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Walt Whitman to Dr. Le Baron Russell, February 1864

The hospitals here in & around Washington are still pretty full, and contain in some respects the most needy cases of all the suffering—(though there are plenty such every where.) For the past few weeks I have been on a tour down to the front, through the division hospitals, especially those around Culpepper & Brandy Station, mostly of the 1st, 2d, & 3d corps, to see how the sick were situated there. A year ago I spent December & part of January1 (after 1st Fredericksburgh) among the wounded in front from Aquia Creek to Falmouth, and saw perhaps the saddest scenes of the war then. But there is nothing like it now. I have made up my mind that the camp hospitals are pretty well cleaned out, the worst cases are here in Washington, & so I have returned here for good.2 In the field hospitals I find diarrhea, getting more & more prevalent, & chronic. It is the great disease of the army. The doctors, as always, give too much medicine, & hold on to the poor young men in camp too long, then when the thing is deeply rooted, send them up here. How many such wrecks of young men have I seen, from boat & railroad, from front, come crawling pale & faint along here, many to linger a while, & die, during the past year, sent up in this way after being kept too long.

I suppose you will be interested in knowing that our troops in the field in Virginia are this Winter remarkably well in health, however, as a general thing & in the cheeriest temper. They have better houses than ever before, no shelter tents now, but huts of logs & mud, with fireplaces. In the tour I allude to, I was much in contact with the rank in file, lived among them in their camps, among the common soldiers & teamsters, &c. I never go among the Army in this way, but what, after making all allowances, I feel that our general stock of young men shows all other races, meagre & pale & puny in comparison. The more I see of them in the Army, the higher & broader my estimate of them. (I mean the Americans, I dont make account of any other—Americans both West & East, & from all the agricultural regions of the great states). And then to be among them also as I have been for past fifteen months, among them, seeing them in hospitals, thousands, so young & manly, with such fearful suffering, wounds, amputations, & weary sickness. O how one gets to love them—indeed it brings people very, very close, such circumstances.

As to the temper of the Army in Virginia, I should say it was never so resolute, so full of the right spirit for endurance & work as it is to-day. The filled-up regiments, gathering around the nucleus of the old veterans, make better regiments than any. I was with several such, & found them excellent. These re-enlisted regiments, returning from their furloughs, thus filled up, are streaming down to front fast already. The opinion of Meade is full of respect for him—he is thought an earnest, alert, concientious, cautious commander.

I write these, doctor, thinking they may interest you, coming from late direct contact with the army on the ground.

So, doctor, I still remain here in Washington, occupying my time nearly altogether among the wounded & sick, as when I last wrote you.3 I act as an independent visitor & helper among the men, fixing as before on the cases that most need. I never miss a single day or night, week day or Sunday, visiting some poor, young soul in bodily & mental tribulation. It is a great privilege to me, more to me than to them I think.4


  • 1. Once again (see Whitman's letter from October 27, 1863) Whitman overstated the duration of his stay at the front; he wrote to his mother from Washington on December 29, 1862 (see the letter of December 29, 1862 ). [back]
  • 2. The rest of this paragraph appeared in slightly altered form in the New York Times, December 11, 1864, and in "Hospital Visits," in The Wound Dresser (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902, 7:114).) [back]
  • 3. See Walt Whitman's letter to Dr. Le Baron Russell from December 3, 1863. [back]
  • 4. Draft letter. Endorsed (by Walt Whitman): "February, 1864 | Down in the Army at | Culpepper & Brandy Station | describe | army field hospitals, &c." [back]
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