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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 13 May 1863

Dearest Mother,

I am late with my letter this week—my poor, poor boys occupy my time very much—I go every day, & sometimes nights—I believe I mentioned a young man in Ward F, Armory Square, with a bad wound in the leg, very agonizing, had to have it propt up, & an attendant all the while dripping water on night & day—I was in hopes at one time he would get through with it, but a few days ago he took a sudden bad turn, & died about 3 o'clock the same afternoon—it was horrible—he was of good family (handsome, intelligent man, about 26, married) his name was John Elliott1 of Cumberland Valley, Bedford Co., Penn., belonged to 2d Pennsylvania Cavalry. I felt very bad about it—I have wrote to his father—have not rec'd any answer yet—no friend nor any of his folks was here & have not been here nor sent, probably didnt know of it at all. The surgeons put off amputating the leg, he was so exhausted, but at last it was imperatively necessary to amputate—mother, I am shocked to tell you, that the never came alive off the amputating table—he died under the operation—it was what I had dreaded & anticipated—poor young man, he suffered much, very very much, for many days & bore it so patiently—so it was a release to him—Mother, such things are awful—not a soul here he knew or cared about, except me—yet the surgeons & nurses were good to him—I think all was done for him that could be—there was no help but to take off the leg—he was under chloroform—they tried their best to bring him to—three long hours were spent, a strong smelling bottle held under his nostrils, with other means, three hours. Mother, how contemptible all the usual little worldly prides & vanities & striving after appearances, seems in the midst of such scenes as these—such tragedies of soul & body. To see such things & not be able to help them is awful—I feel almost ashamed of being so well & whole.

Dear mother, I have not heard from George himself—but I got a letter from Fred McReady,2 a young Brooklyn man in 51st—he is intimate with George, said he was well & hearty—I got the letter about five days ago—I wrote to George four days since, directed to Winchester, Kentucky. I got a letter from a friend3 in Nashville, Tenn., yesterday, he told me the 9th Army Corps was ordered to move to Murfreesboro, Tenn. I don't know whether this is so or not. I send papers to George almost every day. So far, I think it was fortunate the 51st was moved west, & I hope it will prove to continue so. Mother, it is all a lottery, this war, no one knows what will come up next.

Mother, I rec'd Jeff's letter of May 9th, it was welcome, as all Jeff's letters are, & all others from home. Jeff says you do not hear from me at home but seldom—Mother, I write once a week to you regular—but I will write soon to Jeff a good long letter—I have wanted to for some time, but have been much occupied. Dear brother, I wish you to say to Probasco & all the other young men on the Works, I send them my love & best thanks—never any thing came more acceptable than the little fund they forwarded me, the last week, through Mr. Lane4—Our wounded, from Hooker's battles, are worse wounded & more of them, than any battle of the war & indeed any I may say of modern times (we have lost from 15,000 to 20,000)—besides, the weather has been very hot here, very bad for new wounds. Yet as Jeff writes so downhearted I must tell him the rebellion has lost worse & more than we have—the more I find out about it, the more I think they, the confederates, have rec'd an irreparable harm & loss in Virginia. I should not be surprised to see them (either voluntarily or by force) leaving Virginia, before many weeks. I don't see how on earth they can stay there—I think Hooker is already reaching after them again—I myself do not give up Hooker yet—

Dear mother, I should like to hear from Han, poor Han—I send my best love to Sister Mat & all. Good bye, dearest mother.



  • 1. Whitman's notations in his diary add interesting details to this account: "Did he shoot himself. Operated on chloroform—Leg taken off. Dies under operation" (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 149). [back]
  • 2. While Whitman was with George after the battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, he noted in his diary that, among others, Fred B. McReady, then an orderly sergeant in George's regiment, "used me well" (Glicksberg, 70). McReady sent Whitman a lengthy account of the activities of the Fifty-first Regiment from February 9 to April 29, 1863 (Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library). In the Brooklyn Daily Union of September 22, 1863, Whitman noted: "Fred. McReady I know to be as good a man as the war has received out of Brooklyn City" (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921], 2:29). [back]
  • 3. Probably John Barker; see Whitman's letters from June 9, 1863 and September 16, 1863. However, another soldier, Will W. Wallace, wrote on July 1, 1863, from Nashville, Tennessee: "I wrote to you some time since and have received no reply." [back]
  • 4. See Walt Whitman's letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman from May 5, 1863 . [back]
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