Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Helen S. Cunningham to Walt Whitman, 11 June 1864

Date: June 11, 1864

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00164

Source: Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. The transcription presented here is derived from Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, ed. Charley Shively (San Francisco, California: Gay Sunshine Press, 1989), 134–135. 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, Joshua Ware, Luke Hollis, Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Kathryn Kruger, and Nick Krauter

Mr Whitman

It is with an aching heart that I1 address you this morning. I recd yours of the 2nd [This letter is currently lost] telling us of Oscars2 condition last Wednesday. I was going to start right of to see him I would have come long ago but he thought not, so did you. this time I intended to go whether anyone thought best or not but the same eve Liut Perry came bringing us the sad news of his death but did not tell us any of the particulars

Mr Whitman will you be so kind as to tell us all the particulars concerning Oscar was he expecting death to come so soon or did he leave any messages for us. the least thing from him will be interesting to me we were not expecting to hear of his death as all the news we got were favorable of late nor can we realise it yet we will try and submit to Gods will and feell that he does all things well we hope our loss is for his gain. I feel that you was Oscars friend and will be ours and again we thank you and will ever feel grateful to you for the kindness you have shown. I hope to hear from you soon yours with respect


1. Helen S. Cunningham was the sister of Oscar Cunningham, a soldier and patient in Army Square Hospital. Her first letter to Whitman was written on May 9, 1864[back]

2. "Oscar Cunningham, a young farmer from Delaware, Ohio, ... was wounded on May 3, 1863, in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Upon seeing him at Armory Square in June, Whitman was immediately struck by the beauty of the tall and fair soldier: 'Oscar H Cunningham bed 20 Ward K, Ohio boy, large, (told me he had usually weighed 200 lb) fracture of leg, above knee, rather bad—(a fine, magnificent specimen of western manliness).' Almost a full year after Oscar's arrival at Armory Square, Whitman noted that Oscar's 'leg is in a horrible condition, all livid & swollen out of shape—the chances are against him poor fellow.' On May 1, 1864, the doctors amputated Cunningham's right leg, and Whitman wrote on Oscar's behalf to his family, expressing new hope for Cunningham's recovery and telling them that it was unnecessary to make the long trip East. By June 3, however, Whitman told his own mother that the soldier he had visited for so long was near death: I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy—he is in a dying condition—there is no hope for him—it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him—his is all wasted away to a skeleton, & looks like some one fifty years old—you remember I told you a year ago, when he was first brought in, I thought him the noblest specimen of a young western man I had seen, a real giant in size, & always with a smile on his face—O what a change, he has long been very irritable, to every one but me, & his frame is all wasted away. Cunningham died on June 4, 1864, and was one of the first soldiers to be buried in the new Arlington National Cemetery. (Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals," Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 8 (Fall/Winter 1996–1997), 58–73, 92–93. Read the full article here.) See also Whitman's letters to his mother, which chronicle Oscar Cunningham's health and decline, written May 6, 1864, May 10, 1864, May 25, 1864, June 3, 1864, and June 7, 1864[back]


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