Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to Thomas Jefferson Whitman, 16 January 1863

Dearest brother,

Your letter came last evening containing the $6.1 Two days since I received one from Probasco,2 containing $3 (not 5 as you mention.) I send a note, same mail as this, acknowledging the latter. I shall, either by letter giving specific names, hospitals, No. of the particular beds, and dates, or more likely by a letter in print in newspaper, for I am going to print a sort of hospital journal in some paper, send you and Mr. Lane3 and Probasco, a pretty plain schedule of the manner of my outlays of the sums sent by them to the hospital soldiers through me—as it would interest you all, as you say. Meantime, dear brother, do not crowd the thing in the least—do not ask any one when it becomes unpleasant—let it be understood by our engineer friends &c. that I have mentioned the subscription affair as forwarded, to be left entirely to their sense of what they wish to do, and what they think it would be discreet for them to do. I did not wish you to send $5, for I do not think it right—it is entirely too much—nor mother $1—I think she has enough, present and future, to attend to—but since it has come, I shall use it—I distributed between 2 & $3 yesterday.

What ought to be done by our family, I feel that I am doing, and have done myself. I have made $27 while I have been here, and got the money, and I should think I have paid in little items and purchases and money gifts at least $10 of that to the soldiers—I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for the satisfaction it has been to me—but, Jeff, I postpone till we come together again, any attempt to make you realize this whole thing.

Of course you have received, (probably about to-day,) a long letter I have written to Mother.4 Nothing definite appears to-day about the status or movements of the Army of the Potomac, but my guess, at a venture, is, that they either have moved down the Rappahannock toward Potomac, or are about moving. Whenever it is to cross or not and whether for an attack or march, or whether as some think to Fortress Monroe, is quite unknown. You must not be alarmed at hearing of an advance, or engagement—at a distance it is more appalling than it deserves to be thought-Some think a portion goes west to Rosecrans.5 It is so dangerous and critical for the government to make any more failures like that at Fredericksburgh, that it seems incredible to be any repetition of that most complete piece of mismanagement perhaps ever yet known in the earth's wars.6 I have not heard from George—it is good that you got a long letter.7 Jeff, I feel that you and dearest mother are perhaps needlessly unhappy and morbid about our dear brother—to be in the army is a mixture of danger and security in this war which few realize—they think exclusively of the danger.8

Your intelligence about Han9 is but what we might have anticipated before. Poor Han, her situation must have been for a long while, only a life of torment and degradation, with no prospect of any improvement. Such a pup as Heyde—such a transparent fool, and little petty, prevaricating mean-livered villain—Jeff, if as I take it is the case, this is not merely one of the putty nosed scoundrel's temporary fits of ugliness, but a deliberate thing meant for good, my judgment is that it would be best to bring the thing to a close by having Han come home—therefore do you or mother write for her to come—write without any fuss, or any allusion to Heyde, as if for her to come on a visit, but to bring her things, all that are handy to move, as if for a good long visit—do the thing with judgment and decision, dear brother, in such a way that poor Han's morbid feelings will not be irritated, nor her despondency or pride aroused to desperation—and she will no doubt come—for if any wretched thing should happen to Han, it would be a life-long anguish to all of us. About Mat's going for her you must judge at home. If Han is pretty well, sufficiently so to travel, I should wish her to come on her own hook without much delay—this, from what I at present see, is the best. We would then be all together for gooder or for worser (with a pretty sure show for the last.) But there would be more satisfaction about it, whatever fortune betided, than to have the continual gnawing we would have about Han the way things have gone on. I should write myself to Han, but you at home there can survey the ground better than I can—about what is exactly needed in this present imbroglio that whining curse has put her and us all in.

About my own concerns here—I must tell you dear brother, my general idea was, (and is) to make application to Chase and Seward10 for some berth on literary grounds, not political ones, (as both those magnates are inclined to travel on the literary shape, I am told,)—So I judged it would be good to get letters introductory from Emerson—and the next-day after I came back from the Arm[or]y, 18 or 20 days since I wrote to R.W.E. at Concord—Unfortunately he was just starting off on a Canada lectures tour—and I delayed and delayed ever since, had given him up and taken to scribbling, &c—but this morning's mail brings me from Buffalo, two splendid letters from him, one letter to Seward, and one to Chase, which I hope, (and though I have well learnt not to count my chickens, &c. I believe and calculate) will, by the way we shall manage it, put me through, to get something. So I feel about that at any rate, the skies are brightening for the Whitman family—(that is one reason why I assume to write so about Han's coming home—and for good poor girl.) Jeff if fortune should indeed be favorable in this move (as it certainly squints that way this morning) we will all be relieved of the poverty question, for dear dear mother and her (not) little responsibilities—Love to dearest sister Mat.



