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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 31 January 1865

Dear Brother Walt,

I received your letter1 to day  glad to hear that you was getting along so nicely and feeling so well—I hope you will write me often  I feel very sad and downhearted to-night—I have just been reading about the prisoners as detailed before the committee on the conduct of the war2  is'nt it perfectly awful—have just read also Butler's speech3—I begin to think that after all that it is quite likely that Gen Grant is the one that does not want to give an exchange—do you think that it is so—can it be that he is willing to let the men starve and die without result. I have almost come to the conclusion that it is hardly possible that the things that we send to George can reach him (yet I propose to keep sending, hoping that a proportion may do so.)4 and have for the last few days been trying to think of some other way in which he might be relieved—I see by the papers of to-day that a certain "Gen Haynes["] and a another a first Lieut in a Michigan Reg had arrived at Richmond from Danville to be specially exchanged5—I have heard that they are making such special exchanges every now and then when the right "axe to grind" influence can be brought to bear—Now Walt if you will remember among the first men that blowed for Grant and wrote him up, so to speak was our friend John Swinton,6—When Grant visited New York the Dr7 says he sent for Swinton or expressed a desire to see him and Swinton called on him and they had a long interview—Swinton I believe passed quite a length of time with him on his Vicksburgh campaign &c—Now I am positive that a letter could be got from Swinton to Grant signed as Editor of the Times asking that a speical exchange might be made in George's case8—and I believe it would have effect—If Grant has charge of the matter and it could be made to look as if this great man—for I suppose of course he looks so to Grant—whatever may be the fact this editor of the administration paper of the City of New York desired the release of a certain man in fair exchange that it would be done—or at least they would be quite apt to do it.—Now Walt dont say that it would have no effect till you have thought the matter all over—the circumstances that are now surrounding the whole question—Gen Grant is just now in the position when a few words of censure in a print like the Times would do him great injury—I know he is in no danger of getting it from the Times yet he would—I should think like to make it sure by doing a supposed favor to its editor. Then it would be such a small thing for him to do. I fear that it is true that Grant has had charge of the matter for a long time and if so why then certainly he does not mean to exchange9 fearing that they will get good men for poor ones—Think the matter well over dear Walt—you can think of it in more bearings than I can—remember it would be but a small thing for us to attempt—If you would send me a note to Swinton asking him to do it for your sake I would willingly take it to him and plead for a trial—I could, I think—get Ruggles to ask him to do it—Poor mother reads about the treatment of prison[er]s and will set with her head in her hand for an hour afterward—she seems to feel it much more for the last few days than s[h]e did  I feel as if we ought to do something—even if it looks flimsy and of no success on purpose to cheer Mother up—I am glad you wrote to Mason10 yet I hardly think he will send anything—he is a good enough fellow but of course would have very little interest in this matter—Do write me Walt at once what you think of the matter—If the matter is in Grants hands I am confident twould be a success. Swinton told Dr Ruggles that he would like to send George something in the way of provis[ions]  the Dr also said he wou[l]d send something in the next box—

Mother is quite well—but downhearted  Mattie and the children are very well and the young ones grow like everything—Last night Morris Roberts11—a friend of George's and Andrew's  died of spotted fever—you of course remember him—he was suprnt of the poor—he caught it somehow connected with his business  I understand that there is a great deal of it in the city some 9 cases in Johnson street near Navy—

No news to tell—write me  all send love—

Affectionately Jeff


  • 1. Walt Whitman had written to Jeff on January 30, 1865. [back]
  • 2. This joint congressional committee, dominated by Radical Republicans, had been investigating the conduct of the war since December 20, 1861. Both the Brooklyn Daily Union and the New York Evening Post of January 31, 1865, carried Albert D. Richardson's testimony before this committee about the conditions in Southern prisons. [back]
  • 3. Brigadier General Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818–93), a controversial and outspoken Radical Republican, was dismissed from command by Grant's special order on January 7, 1865. He was the last civilian commander in the Union army. On January 28 in Lowell, Massachusetts, he addressed four thousand people in a speech defending his war record and attacking the policies of his former superiors. Two days later the New York Times printed the entire speech, devoting almost the whole front page to it. Butler explained that in March 1864 he had successfully conducted numerous prisoner exchanges but that Grant had ordered him to cease in the following terse telegram: "Do not give the rebels a single able-bodied man." Butler explicitly placed "the responsibility of stopping exchanges of prisoners...upon [Grant,] the Lieutenant-General commanding." The next day the Times characterized this speech as "exceedingly able, defiant, and mischievous" and "thoroughly insubordinate" in temper. [back]
  • 4. On February 3, 1865, Richardson would write in the New York Tribune that it took twenty-five to forty days for packages to reach prisoners and that only one of every six or ten reached its destination. Confederate officers, he charged, confiscated the rest. [back]
  • 5. In a brief note entitled "Arrivals at Libby Prison" the New York Tribune reported on this day that Brigadier General James Haynes and Lieutenant J. W. Lucas would leave military prison in Danville (where George Whitman was also held) to be "sent North by flag of truce." [back]
  • 6. John Swinton (1829–1901) was the managing editor of the New York Times and a strong supporter of Whitman and Leaves of Grass. As a candidate of the Industrial Political party, Swinton ran for mayor of New York in 1874. After leaving the Times, he worked for the New York Sun from 1875 to 1883 and for the following four years edited John Swinton's Paper, a weekly labor journal. For more on Whitman and Swinton, see Donald Yannella, "Swinton, John (1829–1901)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. The Brooklyn physician Edward Ruggles (1817?–1867) befriended the Whitman family and became especially close to Jeff and Mattie Whitman. Late in life, Ruggles lost interest in his practice and devoted himself to painting cabinet pictures called "Ruggles Gems" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:90, n. 85). [back]
  • 8. Walt Whitman took Jeff's advice and wrote to Swinton on February 3, 1865. On February 5 Swinton replied, enclosing a letter for the poet to send to Grant. [back]
  • 9. In his letter to Whitman of February 5, 1865, John Swinton noted that his letter to Grant (dated February 6) might not be "worth mailing. Since your letter was written, the statement has been published . . . that Grant has made the arrangements for a general exchange." [back]
  • 10. See Jeff Whitman's letter to Walt from February 10, 1863. [back]
  • 11. Morris H. Roberts (1828–65), a local baker and superintendent for the poor of the Western District of Brooklyn, died not of spotted fever as first reported, but of typhoid fever (Brooklyn Daily Union, January 31 and February 1, 1865). [back]
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