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Walt Whitman to Martha Whitman, 2–4 January 1863

Dear sister,

You have heard of my fortunes and misfortunes of course, (through my letters to mother and Jeff,) since I left home, that Tuesday afternoon. But I thought I would write a few lines to you, as it is a comfort to write home, even if I have nothing particular to say. Well, dear sister, I hope you are well and hearty, and that little sis keeps as well as she always had, when I left home, so far. Dear little plague, how I would like to have her with me, for one day. I can fancy I see her, and hear her talk. Jeff must have got a note from me about a letter I have written to the Eagle 1—you may be sure you will get letters enough from me, for I have little else to do at present. Since I laid my eyes on dear brother George, and saw him alive and well—and since I have spent a week in camp, down there opposite Fredericks-burgh, and seen what well men and sick men, and mangled men endure—it seems to me I can be satisfied and happy henceforward if I can get one meal a day, and know that mother and all are in good health, and especially if I can only be with you again, and have some little steady paying occupation in N. Y. or Brooklyn.

I am writing this in the office of Major Hapgood, way up in the top of a big high house, corner of 15th and F. street—there is a splendid view, away down south, of the Potomac river, and across to the Georgetown side, and the grounds and houses of Washington spread out beneath my high point of view. The weather is perfect—I have had that in my favor ever since leaving home—yesterday and to-day it is bright, and plenty warm enough. The poor soldiers are continually coming in from the hospitals, &c. to get their pay—some of them waiting for it, to go home. They climb up here, quite exhausted, and then find it is no good, for there is no money to pay them—there are two or three paymasters desks in this room, and the scenes of disappointment are quite affecting. Here they wait in Washington, perhaps week after [week], wretched and heart sick—this is the greatest place of delays and puttings off, and no finding the clue to any thing—this building is the paymaster general's quarters, and the crowds on the walk and corner, of poor sick, pale, tattered soldiers, are awful—many of them day after day, disappointed and tired out. Well, Mat, I will suspend my letter for the present, and go out through the city—I have a couple of poor fellows in the Hospital to visit also.


I write this in the place where I have my lodging room, 394 L street, 4th door above 14th street. A friend of mine, William D. O'Connor,2 has two apartments, on the 3d floor, very ordinarily furnished, for which he pays the extra ordinary price of $25 a month. I have a werry little bedroom on the 2d floor—Mr. & Mrs. O'Connor and their little girl have all gone out "down town" for an hour or two, to make some Saturday evening purchases, and I am left in possession of the premises—so I sit by the fire, and scribble more of my letter. I have not heard any thing from dear brother George since I left the camp last Sunday morning, 28th Dec. I wrote to him on Tuesday last—I wish to get to him the two blue woolen shirts Jeff sent, as they would come very acceptable to him—and will try to do it yet. I think of sending them by mail, if the postage is not more than $1.

Yesterday I went out to the Campbell Hospital to see a couple of Brooklyn boys, of the 51st. They knew I was in Washington, and sent me a note, to come and see them. O my dear sister, how your heart would ache to go through the rows of wounded young men, as I did—and stopt to speak a comforting word to them. There were about 100 in one long room, just a long shed neatly whitewashed inside. One young man was very much prostrated, and groaning with pain. I stopt and tried to comfort him. He was very sick. I found he had not had any medical attention since he was brought there—among so many he had been overlooked. So I sent for the doctor, and he made an examination of him—the doctor behaved very well—seemed to be anxious to do right—said that the young man would recover—he had been brought pretty low with diarroeha, and now had bronchitis, but not so serious as to be dangerous. I talked to him some time—he seemed to have entirely give up, and lost heart—he had not a cent of money—not a friend or acquaintance—I wrote a letter from him to his sister—his name is John A. Holmes,3 Campbello, Plymouth county, Mass. I gave him a little change I had—he said he would like to buy a drink of milk, when the woman came through with milk. Trifling as this was, he was overcome and began to cry. Then there were many, many others. I mention the one, as a specimen. My Brooklyn boys were John Lowery, shot at Fredericksburgh, and lost his left forearm, and Amos H. Vliet4—Jeff knows the latter—he has his feet frozen, and is doing well. The 100 are in a ward, (6.)—and there are, I should think, eight or ten or twelve such wards in the Campbell Hospital—indeed a real village. Then there are some 38 more Hospitals here in Washington, some of them much larger.

Mat, I hope and trust dear mother and all are well, and every thing goes on good home. The envelope I send, Jeff or any of you can keep for direction, or use it when wanted to write to me. As near as I can tell, the army at Falmouth remains the same.

Dear sister, good bye.


I send my love to Andrew and Jesse and Eddy and all—What distressing news this is of the loss of the Monitor5


  • 1. "Our Brooklyn Boys in the War" appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on January 5, 1863. It was a factual report of the activities of Brooklyn soldiers, particularly of Sims (see Whitman's letter from May 26, 1863) and George. [back]
  • 2. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor was an intelligent man who deserved something better than the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. The humdrum of clerkship, however, was relieved by the presence of Whitman whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and outpourings of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910] pp. 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]. [back]
  • 3. Whitman related the harrowing story of Holmes's illness in the New York Times, February 26, 1863 (in The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 10 vols. [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902], 7:85–89). Though Holmes suffered from acute diarrhea, he remained with his regiment at Fredericksburg as long as he could. Finally he was evacuated (in Whitman's words, "dumped with a crowd of others on the boat at Aquia creek"), and was taken to Campbell Hospital, Washington, where Whitman met him on January 4, 1863: "As I stopped by him and spoke some commonplace remark (to which he made no reply), I saw as I looked that it was a case for ministering to the affection first, and other nourishment and medicines afterward. I sat down by him without any fuss; talked a little; soon saw that it did him good; led him to talk a little himself; got him somewhat interested" (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 7:88). [back]
  • 4. According to Whitman's jottings in "New York City Veterans," Whitman discovered John Lowery (here spelled Lowerie) on December 22, 1862, "in the Hospital on the ground at Falmouth" (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 67). In Specimen Days, Whitman writes: "I saw him lying on the ground at Fredericksburg last December, all bloody, just after the arm was taken off. He was very phlegmatic about it, munching away at a cracker in the remaining hand—made no fuss" (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 4:51). In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of March 19, 1863, Whitman gave a fuller account of Lowery; Whitman saw Amos H. Vliet in the hospital tent at Falmouth on December 22, 1862, and mentioned him briefly in this article (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, 7:95–96). According to his diary, Whitman wrote a (lost) Letter to Vliet on May 2, 1863 (Glicksberg, 133). [back]
  • 5. The Monitor foundered at sea on December 30, 1862. The report of the disaster was received in Washington on January 3, 1863. [back]
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