  • 1. In a letter now lost, Whitman must have asked his brother to raise money for his hospital work. Jeff quickly appealed to his fellow workers at the Brooklyn Water Works, and most of his letters during 1863 contained contributions. On January 13, 1863, Jeff wrote: "I wish you would take either Lane's or Probasco's money and keep an exact account of what it does and send them the particulars of just the good it does. I think it would assist them (and the rest of us) in collecting more. You can understand what an effect twould have, twould give us an oportunity to show what immense good a few shillings even will do when rightly applied besides twould please the person sending the money hugely twould bring his good deeds under his nose." [back]
  • 2. Louis Probasco was a young employee in the Brooklyn Water Works, probably the son of Samuel, listed as a cooper in the Brooklyn Directory of 1861–62. [back]
  • 3. Moses Lane was chief engineer in the Brooklyn Water Works. Like Jeff, he collected money from his employees and friends. Lane sent Whitman $15.20 in his letter of January 26, 1863, and later various sums which Whitman acknowledged in letters from February 6, 1863 , May 11, 1863 , May 26, 1863 , and September 9, 1863 . In his letter of May 27, 1863, Lane pledged $5 each month. In an unpublished manuscript in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library, Whitman wrote, obviously for publication: "I have distributed quite a large sum of money, contributed for that purpose by noble persons in Brooklyn, New York, (chiefly through Moses Lane, Chief Engineer, Water Works there.)" Lane assisted Whitman in other ways (see Whitman's letter from December 29, 1862 and February 13, 1863). He was so solicitous of Whitman's personal welfare that on April 3, 1863, he sent through Jeff $5 "for your own especial benefit." [back]
  • 4. This letter is not known. [back]
  • 5. William Starke Rosecrans (1819–1898), a Union general, was in Tennessee in 1863 with the Army of the Cumberland. [back]
  • 6. A reporter of the Cincinnati Commercial noted: "It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day"; quoted by Bruce Catton, Glory Road (New York: Doubleday, 1952), 74. [back]
  • 7. George, however, had written to Whitman on January 13, 1863, from Falmouth. Though he had nothing important to say about his own activities, he was upset about Hannah: "I am sure she must be liveing in a perfect Hell . . . Walt, you or Jeff must certainly go on there and see how things are, and make arangements for bringing her home." [back]
  • 8. Here Whitman replied to Jeff's almost hysterical letters. On January 1–2, 1863, he implored Walt to urge George to quit the army and thus to spare the life of their mother, who, "if any thing should happen him . . . , could not survive it. . . . Walt, I beg of you, do not neglect to see George and put this thing in its strongest light. Just think for a moment of the number of suckers that are gaining all the real benefits of the war (if that is not wicked to say) and think of George and thousands of others running all the risks while they are drawing all the pay." On January 13, 1863, Jeff continued to bewail George's lot: "I wish to God that he would come home, I think that it would add 10 years to Mothers life. Write him." Part of Whitman's letter is lost. [back]
  • 9. Hannah Louisa Whitman, Whitman's younger sister, had married the landscape painter Charles Heyde in 1852; they lived in Vermont. The marriage was a stormy one, and Whitman's growing anger over Heyde's treatment of Han boils over in this letter. Walt Whitman and Jeff, in concocting a plot to rescue Han from her marriage, are considering whether to have Mat (Jeff's wife Martha) travel to Vermont to accompany Han back to New York. [back]
  • 10. Salmon P. Chase was Secretary of the Treasury, and William Henry Seward was Secretary of State. Whitman hoped to land a job in one of those departments, since some government positions were traditionally slated for writers and artists, and Whitman hoped a letter of introduction from Ralph Waldo Emerson would open Chase's or Seward's door. [back]
Back to top