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Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [4–5 December 1863]

 duk.00431.001.jpg 5 Dec. 18 '63


My dear Walt

i write to night some of the particulars of Andrews2 death he failed from the time on the morning you left had very bad turnes and would then revive and be better that night you left i was there and likewise mary3 he was very restless and did not want mary to leave him i stayed late the 2 young men that came to watch he told mary he was dying and he could not dye with them there they insisted on my coming home i came and mary stayed untill late and she came and left nancy4 and them to take care of him wendsday morning she went round  duk.00431.002.jpg he was very bad and sent the children here i went again and marthe5 went he wanted her to come she was there nearly all day only came home to nurse the baby6 when she or mary went to come away he would becon for them too him that they would come back he wanted to be mooved from the lounge to the chair he wanted mothers rocking chair poor soul he died in it wendsday night martha was there till late then she came home and mary and Jeffy7 staid all night wensday he wanted to see Jeffy marthe went to the office for him he came and stayed till toward night and came home and had some tea i went again in the evening and came back for to see to the children as i said before and martha and jeffy went this was wendsday night they had to fan him all night and bathe him in brandy nance went to bed when she came out in the morning she brought such a smell that Jeffy got sick  duk.00431.003.jpg and had to come home being up all night and shortly after mary came bringing georgey8 besmeard from head to foot mary said she could not go again the smell and her throat being so bad so i sent jess9 around till they had their breakfast Jeffy and mary thought he could be moved round here we sent for the doctor he went around to see and came back and said he thought we might but we must doo it very soon mat went round behind the doctor and staid till he came and told us we could he said he would probably live untill 10 oclock that night this was thursday morning mary went back and Jeff and mrs brown10 when the doctor spoke of it nancy made a great adue said you shant have him he belongs to me he said he wished he could dye now i suppose it hurt him mrs brown came for me i went before i got there mary said he would look around she asked him if it was mother he wanted he mooved his head i am very glad we dident doo any thing about mooving him i am thankful  duk.00431.004.jpg we was all there he died like any one going to sleep without a struggle sensible to the last just before he died he turned his head and looked at your and georges11 pictures for some time and then shut his eyes god grant i may never witness another) he seemed as if he was satisfied that we were all around him he drank without choaking before he died he was laid out there and brought here last night and lays in mrs browns room without waches is to be buried to morrow at 2 oclock mary has gone away this afternoon he looks very natural his friends is all dooing very good Cornell12 in particular i ordered three carriages and cornell will send one for her and the children he is laid in a frock coat of Georges and vest and every thing very respectful plate on his coffin with his age and name Jeffy will write the rest i am composed and calm would not wish him back to suffer poor soul i hope he is at rest



i have not heard from George since you left i wish i could) write to hannah13 walter tell her if she could have seen the sufferings of her poor brother she would be thankfull he was out of his agony) write to me walter as soon as you can if i best take money from the bank to pay the expences i told the undertaker i would settle it in the course of 2 weeks)14 one thing more i must say mrs brown could not be kinder than she is i shall always respect her for her great kindness in our affliction



what i am going to write i would say nothing only i think Jeffy will15 last night marthe sent Jess around with nancy tea and seeing his brothers corps seemed to effect him very much he had not ought to been sent he took on very much and looked a little strange when he came back but nothing more seemed to be very sad but this afternoon martha and hattie and sis were down here hattie done something he dident like he got up and with a vengeance to whip her and marthe forbad him to touch her child there was a scene he called her very bad names and looked very wild for a while i told marthe to go up stairs or not say any thing but she would she began to cry and her back pained her she went up stairs16 of course jeff had to hear it all in the strongest light i should said nothing about it but jeff said he should write to you to morrow i said Jesse your brother lies up stairs dead he calmed down  duk.00431.007.jpg immediately and is very good natured i think it was going there last night that affected him) write how you are walt and all good night there was a very good little peice in the eagle last night17 about you Jeffy will i think send it to you this is a packed18 letter

good bye again your mother LW19


  • 1.

    This letter dates to December 4–5, 1863. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman began composing the letter on Friday evening, December 4, but she did not complete it until the following morning or afternoon. Richard M. Bucke dated this letter to December 5, 1863. Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver dated the letter to December 4, 1863 (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 187–190). Edwin Haviland Miller agreed (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:189, 374).

    Walt Whitman had departed Brooklyn on December 3 (a Thursday) to return to Washington. Louisa began composing the first part of this letter (numbered "1") on December 4, 1863, and she conveyed to Walt a detailed account of the "particulars of Andrews death," from Walt's departure through his brother's decease. Andrew Jackson Whitman died on Thursday afternoon, his body was brought to the Portland Avenue home on Thursday evening, and part one of Louisa's letter—composed Friday evening and covering four pages—closes with Andrew's body lying in his coffin on Friday afternoon in the Portland Avenue house. Louisa proclaimed herself "composed and ca[lm?]." The second part of the letter (numbered "2") was written later that Friday evening or Saturday morning, and Louisa asked Walt to write to Hannah Whitman Heyde (Walt's sister in Vermont) and informed Walt of Mrs. Brown's kindness. Part two of the letter concludes. The fifth page is divided into two sections by a line across the page, but the section below the line does not follow immediately in reading order.

