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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 3 December 1863

Dear brother Walt,

I have just telegraphed to you that Andrew was dead.2 Poor boy he died much eaiser than one would have supposed. I do hope to God you will come on. I have been with him, Mary, Mother Mat and I, almost all the time since you left. Mary and I watched last night. He has been dying ever since Wednesday morning—full 24 hours—Poor Nancy, she takes it woful hard  Mary has acted like the best of women  It is very affecting to see Nancy and the children  Mattie did everything that she possibly could3  She watched with us till near 3oclk this morning  Andrew was very desirous of having us all around him when he died. The poor boy seemed to think that that would take nearly all the horror of it away. If you will come on I will try and give you the passage money. Mother and the rest take it very hard. I hope to get an answer by telegraph.



  • 1. Jeff and Walt did not correspond in November 1863 because the poet was home for a visit from November 2 until December 1. Knowing that Andrew was near death, Walt attempted to bolster the family before the impending crisis. When Andrew died two days after Walt returned to Washington, new conflicts created even greater tension in the Whitman household.

    The worst of these conflicts resulted from the mental disorders of Jesse, the oldest Whitman brother. The genesis of Jesse's illness is not clear. One account is that he injured his head in a fall from a ship's mast, another that he was beaten on the head by thugs using brass knuckles (see Katherine Molinoff, Some Notes on Whitman's Family, Monographs on Unpublished Whitman Material, no. 2 [Brooklyn: Comet Press, 1941], 19–22). Jeff, however, suggests that Jesse suffered from syphilis. For much of 1863 Jesse enjoyed good relations with the Jefferson Whitman family: he played amicably with Hattie and rocked Jessie in her cradle (Jerome M. Loving, ed., Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 91; Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, August 31, 1863 [Trent Collection, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University]). But on December 4, in reaction to Andrew's death, Jesse exhibited a vicious outburst of temper that convinced Jeff that his eldest brother should be committed. Mother Whitman persuaded Walt that she could still care for Jesse, so no immediate action was taken (Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, December 25, 1863 [Trent]). Jesse's condition must have deteriorated, however, for Walt committed him to King's County Lunatic Asylum on December 5, 1864, where he remained until his death on March 21, 1870.

  • 2. This telegram is not extant. [back]
  • 3. According to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Mattie remained at Andrew's side the day before he died "nearly all day [and] only came home to nurse the baby...martha was there till late  then she came home and mary and Jeffy staid all night...they had to fan him all night and bathe him in brandy...when she [Nancy] came out in the morning she brought such a smell that Jeffy got sick" (letter to Walt Whitman, December 4, 1863 [Trent Collection, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University]). [back]
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