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Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [25 September or 2 October 1863]

 duk.00430.001.jpg Dear Walt

here goes another Of mothers2 scientific letters when i get desperate i write commit it to paper as you literary folks say well i am rather better of my cold but my coughf still hangs on it always does when i get a cold it seems as if is should never get clear of it but i am better this has been a trying day mat has company Mr and Mrs Ruggles3 and bothe the young ones4 has been musical i tell you the little one we had down here till she expanded her lungs merrily poor mat5 she a roasting beef for  duk.00430.002.jpg for supper and all the fixings i have not been up stairs but assisted what i could below i suppose i should have gone up but i have a sore foot that i cant wear any but an old sluf shoe6 i have a bunion on my foot which i thought would be very troublesom but mrs brown7 gave me some ointment to day and it has eased it very much so i gess it will be well in a day or two)

well walt i will tell how my daily routine without any variations i get up in the morning and not very early between 6 and 7 and make a fire and sweep out and get some coffee and bread and butter butter is 36 cents pr lb dear eating aint it well  duk.00430.003.jpg by this time Andrew8 comes lays down part of the time but stays all day untill dark eats his dinner here and then edd9 goes round for his medicine and when he goes home at night jess10 or edd goes with him and takes his supper and probably all the rest and that aint all we have Jimmy11 here too) to night i sent half loaf fresh bread with a lot of flour to make some more if nancy12 feels disposed) and matty sent roast beef baked quinces apple sauce and parsnips Andrew eats better than he has done he looks very thin but he says his throat is a little better) then add to that i have hatty of coarse and she is very obstropolous13 and her uncle Andrew says if she was his hed break her neck so you see walt what we go through  duk.00430.004.jpg every day sundays and all you know Andrew always was testy and jelous i think sometimes i wish i was a hundred miles off i asked him to day what nancy was dooing if she was dooing any sewing he said georgey14 was so troublesome whether she was always so or we know more about her i dontknow but i think she is about the lazeyest and dirtiest woman i ever want to see she come round here to put a blister on andrew s neck i gave her a pair of trowsers to make jim a pair i said will you make them for the child is not comfortable with those thin trowsers on i made him a pair myself of woolen but i dont know why she dontlet him wear them shes as ugly as she is dirty i dont wonder he used to drink i cant begin to tell you walt it frets me very much she at home all day having a good time with the rent and all paid  duk.00430.005.jpg and mat and me dooing every thing to make him comfortable when i gave her the trowsers i said have you any thread so i give her thread to make them and thimble i dont believe she has done anythin to them) he is doctoring with dr Brody15 he has had 2 or 3 blisters on his neck and chest and been leeched i hope he will get better he certainly can eat better matty makes him a rice pudding or custard nearly every day i dont know how we can get along with it all this winter every kind of provition is so very dear i pity Andrew very much but i think sometimes how much more those poor wounded and sick soldiers suffer with so much patience poor souls i think much about them and always glad to hear you speak of them i dont think walt after your being amongst them so long you could content yourself from them it becomes  duk.00430.006.jpg a kind of fasination and you get attached to so many of the poor young men)

O i am so afraid the rebels will get the better of Burny16 i hope he will be ready for them sometims i think i wish mead17 was removed but i know so little about it but the army of the Potomic seems to me to always be a little too late) i doo hope George18 will remain where he is will they get paid soon doo you think walt i hope he will send me enoughf to not take any from the bank i have given Andrew so much i gave him the 2 dollars you sent i wish walt if you could help them a little now and then we have got to support them untill he gets better if he ever does now i must write about the babes well the little baby is well and fat and prettyer than Hatty she grows tall and not so fat as she was she goes to jamaca19 with her father O walt dont you never hear from hann20 it is so strange she never writes

i got your letter yesterday money and all21

walt you might almost write a book from this letter


  • 1.

