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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 9 June 1863

Dearest mother,

Jeff's letter came yesterday & was very welcome, as I wanted to hear about you all—I wrote to George yesterday & sent Jeff's letter enclosed. It looks from some accounts as though the 9th Army corps might be going down into East Tennessee, (Cumberland Gap or perhaps bound for Knoxville.) It is an important region, & has many southern unionists —the staunchest union man I have ever met is a young southerner in the 2d Tennessee (union reg't)—he was ten months in southern prisons, came up from Richmond paroled about ten weeks ago, & has been in hospital here sick until lately—he suffered every thing but death, he is the one they hung up by the heels, head downwards, & indeed worse than death, but stuck to his convictions like a hero—John Barker,1 a real manly fellow, I saw much of him & heard much of that country that can be relied on. He is now gone home to his reg't.

Mother, I am feeling very well these days—my head that was stopt up so & hard of hearing seems to be all right. I only hope you have had similar good fortune with your rheumatism, & that it will continue so—I wish I could come in for a couple of days & see you—if I should succeed in getting a transportation ticket that would take me to New York & back, I should be tempted to come home for two or three days, as I want some MSS & books, & the trunk, &c. But I will see—Mother, your letter week before last was very good—whenever you feel like it, you write me, dear mother, & tell me every thing about the neighborhood, & all the items of our family. And sister Mat, how is she getting along—I believe I will have to write a letter especially to her & Sis, one of these times.

It is awful dry weather here, no rain of any consequence for five or six weeks—we have strawberries good & plenty, 15 cents a quart, with the hulls on—I go down to market sometimes of a morning & buy two or three quarts, for the folks I take my meals with—Mother, do you know I have not paid, as you may say, a cent of board since I have been in Washington, that is for meals—four or five times I have made a rush to leave the folks & find a moderate priced boarding house, but every time they have made such a time about it, that I have kept on—it is Mr. & Mrs. O'Connor, (he is the author of "Harrington")2—he has a $1600 office in the Treasury, & she is a first rate woman, a Massachusetts girl—they keep house in a moderate way—they have one little girl, (lost a fine boy about a year ago)—they have two rooms in the same house where I hire my room, & I take breakfast (½ past 8) & dinner (½ past 4) with them, as they will have it so—that's the way it has gone on now over five months, & as I say they won't listen to my leaving—but I shall do so, I think—I can never forget their kindness & real friendship & it appears as though they would continue just the same, if it were for all our lives. But I have insisted on going to market, (it is pleasant in the cool of the morning,) and getting the things, at my own expense, two or three times a week lately—I pay for the room I occupy now $7 a month—the landlord is a mixture of booby, miser & hog, his name is Gwin3—the landlady is a good woman, Washington raised—they are quite rich—he is Irish of the worst kind—has had a good office for ten years until Lincoln came in—They have bought another house, smaller, to live in, & are going to move (were to have moved 1st of June)—they had an auction of the house we live in yesterday, but nobody came to buy, so it was ridiculous—we had a red flag out, & a nigger walked up & down ringing a big bell, which is the fashion here for auctions.

Well, mother, the war still goes on, & every thing as much in a fog as ever—& the battles as bloody, & the wounded & sick getting worse & plentier all the time. I see a letter in the Tribune from Lexington, Ky., June 5th, headed "the 9th Army Corps departing for Vicksburgh"4—but I cannot exactly make it out, on reading the letter carefully—I don't see any thing in the letter about the 9th corps moving for Vicksburgh—at any rate I think the 2d division is more likely to be needed in Kentucky (or as I said, in Eastern Tennessee) as the secesh are expected to make trouble there—But one can hardly tell—the only thing is to resign onesself to events as they occur—it is a sad & dreary time, for so many thousands of parents & relatives, not knowing what will occur next—Mother, I told you I think last week that I had wrote to Han, & enclosed George's last letter to me—I wrote a week ago last Sunday—I wonder if she got the letter—About the pictures, I should like Jeff to send them, as soon as convenient—might send 20 of the big head, 10 or 12 of the standing figure, & 3 of the carte visite.

I am writing this in Major Hapgood's office—it is bright & pleasant, only the dust here in Washington is a great nuisance. Mother, your shirts do first rate. I am wearing them—the one I have on today suits me better than any I have ever yet had. I have not worn the thin coat the last week or so, as it has not been very hot lately.

Mother, I think something of commencing a series of lectures & readings &c.5 through different cities of the north, to supply myself with funds for my Hospital & Soldiers visits—as I do not like to be beholden to the medium of others—I need a pretty large supply of money &c. to do the good I would like to—& the work grows upon me, & fascinates me—it is the most affecting thing you ever see, the lots of poor sick & wounded young men that depend so much, in one ward or another, upon my petting or soothing or feeding, sitting by them & feeding them their dinner or supper, some are quite helpless—some wounded in both arms—or giving some trifle (for a novelty or a change, it isn't for the value of it,) or stopping a little while with them—nobody will do but me—So, mother, I feel as though I would like to inaugurate a plan by which I could raise means on my own hook, & perhaps quite plenty too. Best love to you, dearest mother, & to sister Mat & Jeff.



  • 1. John "Jack" Barker was a soldier in the Second Tennessee Volunteer Regiment, whom Whitman greatly admired for remaining loyal to the Union even while in captivity among the Confederates. He became sick and was transferred to a hospital, where Whitman met him for the first time. Barker's career is detailed in a letter from September 15, 1863 . After Barker left the hospital, he wrote to Whitman from Camp Summerset, Kentucky, on June 5 and 19, 1863 (T. E. Hanley Collection, University of Texas). [back]
  • 2. For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William D. 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 an outpouring 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]. Of the O'Connors, Jeff wrote on June 13, 1863: "I am real glad, my dear Walt, that you are among such good people. I hope it will be in the power of some of our family to return their kindness some day. I'm sure twould be done with a heartfelt gratitude. Tis pleasant, too, to think, that there are still people of that kind left." [back]
  • 3. Carey Gwynne. Mrs. O'Connor, in a letter on November 10, 1863, related with malice Gwynne's failure to rent an unfurnished house for $100 a month, but, like Whitman, spoke sympathetically of his wife. Gwynne was listed in the 1866 Directory as a clerk in the Treasury Department. [back]
  • 4. A dispatch with this heading appeared in the New York Times on June 8, 1863. [back]
  • 5. In his letter of June 13, 1863, Jeff had reservations about Whitman's lecture plans: "I fear that you would not meet with that success that you deserve. Mr Lane and I talked about the matter and both came to the conclusion that it would be much better if you could be appointed dispensing agent, or something of that kind, for some of the numerous aid societies." Probably about this time, Whitman wrote in his "Hospital Note Book" (Henry E. Huntington Library): "Lectures—pieces must not be dry opinions & prosy doctrines, &c—must be animated life-blood, descriptions, full of movement—with questions—apostrophes—declamatory passages, &c (a little ad captandum is allowable)."Except for the concluding sentences, this paragraph appeared in November Boughs from (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, ed. Richard Maurice Bucke [New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1902], 6:232), erroneously dated May 26, 1863. [back]
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