Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 26 January 1865

Date: January 26, 1865

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00433

Source: Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The transcription presented here is derived from Thomas Jefferson Whitman, Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, ed. Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1984), 98-99. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, Kathryn Kruger, and April Lambert

Brooklyn, N. Y.,1
Jan 26th 1865

Dear Brother Walt,

Mother received your letter2 to-night—we were all very glad to hear that you arrived so nicely and were so well established—The enclosed two letters came to-day3—I sent the box to dear brother George yesterday at noon directed just as you left word—I got some hoop iron and straped the box up strong—I dont suppose there can be anything wrong in sending it straped in that way—do you suppose there is? I had in it a ham piece of smoked beef can of milk (condensed) coffee can of peaches—crackers—potatoes—salt—and the clothes that he sent for—I think I will send him another next week or week after—We were all elated upon seeing the letters published yesterday about the exchange of prisoners.4 O I so hope they will make an exchange—can you not write something that will keep up the talk about the matter, sometimes little weights when the[y] fall at the right moment turn the scale and accomplish great results  Seems as if twould be worth almost a life time to help along such a thing as the general exchange of prisoners—

so you have assumed the duties and honors of an officer of the government5  Mother was wondering at tea to-night what you would have to do—I told her that undoubtedly the first thing would be to calculate just exactly how many little indians John Brown6 did have—as that was the first thing the clerks had to do in the Indian dept.—What the devil is the Indian dept.—? It is suggestive of scalps, war and paint—whiskey and laziness  However I suppose you have not yet had time to tell what the business is about but anyhow if it is only a comfortable berth without too much hard work, it will come in good7—I hope you will have good health—I would suggest that you should not go it too strong in the Hospital way, for a while—I would draw it mild for a month or so—How does it seem to you to go back—I suppose it looks quite natural—I hope to be able to come and make you a visit soon—probabaly some time next mont[h]—Write to me Walt—I like to hear from you often—Write to George tell him we sent his box and will send more

Yours affectionately Jeff

Mother, Mat and the babies send their love  the baby calls Walt—and asks if he is gone—Hat wants to be remembere[d] to Uncle Walt—


1. After suffering from dizzy spells, Walt left Washington on June 22, 1864, for an extended period of recuperation at home. While the poet was in Brooklyn, his brother George was captured on September 30, 1864, at Poplar Grove, Virginia, sent to prisons in Salisbury, North Carolina, and Richmond, and eventually placed in a Confederate military prison at Danville, Virginia, about October 22 (Jerome M. Loving, ed., Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 18). The four letters written after Walt's return to Washington on January 23, 1865, reveal how Jeff and Walt coordinated their efforts in sending food and clothing to George and attempting to secure his release.This was a period of great fear, anxiety, and frustration for the Whitman family. Daily they read lurid newspaper accounts of the barbarous conditions in Confederate prisons and hospitals, including several articles by an escaped prisoner of war, Albert D. Richardson. In public testimony before a congressional committee, Richardson charged "that the rebel authorities are murdering our soldiers at Salisbury by cold and hunger, while they might easily supply them with ample food and fuel" (Brooklyn Daily Union, January 31, 1865). He accused the Confederates of deliberate and systematic atrocities and estimated that prisoners "were dying at the average rate of twenty-eight per day, or thirteen per cent per month" (Evening Post, January 31, 1865). Such harrowing stories must have moved the Whitmans to despair of recovering George.

At the same time, the likelihood of a general prisoner exchange seemed ever more remote. Exchanges had seldom worked well in this war and had long been a subject of controversy among Union leaders. Grant had ordered all exchanges halted until the Confederates improved their treatment of black prisoners and released enough Union men to offset those Confederates who had been exchanged but had illegally returned to arms. Richardson's articles and former Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Butler's speech of January 28, 1865, confirmed Jeff's fears that Grant did not want to exchange "good men for poor ones," and he somewhat pathetically asked Walt how Grant could be "willing to let the men starve and die without result" (see Jeff Whitman's letter to Walt from January 31, 1865). But Richardson claimed that such was the "cold-blooded" policy of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and that it had already cost the lives of ten thousand Union solders; and Butler, who had long advocated a more liberal exchange program, exculpated himself and placed responsibility squarely upon Grant.

While modern historians have rejected the notion that conditions in Confederate prison camps resulted from a willful and systematic policy, they have confirmed that Grant did halt prisoner exchanges in order to deprive the South of needed reinforcements. Only in late January 1865, when he realized the war was coming to an end, did Grant agree to a policy of even exchange. The uncertainties and tensions of these two weeks intensified Jeff's fears for George's health and safety and gave added cause for his skepticism of public officials. [back]

2. Whitman's letter of about January 25 is not extant. This letter is not listed among the poet's lost letters (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:368). [back]

3. Unidentified. [back]

4. On January 24, 1865, the Evening Post published on the front page Grant's letter of January 21 to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stating that a limited exchange of prisoners was under way at Richmond and that a general exchange should soon follow. Grant added that supplies were being distributed to prisoners by Union agents. The Post also reprinted Stanton's letter to the House of Representatives which indicated that Grant had had authority to make such an exchange since October 15, 1864, and that now the exchange appeared unlikely. [back]

5. Whitman was a first-class (lowest grade) clerk in the Indian Bureau, a branch of the Department of the Interior. [back]

6. Of course Jeff refers not to his neighbor John Brown but to the abolitionist leader who had seized the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry and been memorialized in a popular song, "John Brown had a little Indian." [back]

7. Whitman responded on January 30, 1865: "It is easy enough—I take things very easy—the rule is to come at 9 and go at 4—but I don't come at 9, and only stay till 4 when I want." The job was perfect for it allowed Whitman time for both his hospital visits and his literary pursuits. [back]


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