    Louisa resumed writing on Saturday morning or early afternoon after she realized that Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman planned to inform Walt about an episode from the night before, which she did not intend to include in her letter. The night before, Jesse Whitman, Walt's brother, threatened to whip Manahatta, Jeff and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman's three-year-old daughter. Mattie confronted Jesse, and Louisa eventually calmed Jesse down. Louisa resumed her letter on page six (numbered part "3") with the intent to offer her account for what she feared would be a more inflammatory account were Jeff to write. According to Louisa, Jesse had called Mattie "very bad names" and looked "very wild for a while." Louisa blamed Jesse's outburst on seeing his brother Andrew's corpse. Jeff may have been temporarily assuaged by having his mother inform Walt about Jesse's behavior, but both Jeff and Mattie later sent Walt alternate accounts of Jesse's behavior. After reaching the bottom of page six, Louisa turned the page and continued her letter on the bottom quarter of the previous page (page 5), adding a line to divide the page into two sections. Unable to complete the letter in the available space, she then selected another sheet of paper and brought the letter to a close on the seventh page. The part numbers are in Louisa's hand, and they clarify the intended reading order of the letter. The transcription is presented in order of composition and an implied order of reading.

    The letter's opening tone seems deliberately measured to manage unspeakable sorrow and to elide Jesse's hellish outburst, from which Louisa would prefer to spare Walt. Faced with Jeff's anger, she did her best to manage the reshaping of the letter even as its physical layout begins to reveal her mental and emotional strain.

  • 2. Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) was Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son, and Walt Whitman's brother. Andrew developed a drinking problem that contributed to his early death, leaving behind his wife Nancy McClure Whitman, who was pregnant with son Andrew, Jr., and their two sons, George "Georgy" and James "Jimmy." For more on Andrew, see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10:3 (1993), 142–148. [back]
  • 3. Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) Van Nostrand (1821–1899) was the oldest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's younger sister. She married Ansel Van Nostrand, a shipwright, in 1840, and they subsequently moved to Greenport, Long Island. They raised five children: George, Fanny, Louisa, Ansel, Jr., and Mary Isadore "Minnie." See Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 10–11. [back]
  • 4. Nancy McClure Whitman was the widowed wife of Andrew Jackson Whitman. For the identification of McClure as Nancy's maiden name and information on Andrew's wife and children, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 12, n. 32; 13–14. [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. The baby is Jeff and Mattie Whitman's daughter, Jessie Louisa, who was born on June 17, 1863. [back]
  • 7. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was the son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's favorite brother. In early adulthood he worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer. In the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. In 1867 Jeff became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and became a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. 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. For a short biography of Jesse, see Robert Roper, "Jesse Whitman, Seafarer," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 26:1 (Summer 2008), 35–41. [back]
  • 10. 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]
  • 11. 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]
  • 12. Cornell is James H. Cornwell, a friend of Andrew Whitman, who got him a job in North Carolina in 1863 building fortifications. Cornwell served as a judge in the Brooklyn City Hall and is listed as a lawyer in the 1870 census, which also identifies his wife as Mary (b. 1822?) (United States Census, 1870, Brooklyn, Kings, New York). He is mentioned in Whitman's "Scenes in a Police Justices' Court Room" (Brooklyn Daily Times, September 9, 1857). For more on the relationship between Andrew Jackson Whitman and Cornwell, see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 (Winter 1993), 142–148. [back]
  • 13. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908) was the youngest daughter of Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. She resided in Burlington, Vermont, with her husband Charles Louis Heyde (ca. 1820–1892), a landscape painter. The relationship between Hannah and Charles was difficult and marred with quarrels and disease. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. Walt Whitman said in his December 6, 1863, letter to George Washington Whitman that he had "written to Han" to notify her of Andrew's death. [back]
  • 14. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman identified the undertaker as "oaks" and reported paying him $52 in her December 16–17, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman. Burdett S. Oakes, listed as an undertaker in the Brooklyn Directory (1863), was located at 268 Washington Street. [back]
  • 15. Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman waited almost two weeks to write Walt Whitman, but he gave his account of Jesse Whitman's violent outburst in his December 15, 1863 letter to Walt. Jeff's letter has essentially the same order of events as Louisa's letter but provides harrowing detail. Manahatta, who was a bit over three years old, set off her uncle Jesse by "shoving a chair slowly toward the stove." Jesse threatened to "break her damn'd neck," and Jeff's wife Mattie confronted Jesse and told him "not to dare to lay his hand on her." Jesse then turned on Mattie: he threatened to "kill her," to "beat her brains out," and called her a "damed old bitch." See also Mattie's December 21, 1863 letter to Walt for another account (Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1971], 32–36). [back]
  • 16. According to Jeff's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt, Mattie's back pain was so debilitating that she took an hour to make it from the basement up two floors to her room. Robert Roper has speculated that Mattie's debilitating back pain could have been associated with a congenital weakness or a damaged disk (Now the Drum of War [New York: Walker, 2008], 78). [back]
  • 17. "Who is there in Brooklyn who doesn't know Walt. Whitman? Rough and ready, kind and considerate, generous and good, he was ever a friend in need, which is, after all, the only friend indeed. Walt is now in Washington, a volunteer nurse, going from hospital to hospital, and doing good every minute of his life. We hear of him at the bedside of the sick, the pallet of the wounded, the cot of the dying, and the pestilential ward. He writes letters home for disabled men, bathes the feverish brow of half-crazed soldiers, refreshes the parched lips of neglected sufferers, and attends with fidelity and tact to the thousand and one necessities of those who approach the gate of death. Surely such as he will find their reward here and hereafter" ("Personal," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 3, 1863, 3). Because Louisa Van Velsor Whitman just above refers to Jesse Whitman's having seen Andrew's body "last night," which was Friday, Louisa wrote this portion of her letter on Saturday, December 5. Therefore, "last night" in reference to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle sketch of Walt Whitman is an error: the article appeared on December 3. [back]
  • 18. The word is most likely "packed," but it could also be "packet," in the common nineteenth-century sense of packet mail. [back]
  • 19. 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]
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