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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 29 December 1862

Dear, dear Mother,

Friday the 19th inst. I succeeded in reaching the camp of the 51st New York, and found George alive and well—In order to make sure that you would get the good news, I sent back by messenger to Washington (I dare say you did not get it for some time) a telegraphic dispatch, as well as a letter—and the same to Hannah at Burlington. I have staid in camp with George ever since, till yesterday, when I came back to Washington1—about the 24th George got Jeff's letter of the 20th. Mother, how much you must have suffered, all that week, till George's letter came—and all the rest must too. As to me, I know I put in about three days of the greatest suffering I ever experienced in my life. I wrote to Jeff2 how I had my pocket picked in a jam and hurry, changing cars, at Philadelphia, so that I landed here without a dime. The next two days I spent hunting through the hospitals, walking all day and night, unable to ride, trying to get information, trying to get access to big people, &c—I could not get the least clue to anything—Odell3 would not see me at all—But Thursday afternoon, I lit on a way to get down on the government boat that runs to Aquia creek, and so by railroad to the neighborhood of Falmouth, opposite Fredericksburgh—So by degrees I worked my way to Ferrero's4 brigade, which I found Friday afternoon without much trouble after I got in camp. When I found dear brother George, and found that he was alive and well, O you may imagine how trifling all my little cares and difficulties seemed—they vanished into nothing. And now that I have lived for eight or nine days amid such scenes as the camps furnish, and had a practical part in it all, and realize the way that hundreds of thousands of good men are now living, and have had to live for a year or more, not only without any of the comforts, but with death and sickness and hard marching and hard fighting, (and no success at that,) for their continual experience—really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about. One of the first things that met my eyes in camp, was a heap of feet, arms, legs, &c. under a tree in front a hospital, the Lacy house.

George is very well in health, has a good appetite—I think he is at times more wearied out and homesick than he shows, but stands it upon the whole very well. Every one of the soldiers, to a man, wants to get home.

I suppose Jeff got quite a long letter I wrote from camp, about a week ago. I told you that George had been promoted to Captain5—his commission arrived while I was there. When you write, address

Capt. George W. Whitman  
  Co. K. 51st New York Vol. 
  Ferrero's brigade  
  near Falmouth Va.

Jeff must write oftener, and put in a few lines from mother, even if it is only two lines—then in the next letter a few lines from Mat, and so on. You have no idea how letters from home cheer one up in camp, and dissipate home sickness.

While I was there George still lived in Capt. Francis's6 tent—there were five of us altogether, to eat, sleep, write, &c. in a space twelve feet square, but we got along very well—the weather all along was very fine—and would have got along to perfection, but Capt. Francis is not a man I could like much—I had very little to say to him. George is about building a place, half-hut and half-tent, for himself—(he is probably about it this very day)—and then he will be better off, I think. Every Captain has a tent, in which he lives, transacts company business, &c. has a cook, (or man of all work,) and in the same tent mess and sleep his Lieutenants, and perhaps the 1st sergeant. They have a kind of fire-place, and the cook's fire is outside, on the open ground. George had very good times while Francis was away—the cook, a young disabled soldier, Tom,7 is an excellent fellow, and a first-rate cook, and the 2d Lieutenant, Pooley,8 is a tip-top young Pennsylvanian. Tom thinks all the world of George—when he heard he was wounded, on the day of the battle, he left every thing, got across the river, and went hunting for George through the field, through thick and thin. I wrote to Jeff that George was wounded by a shell, a gash in the cheek—you could stick a splint through into the mouth, but it has healed up without difficulty already. Every thing is uncertain about the army, whether it moves or stays where it is. There are no furloughs granted at present. I will stay here for the present, at any rate long enough to see if I can get any employment at any thing, and shall write what luck I have. Of course I am unsettled at present. Dear mother, my love,


If Jeff or any one writes, address me, | care of Major Hapgood,9 paymaster, U. S. Army, | corner 15th and F streets, 5th floor, | Washington D. C. I send my love to dear sister Mat, and little sis—and to Andrew and all my brothers. O Mat, how lucky it was you did not come—together, we could never have got down to see George.