    This letter dates either to September 25 or October 2, 1863. Richard Maurice Bucke assigned the letter to a Friday in November 1863 on an accompanying slip of paper held in the Trent Collection (not reproduced here). Edwin Haviland Miller assigned this letter the approximate date October 5, 1863 on the basis of Walt Whitman's writing "Mother, you dont know how pleased I was to read what you wrote about little sis," apparently in response to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's remark that Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman's daughter Jessie Louisa was "well and fat" though her older sister Manahatta was "obstropolous" (see Walt's October 6, 1863 letter to Louisa). Miller's date is more accurate than Bucke's, but since Louisa wrote on a Friday, the date proposed by Miller should be changed to the most recent Friday before Walt's letter, October 2.

    The letter may date to even a week earlier, September 25. Walt in his September 29, 1863 letter to Louisa reassured her about Union generals Ambrose Burnside and George Gordon Meade, and Walt may well have responded directly to Louisa's concern that "rebels will get the better of Burny" and her wish that "mead was removed." However, Walt had also discussed Burnside (but not Meade) in his September 15, 1863 letter to Louisa. He also yearned regularly for news about Mattie and Jeff, their daughters, and Walt's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman. The matter of Burnside and Meade is suggestive but not conclusive. The earliest possible date for this letter derives from the distance since Andrew's most recent acute episode of illness—Louisa's remarks suggest some improvement in his eating—and the specificity of Walt's many queries: whether soldiers remain on Fort Greene and whether she, Louisa, could forward copies of the Brooklyn newspapers, the Union and the Eagle. As Andrew's acute episode of illness had passed and this letter addresses neither of Walt's queries, this letter is unlikely to date to the Friday immediately following Walt's September 15 letter or earlier. This letter may follow Louisa's September 5–23, 1863 letter to Walt, but that too is a matter of interpretation. The Friday preceding the date proposed by Miller, October 2, 1863, is more probable, but September 25, 1863 is also possible.

