Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Ralph Waldo Emerson, 17 January 1863

Date: January 17, 1863

Whitman Archive ID: uva.00344

Source: Clifton Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia. The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 1:68-70. 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, Eric Conrad, and Alyssa Olson

Your letters from Buffalo have just come to hand.1 They find me still hanging around here—my plans, wants, ideas, &c gradually getting into shape.2

I go a great deal into the Hospitals. Washington is full of them—both in town and out around the outskirts. Some of the larger ones are towns in themselves. In small and large, all forty to fifty thousand inmates are ministered to, as I hear. Being sent for by a particular soldier, three weeks since, in the Campbell Hospital,3 I soon fell to going there and elsewhere to like places daily. The first shudder has long passed over, and I must say I find deep things, unreckoned by current print or speech. The Hospital, I do not find it, the repulsive place of sores and fevers, nor the place of querulousness, nor the bad results of morbid years which one avoids like bad s[mells]—at least [not] so is it under the circumstances here—other hospitals may be, but not here.

I desire and intend to write a little book out of this phase of America, her masculine young manhood, its conduct under most trying of and highest of all exigency, which she, as by lifting a corner in a curtain, has vouchsafed me to see America, already brought to Hospital in her fair youth—brought and deposited here in this great, whited sepulchre of Washington itself—(this union Capital without the first bit of cohesion—this collect of proofs how low and swift a good stock can deteriorate—) Capital to which these deputies most strange arrive from every quarter, concentrating here, well-drest, rotten, meagre, nimble and impotent, full of gab, full always of their thrice-accursed party —arrive and skip into the seats of mightiest legislation, and take the seats of judges and high executive seats—while by quaint Providence come also sailed and wagoned hither this other freight of helpless worn and wounded youth, genuine of the soil, of darlings and true heirs to me the first unquestioned and convincing western crop, prophetic of the future, proofs undeniable to all men's ken of perfect beauty, tenderness and pluck that never race yet rivalled.

But more, a new world here I find as I would show—a world full of its separate action, play, suggestiveness—surely a medium world, advanced between our well-known practised one of body and of mind, and one there may-be somewhere on beyond, we dream of, of the soul.

Not to fly off to these clouds, however, I must abruptly say to my friends, where interested, that I find the best expression of American character I have ever seen or conceived—practically here in these ranks of sick and dying young men—nearly all I have seen, (five-sixths I think of those I have seen,) farmers' sons from the West, northwest—and from Pennsylvania, New York, and from largely among the rest your Massachusetts, &c—now after great and terrible experiences, here in their barracks they lie—in those boarded Washington hospital barracks, whitewashed outside and in, one story, high enough, airy and clean enough—one of the Wards, for sample, a long stretch, a hundred and sixty feet long, with aisle down the middle, with cots, fifty or more on each side—and Death there up and down the aisle, tapping lightly by night or day here and there some poor young man, with relieving touch—that is one Ward, a cluster of ten or twelve make a current Washington Hospital—wherein this moment lie languishing, burning with fever or down with diarrhea, the imperial blood and rarest marrow of the North—here, at any rate, as I go for a couple of hours daily, and get to be welcome and useful, I find the masses fully justified by closest contact, never vulgar, ever calm, without greediness, no flummery, no frivolity—responding electric and without fail to affection, yet no whining—not the first unmanly whimper have I yet seen or heard.

In the Patent Office Hospital, Dr. Stone,4 (Horatio Stone the sculptor—in his ward, some 150 men—he has been surgeon here several months—has had successive changes of soldiers in charge—some bad wounds, of course—amputations, sometimes rapidly followed by death, &c.—others from fevers, &c. &c.)—he told me last evening that he had not in memory one single case of a man's meeting the approach of death, whether sudden or slow, with fear or trembling—but always of these young men meeting their death with steady composure, and often with curious readiness—

The Army (I noticed it first in camp, and the same here among the wounded) is very young —and far more American than we supposed—ages range mainly from 20 to 30—a slight sprinkling of men older—and a bigger sprinkling of young lads of 17 and 18—

As I took temporary memoranda of names, items, &c of one thing and another, commissioned to get or do for the men—what they wished and what their cases required from outside, &c—these memoranda grow bulky, and suggest something to me—so I now make fuller notes, or a sort of journal, (not a mere dry journal though, I hope)—This thing I will record—it belongs to the time, and to all the States—(and perhaps it belongs to me)5


1. Endorsed: "Jan 17 '63 | to Emerson—was | it sent? | I think not." [back]

2. Whitman spent a great deal of time revising the text of this draft letter, which was part of the correspondence by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Salmon P. Chase (January 10, 1863) [Edwin Haviland Miller, ed.,The Correspondence (New York: New York University Press, 1961–77), 1:64–65], Ralph Waldo Emerson to William H. Seward (January 10, 1863) [Miller, 1:65–66], and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman (January 12, 1863). The earliest version of the draft, dated "Washington / Saturday morning, Jan. 17, '63," was drastically altered by the insertion of the first four paragraphs in the present text and that part of the first sentence of the following paragraph preceding "expression of American character." [back]

3. See Whitman's letter from January 2–4, 1863[back]

4. Horatio Stone (1808–1875) was a surgeon in the Patent Office Hospital from 1862 to 1865. [back]

5. This material, published partially in the New York Times (1863–65) and in the New York Weekly Graphic in 1874, was eventually issued as Memoranda During the War. See also the letter from October 21, 1863[back]


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