but him or her who has had experience, was taken sick, early this Winter, lingered some time, and finally died in the hospital. It was her request that she should be buried among the soldiers, and after the military method. The request was fully carried out. Her coffin was carried to the grave by soldiers, with the usual escort, buried, and a salute fired over the grave. This was at Annapolis a few days since.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT FEMALE NURSES FOR SOLDIERS.
There are many women in one position or another, among the hospitals, mostly as nurses here in Washington, and all around among the military stations; most of them are young ladies acting as volunteers. They are a great help in certain ways, and deserve to be mentioned with praise and respect. Then it remains to be distinctly said that few or no young ladies, under the irresistible conventions of society, answer the real practical requirements of nurses for these collections of soldiers. Middle-aged or healthy and good conditioned elderly women, mothers of children, are always best. Many of the wounded must be handled. A hundred things which cannot be gainsayed, must occur and must be done. The presence of a good middle-aged or elderly woman, the magnetic touch of hands, the expressive features of the mother, the silent soothing of her presence, her words, her knowledge, and privileges arrived at only through having had children, are precious and final qualifications. Mrs. H. J. WRIGHT, of Mansion House Hospital, Alexandria, is one of those good nurses.6 I have known her for over two years in her labors of love. It is a natural faculty that is required; it is not merely having a genteel young woman at a table in a ward. One of the finest nurses I have met was a red-faced old Irish woman; I have seen her take the poor wasted naked boys so tenderly up in her arms. There are plenty of excellent clean old black women that would make tip-top nurses.
AN UNKNOWN HERO, THOUGH AN ENEMY.
The brave, grand soldiers are not comprised in those of one side, any more than the other. Here is a sample of an unknown Southerner, a lad of seventeen. At the War Department, a few days ago, I witnessed a presentation of captured flags to the Secretary. Among others, a soldier named GANT, of the One Hundred and Fourth Ohio Volunteers, presented a rebel battle-flag, which one of the officers stated was borne to the mouth of our cannon and planted there by a boy but seventeen years of age, who actually endeavored to stop the muzzle of the gun with fence-rails. He was killed in the effort, and the flag-staff was severed by a shot from one of our men. Perhaps, in that boy of seventeen, untold in history, unsung in poems, altogether unnamed, felt as strong a spirit, and as sweet, as any in this war, (and that is as much as to say, any in all time.)
As I am now, after an interval, visiting the hospitals again, and among the soldiers, wounded or ill, or in their camps or barracks, as during the past two years, I would like to state that letters by mail, relating to the sick or wounded, directed to me simply to Washington, D.C., will reach me.
1. The Charles Carroll about whom Whitman writes is probably Charles A. Carroll, of Lynn, Massachusetts, who enlisted in April 1861. Carroll was mustered out on June 17, 1865 at Washington, D.C. (American Civil War Research Database [Duxbury, Massachusetts: Alexander Street Press]). Grant Carroll of Lynn, Massachusetts died at Andersonville on August 1, 1864, and Obed J. Carroll died at Andersonville on July 31, 1864. [back]
2. Armory Square Hospital was the hospital Whitman most frequently visited in Washington, D.C. Because of Armory Square's location near a steamboat landing and railroad, it received the bulk of serious casualties from Virginia battlefields. At the end of the war it recorded the highest number of deaths among Washington hospitals. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]
3. The Battle of the Wilderness (Virginia, May 5–7, 1864) was the first battle of General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign. It was fought between Union General Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee; the results of the battle were inconclusive. [back]
4. According to Martin G. Murray, D. Willard Bliss spoke highly of Whitman, saying that "no one person who assisted in the hospitals during the war accomplished so much good to the soldier and for the Government as Mr. Whitman." See Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." Dr. Bliss also helped coordinate President Lincoln's wartime visits to Armory-Square Hospital and later treated President Garfield after he was shot in 1881. [back]
5. Nurse Billings was Rose M. Billing (no "s"), who served as a nurse from 1861 through the end of 1864. She worked in the Indiana Hospital and the Falls Church Hospital, and at Fredericksburg and Annapolis. Billing died at the Navy School Hospital in Annapolis of typhus on January 14, 1864. See L. P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy & Co., 1867), 460; and Joan M. Dixon, ed., National Intelligencer Newspaper Abstracts: July 1, 1863–December 31, 1865 (Westminster, Maryland: Heritage Books, 2000), 2:318. [back]
6. While Whitman deleted this mention of Nurse Wright when he reprinted this section in Specimen Days (he retained the mention of her in Memoranda During the War), he does mention her in Some Specimen Cases in Specimen Days (1882). [back]