Title: 'Tis But Ten Years Since (Sixth Paper.)
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: March 7, 1874
Publication information: New York Weekly Graphic 7 March 1874: 46.
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00215
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, and Sarah Walker
cropped image 1
'TIS BUT TEN YEARS SINCE.*
BY WALT WHITMAN.
FROM MEMORANDA MADE AT THE TIME IN NEW YORK CITY, OR WASHINGTON, OR IN ARMY HOSPITALS, OR CAMP OR FIELD IN VIRGINIA.
DEATH OF A WISCONSIN OFFICER.
Here is another characteristic scene of the dark and bloody year 1863, from notes of my visit to Armory Square Hospital,1 one hot but pleasant summer day:
In Ward H we approach the cot of a young Lieutenant of one of the Wisconsin regiments. Tread the bare board floor lightly here, for the pain and panting of death are in this cot! I saw the Lieutenant when he was first brought here from Chancellorsville, and have been with him occasionally from day to day, and night to night. He has been getting along pretty well, till night before last, when a sudden hemorrhage that could not be stopped came upon him, and to-day it still continues at intervals. Notice that water-pail by the side of the bed, with a quantity of blood and bloody pieces of muslin—nearly full; that tells the story. The poor young man is lying panting, struggling painfully for breath, his great dark eyes with a glaze already upon them, and the choking faint but audible in his throat. An attendant sits by him and will not leave him till the last; yet little or nothing can be done. The young man will die here in an hour or two without the presence of kith or kin. Meantime the ordinary chat and business of the ward a little way off goes on indifferently. Some of the inmates are laughing and joking, others are playing checkers or cards, others are reading, &c.
I have noticed through most of the hospitals that as long as there is any chance for a man, no matter how bad he may be, the surgeon and nurses work hard, sometimes with curious tenacity, for his life, doing everything and keeping somebody by him to execute the doctor's orders and minister to him every minute night and day.
See that screen there. As you advance through the dusk of early candle-light a nurse will step forth on tip-toe, and silently but imperiously forbid you to make any noise, or perhaps to come near at all. Some soldier's life is flickering there, suspended between recovery and death. Perhaps at this moment the exhausted frame has just fallen into a light sleep that a step might shake. You must retire. The neighboring patients must move in their stocking feet. I have been several times struck with such marked efforts—everything bent to save a life from the very grip of the destroyer.
But when that grip is once firmly fixed, leaving no hope or chance at all, the surgeon abandons the patient. If it is a case where stimulus is any relief, the nurse gives milk-punch or brandy, or whatever is wanted, ad libitum. There is no fuss made. Not a bit of sentimentalism or whining have I seen about a single death-bed in hospital or on the field, but generally impassive indifference. All is over, as far as any efforts can avail: it is useless to expend emotions or labors. While there is a prospect they strive hard—at least most surgeons do; but death certain and evident, they yield the field.
LOVING MAGNETISM AS MEDICINE.
To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in the magnetism of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world. I have spoken of my regular gifts of delicacies, money, tobacco, special articles of food, knick-knacks, &c., &c. But I steadily found more and more that I could turn the balance in favor of cure, by the means here alluded to, in a curiously large proportion of cases. The average American soldier is full not only of pride but of affection, and the yearning for affection. And it comes wonderfully grateful to him to have this yearning gratified when he is laid up with painful wounds or illness, far away from home, among strangers. Many will think this merely imaginary, but I know it is the most solid of facts. Even the moving around among the men, or through the hospital ward, of a hearty, healthy, clean, strong, generous-souled person, man or woman, full of humanity and love, sending out invisible constant currents thereof, does immense good to the sick and wounded.
EACH EMERGENCY ANSWERED—1864-5.
In these hospitals, or on the field, as I thus continue to go round, I have come to adapt myself to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn—every one justified and made real under its circumstances. Reading passages from the Bible, expounding them, prayer at the bedside, explanations of doctrine, have been several times among my serious duties. (I think I see my friends smiling at this confession, but I was never more in earnest in my life.)
