Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Martha Whitman to Walt Whitman, 21–23 December 1863

Date: December 21–23, 1863

Whitman Archive ID: owu.00002

Source: The Bayley-Whitman Collection, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, OH. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman, ed. Randall H. Waldron (New York: New York University Press, 1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Sister Matty," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Vanessa Steinroetter, Alex Kinnaman, Nicole Gray, and Kenneth M. Price

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Monday Dec 21/63

Dear Brother Walt

I have just received a letter from you1 and as I am rocking the baby2 I thought I would answer it but you will [have to take?] it written with pencil I feel a little annoyed that Jeff should have written you about Jess although it was an aweful scene and I do not want to witness another for I must say I never was so frightened in my life I cannot write you the particulars it would take so long he commenced at Hattie because she pushed a chair it was not what she done for he wanted a chance all day to have a [muss?] with some one he flew at Hattie uttering a terrible oath I protected her and told him to let her alone she had done no harm then he said 'I would not hurt the child no indeed but you D_ old B_ you have been picking at me all day and I will soon put an end to you he flew right towards me he looked just like a madman and what he would have done if your mother had not interfered the Lord only knows I still thought I would not let him see I was affraid and I told him he better try it if he dare to when he flew at me again and said he did not mean to hurt me but now he Be D_ if he would'nt knock my brains out such a D_ fool as I was hadn't right to live I managed to get out of the basement3 but it was a long time before I could get up stairs when Jeff came home I told him about it and he was very much excited and was going downstairs but I beged of him to stay you know Dear Brother how Impulsive Jeff is but come to the point I dont think Jeff would do a rash act any quicker than I or you would he is naturrally so good and kind my back achued two or three days and it made Jeff very angry I do not have Jess up in my room any more he has not rocked the baby since that Friday4 he is very ugly and irritable he sleeps till late every afternoon Mother feels very bad that I wont have him up stairs because it deprives her the pleasure of spending most of her time with me and especially her evenings5 but he has such ugly spells that I am affraid of him last week he got angry at Hattie twice and made terrible threats and this conduct is nothing new only he used to confine it to your mother I have often seen him take up a chair to throw at her but we must submit to it and try to bear with him I think sometimes it is very hard for mother to have so much trouble she feels it more now than ever before but I can never consent to have him in my room again I think Poor Dear Andrews death has shocked him very much6 I think just as much of him now as I ever did but he has taken such a dislike to Hattie that I am affraid to have him up stairs he sometimes says if he could be where there was no young ones he would get his senses but you must not think any thing of what Jeff said about shooting him for you must know he wouldn't do any thing of the kind

Well Dear Brother I dont know as there is any news to write about we are here about the same as when you left7 only we miss Andrew coming around every day Jimmy has been very sick he has had the Gastric fever but is better now, when I think about Andrews family it makes me feel very bad they are so utterly distitute Mother sent them 50 cts last Thursday and afterwards I thought I would go arround and see Jimmy I took him a chicken he said he thought he would get well now, he liked chicken I asked Nancy if she had things to eat she said yes I knew by her manner it was not so and come to question her she had nothing but a crust of bread I gave her a Dollar it was all the money I had and I sent her arround a large basket of Provisions when Jeff came home I told him about it he went arround to see Nancy intending to give her some money but Milgate8 had just been there and gave her $30.00—he raffled off Andrews tools at 25 cts a chance it came in first rate and this morning Cornell9 sent for Nancy and told her he would buy her a sewing Machine but she will never make out much as she is in the street most all day I feel very sorry for her her case is aweful she is going to have another child10 and it seems as if the creature cant do much but it seems as if the Lord always provides for the Widow and I feel confident that He will provide for her Mr Rodgers lost his wife very suddenly last week you know him he lives in this street and Jenny Ward11 has lost her husband he died to his fathers went over there to see his doctor last Friday week and died the following Monday Jenny was here the night he died she said she expected him over the next day you know he has been sick a long time he was found dead in his chair. We are very lonesome here Jeff has gone away again he is now at Albany12 I expect him home Friday Dear Brother I commenced this letter Monday and I am finishing it today Wednesday Mother has just received a letter from you and she said she could not put Jess in the Asylum that it would be time enough when she was dead that she could not stand it to see [him?] go he does not seem any worse than he has been and untill matters get worse I dont think you could pursuade her to send him Well Dear Brother you see I am rather crowding things on this page and I shall have to stop I have been trying to plan some way to send you a mince pie I made 17 large [ones?] and they are splendid if you could get a pass I think it would pay to come home and I will make you some [illegible] cakes just think about it I sometimes wonder if we will ever live together again and have George home going to work every day like he used to Wouldn't it be pleasant now I think I have told you all the news but I must not finish without saying something about my two little darlings Hattie is about as mischievous as ever a great deal of company for me now Jeff is away she is better than when you was home and little California I think is just about cunning enough she is fatter than ever and when I think about them both I flatter myself that I have got about the nicest prettiest little creatures that can be found any where. Now Dear Brother I will close and if you will write me again I will answer.