  • 1. The Whitman family evidently became alarmed about George during the second battle of Bull Run when they noticed in the New York Herald of December 16, 1862, that "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore" was listed among the wounded; see Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967), 281. Moses Lane (see Whitman's letter from January 16, 1863) on the same day asked Captain James J. Dana to obtain a pass for Walt Whitman so that he might visit George at Falmouth; on the following day Dana wrote to the Provost Marshal, Colonel W. E. Doster. (Both letters are in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection.) After he lost his money in Philadelphia, Walt Whitman managed to go on to Washington, where he tried to locate George in the military hospitals. He encountered two men whom he had met in Boston in 1860: William D. O'Connor lent him money, and Eldridge obtained a pass for him to Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, not having heard from Walt Whitman, Jeff wrote anxiously on December 19, 1862: "We are all much worried at not hearing anything from you. . . . The Times of day before yesterday gave his name among the wounded thus 'Lieut Whitman Co. E 51st N. Y. V. cheek' [the Times said "face"] and we are trying to comfort ourselves with hope that it may not be a serious hurt." Meanwhile, George had written to his mother on December 16, 1862, from a camp near Falmouth, Virginia.: "We have had another battle and I have come out safe and sound, although I had the side of my jaw slightly scraped with a peice of shell which burst at my feet" (Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library)."Walter Whitman, a citizen," obtained a pass on December 27, 1862, from General Edwin Vose Summers "to Washington [by] Rail R. government steamer" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden 9 vols. [New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 1906-1996], 2:157), and, upon his arrival on the following day, took rooms where the O'Connors were living; see Whitman's letter from December 29, 1862 . Mrs. O'Connor described this meeting (her first) in "Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman," Atlantic Monthly, 99 (1907), 825–834. [back]
  • 2. This letter is evidently lost. [back]
  • 3. Moses Fowler Odell (1818–1866) was a member of the House of Representatives (1861–1865) from New York. [back]
  • 4. Edward Ferrero (1831–1899) was appointed on October 14, 1861, colonel, Fifty-first New York Volunteers, and commanded George's regiment during the following winter. After the second battle of Bull Run, he was appointed brigadier general. [back]
  • 5. In an undated letter, but unquestionably written shortly after his promotion in December, George informed his mother: "Remember your galliant Son is a Capting, and expects you to keep up the dignity of the family, and darn the expense" (Trent Collection). [back]
  • 6. George referred frequently to Henry W. Francis in his letters to his mother in 1862. His first impression, at New Bern, North Carolina, April 12, 1862, was favorable: "Our first Leiut. Francis is a first rate fellow so I have tip top times." Later George informed his mother that Francis had asked his wife, who was staying in Burlington, Vermont, to call on Hannah. On August 3, 1862, Hannah informed her mother that "Mrs. Francis called, I liked her much." During the battle at Antietam, George commanded his company, "as the Captain was not well although he was on the field." George noted on September 30, 1862, from near Antietam, that Francis had left on a twenty-day furlough, and on November 10, 1862, he wrote: "Captain Francis has not come back yet, and I am getting almost tired of haveing the whole trouble and responsibility of the Company and some one else getting the pay for it." After his return, George related on December 8, 1862, Francis was too unwell to resume command of the company. [back]
  • 7. Tom may be Thomas McCowell, mentioned in the letter from May 18, 1864 . George noted, on February 1, 1863, that Tom had received a letter from Whitman. [back]
  • 8. Samuel M. Pooley visited Mrs. Whitman on March 6, 1863 (see his letter to Walt Whitman of March 7, 1863, in Trent Collection, Duke University). He was taken prisoner in 1864 along with George; see Whitman's letters from February 3, 1865 and February 27, 1865 . [back]
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