For three years, in these scenes, in Washington, in camp, and everywhere, I was in the habit of reading to the men. They were very fond of it, and liked declamatory poetical pieces. Scotch or Irish ballads, Macaulay's poetry,2 one or two of Longfellow's pieces,3 translations from Schiller,4 and Miles O'Reilly's pieces were great favorites.5 I have had many happy evenings with the men. We would gather in a large group by ourselves, after supper, and spend the time in such readings, or in talking, and occasionally by an amusing game called the game of Twenty Questions.
Through Fourteenth street to the river, and then over the Long Bridge, and some three miles beyond, is the huge collection called the Convalescent Camp. It is a respectable sized army in itself, for these hospitals, tents, sheds, &c., at times contain from five to ten thousand men. Of course, there are continual changes. Large squads are sent off to their regiments or elsewhere, and new men received. Sometimes I found large numbers of paroled returned prisoners here.
WOUNDS AND DISEASES.
A large majority of the wounds are in the arms and legs. But there is every kind of wound in every part of the body. I should say of the sick, from my observation, that the prevailing maladies are typhoid fever and the camp fevers generally, diarrhœa, catarrhal affections and bronchitis, rheumatism and pneumonia. These forms of sickness lead; all the rest follow. There are twice as many sick as there are wounded. The deaths range from 6 to 10 per cent. of those under treatment.
As a very large proportion of the wounded came up from the front without a cent of money in their pockets, I soon discovered that it was about the best thing I could do to raise their spirits, and show them that somebody cared for them and practically felt a fatherly or brotherly interest in them, to give them small sums, in such cases, using tact and discretion about it. I am regularly supplied with funds for this purpose by good women and men in Boston, Salem, Providence, Brooklyn, and New York.
As I have recurred to this subject several times in the present notes, I may take this opportunity to ventilate and sum up the financial question. My supplies, altogether voluntary, mostly confidential, often seeming quite Providential, were numerous and varied. For instance, there were two distant and wealthy ladies, sisters, who sent regularly, for two years, quite heavy sums, enjoining that their names should be kept secret. The same delicacy was indeed a frequent condition. From several I had carte blanche. Many were entire strangers. From these sources, during from two to three years, in the manner described, in the hospitals, I bestowed over $50,000 in money—and considerably more than that amount in other forms. I learned one thing conclusively—that beneath all the ostensible greed and heartlessness of our times there is no end to the generous benevolence of men and women in the United States, when once sure of their object. Another thing became clear to me—while cash is not amiss to bring up the rear, tact and magnetic sympathy and unction are, and ever will be, sovereign still.
He who goes among the soldiers with gifts, &c., must yet beware how he proceeds. It is much more of an art than one would imagine. They are not charity-patients, but American young men, of pride and independence. The spirit in which you treat them, and bestow your donations, is just as important as the gifts themselves; sometimes more so. Then there is continual hygienic tact and discrimination necessary. Besides, each case requires some peculiar adaptation to itself. It is very important to slight nobody—not a single case. Some hospital visitors, especially the women, pick out the handsomest looking soldiers, or have a few for their pets. Of course some will attract you more than others, and some will need more attention than others; but be careful not to ignore any patient. A word, a friendly turn of the eye, or touch of the hand in passing, if nothing more.
A GLIMPSE FROM MY NOTES.
It is Sunday afternoon (middle of summer, 1864), hot and oppressive, and very silent through the ward. I am taking care of a critical case, now lying in a half lethargy. Near where I sit is a suffering rebel, from the Eighth Louisiana; his name is Irving. He has been here a long time, badly wounded, and lately had his leg amputated. It is not doing very well. Right opposite me is a sick soldier-boy, laid down with his clothes on, sleeping, looking much wasted, his pallid face on his arm. I see by the yellow trimming on his jacket that he is a cavalry boy. He looks so handsome as he sleeps, one must needs go nearer to him. I step softly over and find by his card that he is named William Cone, of the First Maine Cavalry, and his folks live in Skowhegan.
One hot day toward the middle of June, 1864, I gave the inmates of Carver Hospital6 a general ice-cream treat, purchasing a large quantity, and, under convoy of the doctor or head nurse of each ward, going around personally through the wards to see to its distribution.