Your affectionate sister


1. This letter is not known. [back]

2. Jessie Louisa, who later in the letter is referred to as "California." [back]

3. The basement of the house on Portland Avenue was the Whitmans' main, and "a little crampt," living space, much of the house being rented out to the John Brown family (see the letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman of April 3, 1860). In spite of the close quarters, Walt Whitman, after moving to Washington, remembered the basement fondly: "if I could only be home two or three days & have some good teas with you [Mrs. Whitman] & Mat & set in the old basement a while..." (The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York University Press, 1961–69], 1:210). [back]

4. It had been his habit to rock the cradle for Mattie "day in and day out" (see the letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman of August 31 or September 2, 1863). [back]

5. Mrs. Whitman's feelings about this prohibition differed markedly from Mattie's estimate of them: "you know they wont have Jess up stairs now so we have the benefit of the children down stairs i dont mind the baby but i really think hattie is the worst child i ever had any thing to doo with so very ugly with her mischiev[ing?]" (see the letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman of December 25, 1863). [back]

6. Mrs. Whitman wrote in her letter to Walt of December 4–5 that "seeing his brothers corps seemed to effect him very much." [back]

7. Whitman had left Brooklyn in mid-December, 1862, to find his brother George, who had been reported wounded. After staying with George for two weeks in a camp near Falmouth, Virginia, he took up residence in Washington, working part-time in the army Paymaster's office (see Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer [New York: Macmillan, 1955], 282–86). [back]

8. Milgate was one of the men who had worked with Andrew at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (see the letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman of December 28, 1863). [back]

9. Undoubtedly James H. Cornwell, Andrew's friend and frequent companion, after whom Andrew named his son James Cornwell Whitman—see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs: Comrades (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 82. Cornwell was probably the son of Justice James Cornwell, about whom Walt Whitman wrote a sketch, "Scenes in a Police Justice's Court Room," for the Brooklyn Daily Times. The sketch is reprinted in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Emory Holloway (New York: Peter Smith, 1932), 2:10–12. Mrs. Whitman's letters repeatedly refer to Andrew's friend and to the Justice as "Cornell," and Mattie apparently followed her in this error. For an extended discussion of James Cornwell's friendship with Andrew, see Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975), 165–67. [back]

10. If we are to believe the worst of Mrs. Whitman's remark that Nancy "goes it yet in the street," (see the letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman of December 25, 1863) she had become a prostitute, perhaps even before Andrew's death; yet there is no reason to believe that Andrew was not the father of the son she bore the following spring, who was called Andrew Whitman. "Little Andrew" was run over and killed by a brewery wagon in September 1868, just a few months after Nancy had given birth to twins, one stillborn (Allen, 397–98; Loving, 13). See the letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman of May? 1868[back]

11. Jenny DeB[eron?] Ward, a friend of the Whitmans. Jeff wrote to Walt on December 28, 1863 of the death of her husband James. [back]

12. Jeff frequently did extra surveying jobs which took him out of town. [back]


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