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Walt Whitman to Thomas Jefferson Whitman, 13 February 1863

Dear brother,

Nothing new—still I thought I would write you a line this morning. The $4, namely: $2 from Theo. A. Drake and 2 [from] John D. Martin,1 enclosed in your letter of the 10th came safe. They too will please accept the grateful thanks of several poor fellows, in hospital here.

The letter of introduction to Mr. Webster,2 chief clerk, State Department, will be very acceptable. If convenient, I should like Mr Lane3 to send it on immediately. I do not so much look for an appointment from Mr. Seward as his backing me from the State of New York. I have seen Preston King4 this morning for the second time—(it is very amusing to hunt for an office—so the thing seems to me just now—even if one don't get it)—I have seen Charles Sumner three times—he says every thing here moves as part of a great machine, and that I must consign myself to the fate of the rest—still [in] an interview I had with him yesterday he talked and acted as though he had life in him, and would exert himself to any reasonable extent for me to get something. Meantime I make about enough to pay my expenses by hacking on the press here, and copying in the paymasters offices, a couple of hours a day—one thing is favorable here, namely, pay for whatever one does is at a high rate—I have not yet presented my letters to either Seward or Chase5—I thought I would get my forces all in a body, and make one concentrated dash, if possible with the personal introduction and presence of some big bug—I like fat old Preston King, very much—he is fat as a hogshead, with great hanging chops—the first thing he said to me the other day in the parlor chamber of the Senate, when I sent in for him and he came out, was, "Why, how can I do this thing, or any thing for you—how do I know but you are a secessionist—you look for all the world, like an old Southern planter—a regular Carolina or Virginia planter." I treated him with just as much hauteur as he did me with bluntness—this was the first time—it afterward proved that Charles Sumner had not prepared the way for me, as I supposed, or rather, not so strongly as I supposed, and Mr. King had even forgotten it—so I was as an entire stranger. But the same day C. S. talked further with Mr. King in the Senate, and the second interview I had with the latter, (this forenoon) he has given me a sort of general letter, endorsing me from New York—one envelope is addressed to Secretary Chase, and another to Gen. Meigs,6 head Quartermaster's Dep't. Meantime, I am getting better and better acquainted with office-hunting wisdom, and Washington peculiarities generally.

I spent several hours in the Capitol the other day—the incredible gorgeousness of some of the rooms, (interior decorations &c)—rooms used perhaps but for merely three or four Committee meetings in the course of the whole year,) is beyond one's flightiest dreams. Costly frescoes of the style of Taylor's Saloon in Broadway,7 only really the best and choicest of their sort, done by imported French & Italian artists, are the prevailing sorts (imagine the work you see on the fine China vases, in Tiffany's—the paintings of Cupids & goddesses &c. spread recklessly over the arched ceiling and broad panels of a big room—the whole floor underneath paved with tesselated pavement, which is a sort of cross between marble & china, with little figures drab, blue, cream color, &c). These things, with heavy, elaborately wrought balustrades, columns, & steps—all of the most beautiful marbles I ever saw, some white as milk, others of all colors, green, spotted, lined, or of our old chocolate color—all these marbles used as freely as if they were common blue flags—with rich door-frames and window-casings of bronze and gold—heavy chandeliers and mantels, and clocks in every room—and indeed by far the richest and gayest, and most un-American and inappropriate ornamenting and finest interior workmanship I ever conceived possible, spread in profusion through scores, hundreds, (and almost thousands) of rooms—such are what I find, or rather would find to interest me, if I devoted time to it—But a few of the rooms are enough for me—the style is without grandeur, and without simplicity—These days, the state our country is in, and especially filled as I am from top to toe, of late with scenes and thoughts of the hospitals, (America seems to me now, though only in her youth, but brought already here feeble, bandaged and bloody in hospital)—these days I say, Jeff, all the poppy-show goddesses and all the pretty blue & gold in which the interior Capitol is got up, seem to me out of place beyond any thing I could tell—and I get away from it as quick as I can when that kind of thought comes over me. I suppose it is to be described throughout—those interiors—as all of them got up in the French style—well enough for a New York [incomplete]


  • 1. Jeff enclosed the contributions from these employees of Moses Lane on February 10, 1863. The Brooklyn Directory of 1865–66 listed Drake as an inspector in City Hall. Martin was listed in the Directory of 1861–62 as a surveyor, but was not cited in 1865–66. Lane enclosed a contribution of $1 from Martin in a letter on May 2, 1863. [back]
  • 2. Moses Lane (1823–1882) served as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Water Works from 1862 to 1869. He later designed and constructed the Milwaukee Water Works and served there as city engineer. Like Jeff Whitman, he collected money from his employees and friends for Walt's hospital work. 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 as well (see Whitman's letter from December 29, 1862). 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]
  • 3. Lane wrote to E. D. Webster on February 12: "Mr. W[hitman] has been for a long time connected with the New York Press and is a writer of most decided ability. His patriotism and loyalty you can rely upon under all circumstances. . . . I thought possibly you might assist him on the score of our old acquaintance" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). In his letter on February 10, 1863, Jeff reported that Lane "tells me that he (Webster) is a 'politician' and that he will help you without doubt provided that he thinks that it will not interfere at all with him." According to the Washington Directory of 1864, Webster was not chief clerk but a clerk of the fourth class in the State Department. [back]
  • 4. Preston King (1806–1865) served as United States Senator from New York from 1857 to 1863. On February 11, Walt Whitman called for the first time upon King, who did not "remember that Mr. Sumner had spoken to him about me. . . . King was blunt, decisive and manly . . . I think Sumner is a sort of gelding—no good." At the second interview on February 13, King gave Whitman "a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury [Chase]—also to Gen'l Meigs, chief of Quartermaster dep't." Whitman had an interview with Sumner on February 20 and asked him for "a boost" if he did not obtain a position by March 4. (This information is based upon jottings in one of Whitman's notebooks in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection.) [back]
  • 5. See Ralph Waldo Emerson's letters to Salmon P. Chase and William H. Seward from January 10, 1863. [back]
  • 6. Montgomery C. Meigs (1816–1892) was appointed quartermaster general on May 14, 1861, and served in that capacity throughout the war. Bruce Catton (Glory Road: The Bloody Route from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1952], 96) describes Meigs as "a grave and estimable man who deserves just a little better of posterity than he seems likely ever to get." [back]
  • 7. John Taylor's Saloon was located at 365 Broadway. Amos Bronson Alcott noted in his journal on December 12, 1856, that he dined there with Whitman, "discussing America, its men and institutions" (The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard [Boston: Little, Brown and Company,1938], 293). [back]
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