CALHOUN'S REAL MONUMENT.
May 12, 1865.—In one of the hospital tents for special cases, as I sat to-day tending a new amputation, I heard a couple of neighboring soldiers talking to each other from their cots. One down with fever, but improving, had come up from Charleston not long before. The other was what we now call an "old veteran" (i. e., he was a Connecticut youth, probably of less than the age of twenty-five years, the four last of which he had spent in active service in the war in all parts of the country). The two were chatting of one thing and another. The fever soldier spoke of John C. Calhoun's monument,7 which he had seen, and was describing it. The veteran said: "I have seen Calhoun's monument. That you saw is not the real monument. But I have seen it. It is the desolated, ruined South; nearly the whole generation of young men between seventeen and fifty destroyed or maimed; all the old families used up—the rich impoverished, the plantations covered with weeds, the slaves unloosed and become the masters, and the name of Southerner blacken'd with every shame—all that is Calhoun's real monument."
May 26–9, 1865.—The streets, the public buildings and grounds of Washington swarm all day long with soldiers from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, and all the Western States, temporarily camped here in Sherman's8 returning armies. I am continually meeting and talking with them. They often speak to me first, and always show great sociability, and glad to have a good interchange of chat.
These Western soldiers are more slow in their movements and in their intellectual quality also; have no extreme alertness. They are larger in size, have a more serious physiognomy, are continually looking at you as they pass in the street. They are largely animal, and handsomely so. During the war I have been at times with the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Twentieth Corps. I always feel drawn toward the men, and like their personal contact when we are crowded close together, as frequently these days in the street-cars. They all think the world of General Sherman; call him "Old Bill," or sometimes "Uncle Billy."
THE THREE YEARS.
With these lines—though I have only broached or suggested the exhaustless stores of romance, daring, pathos, &c., of the war—I must conclude my sketches. During my three years in the army hospitals, and in the field, ending in 1865, I made over 600 visits, and went, as I estimate, among from 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need. These visits varied from an hour or two, to all day or night; for with dear or critical cases I watched all night. Sometimes I took up my quarters in the hospital, and slept or watched there several nights in succession.
Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights), and, of course, the most profound lesson and reminiscence, of my life. I can say that in my ministerings I comprehended all and slighted none. (Perhaps I am a little vain about it.) It afforded me, too, the perusal of those infinite, subtlest, rarest volumes of Humanity, laid bare in its inmost recesses, and of actual life and death, better than the finest, most labored shams in the libraries. It aroused and brought out and decided undreamed-of depths of emotion. It has given me my plainest and most fervent views of the true ensemble and extent of the States. While I have been with wounded and sick in thousands of cases from the New England States, and from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and from Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and the Western States, I have been with more or less from all the States North and South, without exception. I have been with many from the Border States, especially from Maryland and Virginia, and found, during those lurid years 1862–65, far more Union Southerners, especially Tennesseans, than is supposed. I have been with many rebel officers and men among our wounded, and given them always what I had, and tried to cheer them the same as any. I have been among the army teamsters considerably, and, indeed, always find myself drawn to them. Among the black soldiers, wounded or sick, and in the contraband camps, I also took my way whenever in their neighborhood, and did what I could for them.
1. 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]
2. Whitman likely refers to Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British poet more famous for his prose. He was also an historian and politician. [back]
3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was a celebrated American poet. For a comparison of Whitman's and Longfellow's poetry, see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Knopf, 1995), 352–353. [back]
4. Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was a famous German philosopher, playwright, and poet. [back]
5. Miles O'Reilly, also known as Charles Graham Halpine, was an Irish Catholic poet who moved to New York in 1851 and served as a French translator for the New York Herald and associate editor for the New York Times before the war. He enlisted in the Union army in 1861 and began publishing poems and letters inspired by his war experiences. [back]
6. Carver Hospital was a former barracks, like Campbell and other Washington Hospitals. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]
7. Hiram Powers erected a John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1850; it was destroyed in 1865. [back]
8. Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman became most famous for his March to the Sea in November and December 1864; his use of total war tactics left Georgia in ruins. [back]