  • 2. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt Whitman was the second. For more information on Louisa and her letters, see Wesley Raabe, "'walter dear': The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt" and Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)." [back]
  • 3. The Brooklyn physician Edward Ruggles (1817?–1867) befriended the Whitman family and became especially close to Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and his wife Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Jeff consulted with Ruggles on Andrew Whitman's illness (see Jeff's September 24, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). [back]
  • 4. The "young ones" are Manahatta "Hattie" (1860–1886) and Jessie Louisa "Sis" Whitman (1863–1957), the daughters of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Hattie and Jessie were both favorites of their uncle Walt. [back]
  • 5. Martha Mitchell Whitman (1836–1873), known as "Mattie," was the wife of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother. She and Jeff had two daughters, Manahatta and Jessie Louisa. In 1868, Mattie and her daughters moved to St. Louis to join Jeff, who had moved there in 1867 to assume the position of Superintendent of Water Works. Mattie suffered a throat ailment that would lead to her death in 1873. For more on Mattie, see Randall H. Waldron, "Whitman, Martha ("Mattie") Mitchell (1836–1873)," ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). See also Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 1–26. [back]
  • 6. Louisa may refer to a shoe that produces the sluff sound or to an old cast-off (sluffed off) shoe. Walt Whitman counted the "sluff of bootsoles" among the sounds that form the "blab of the pave" (Leaves of Grass [1855]). [back]
  • 7. The Brown family began boarding in the same house as the Whitmans on Portland Avenue, Brooklyn in April 1860. The relationship between the Browns and Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's family was often strained, but the Browns remained in the Portland Avenue house for five years. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman maintained a cordial relationship with the Browns after Jeff and his wife Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman departed for St. Louis. Years later Louisa called on Mrs. Brown and remarked to Walt Whitman, "if Jeff and matt knew i had been to see mrs Brown they would cross me off their books" (see her April 14, 1869 letter). [back]
  • 8. Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) was Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son and Walt Whitman's brother. He was married to Nancy McClure Whitman. Andrew and his wife Nancy had had two sons, James "Jimmy" and George "Georgy," and Nancy was pregnant with a son, Andrew, Jr., when her husband died in 1863. At the time of this letter, Andrew was ill with a throat ailment that led to his death within two months (see Louisa's December 4–5, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). In the early 1860s, Andrew had worked as a carpenter, and he enlisted briefly in the Union Army during the Civil War (see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 [Winter 1993], 142–148). [back]
  • 9. Edward Whitman (1835–1892), called "Eddy" or "Edd," was the youngest son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He required lifelong assistance for significant physical and mental disabilities, and he remained in the care of his mother until her death. During Louisa's final illness, Eddy was taken under the care of George Washington Whitman and his wife, Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, with financial support from Walt Whitman. [back]
  • 10. Jesse Whitman (1818–1870) was the first-born son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He suffered from mental illness that included threats of violence for several years before he was committed to an asylum, where he was placed in December 1864. Shortly after an outburst that followed his brother Andrew Jackson Whitman's death in December 1863—he threatened Martha Mitchell and Thomas Jefferson Whitman's daughter Manahatta—Jeff sought to "put him in some hospital or place where he would be doctored" (see Jeff's December 15, 1863 to Walt Whitman). Louisa resisted institutionalizing Jesse because, according to her December 25, 1863 letter, she "could not find it in my heart to put him there." On December 5, 1864, Walt committed Jesse to Kings County Lunatic Asylum on Flatbush Avenue, where he remained until his death on March 21, 1870 (see E. Warner's March 22, 1870 letter to Walt). For a short biography of Jesse, see Robert Roper, "Jesse Whitman, Seafarer," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 26:1 (Summer 2008), 35–41. [back]
  • 11. James "Jimmy" Whitman was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]
  • 12. Nancy McClure Whitman was the wife of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman. For more on Nancy, see Loving, "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, 13–14. [back]
  • 13. "Obstropolous" is a dialect form of obstreperous, a word whose challenging pronunciation and spelling spawned innumerable dialect spellings but is now rare (see Oxford English Dictionary). [back]
  • 14. George "Georgy" Whitman was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]
  • 15. According to the Brooklyn Directory (1863), the physician Dr. John A. Brody was located at 84 Myrtle Avenue. [back]
  • 16. Ambrose Everett Burnside (1824–1881) rose to the rank of major general in March 1862 and was charged with reinforcing George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. After McClellan's removal in November 1862, Burnside assumed command. Burnside was soundly defeated in the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862), a demoralizing defeat for Union forces at which Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son George Washington Whitman was wounded. Burnside was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac and in March 1863 assumed command of the Department of Ohio, under which George and his regiment, the Fifty-first New York Volunteers, was serving at the time of this letter (see Michael C. C. Adams, "Burnside, Ambrose Everett," American National Biography Online; also see George's September 7, 1863 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman). [back]
  • 17. George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) became commander of the Army of the Potomac in May 1863, replacing Joseph Hooker. Meade was the victorious commander of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863) and afterward promoted to the rank of brigadier general, though faulted for not pursuing retreating Confederate forces. See Herman Hattaway and Michael D. Smith, "Meade, George Gordon," American National Biography Online. [back]
  • 18. George Washington Whitman (1829–1901) was the sixth child of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and ten years Walt Whitman's junior. George enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War. He was wounded in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and was taken prisoner during the Battle of Poplar Grove (September 1864). After the war, George returned to Brooklyn and began building houses on speculation, with a partner named Smith and later a mason named French. George eventually took up a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]
  • 19. Jamaica is a Queens neighborhood station on the Long Island railroad. [back]
  • 20. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908) was the youngest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. She lived in Burlington, Vermont with her husband Charles Heyde (1822–1892), a landscape painter. [back]
  • 21. If this letter dates to October 2, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had received Walt's September 29, 1863 letter. If this letter dates to September 25, Walt's previous letter is not extant. [back]
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