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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 7 July 1863

Mother, it seems to be certain that Meade2 has gained the day, & that the battles there in Pennsylvania have been about as terrible as any in the war—O what a sight must have been presented by the field of action—I think the killed & wounded there on both sides were as many as eighteen or twenty thousand—in one place, four or five acres, there were a thousand dead, at daybreak on Saturday morning—Mother, one's heart grows sick of war, after all, when you see what it really is—every once in a while I feel so horrified & disgusted—it seems to me like a great slaughter-house & the men mutually butchering each other—then I feel how impossible it appears, again, to retire from this contest, until we have carried our points—(it is cruel to be so tossed from pillar to post in one's judgment).

Washington is a pleasant place in some respects—it has the finest trees, & plenty of them every where, on the streets, & grounds. The Capitol grounds, though small, have the finest cultivated trees I ever see—there is a great variety, & not one but is in perfect condition—After I finish this letter I am going out there for an hour's recreation—The great sights of Washington are the public buildings, the wide streets, the public grounds, the trees, the Smithsonian Institute & grounds—I go to the latter occasionally—the Institute is an old fogy concern, but the grounds are fine3—Sometimes I go up to Georgetown, about two & a half miles up the Potomac, an old town—just opposite it in the river is an island, where the niggers have their first Washington reg't encamped—they make a good show, are often seen in the streets of Washington in squads—since they have begun to carry arms, the secesh here & in Georgetown (about 3/5ths) are not insulting to them as formerly.

One of the things here always on the go, is long trains of army wagons—sometimes they will stream along all day, it almost seems as if there was nothing else but army wagons & ambulances—they have great camps here in every direction, of army wagons, teamsters, ambulance camps, &c. Some of them are permanent, & have small hospitals—I go to them, (as no one else goes, ladies would not venture)—I sometimes have the luck to give some of the drivers a great deal of comfort & help. Indeed, mother, there are camps here of every thing—I went once or twice to the Contraband Camp,4 to the Hospital, &c. but I could not bring myself to go again—when I meet black men or boys among my own hospitals, I use them kindly, give them something, &c.—I believe I told you that I do the same to the wounded rebels, too—but as there is a limit to one's sinews & endurance & sympathies, &c. I have got in the way after going lightly as it were all through the wards of a hospital, & trying to give a word of cheer, if nothing else, to every one, then confining my special attentions to the few where the investment seems to tell best, & who want it most—Mother, I have real pride in telling you that I have the consciousness of saving quite a little number of lives by saving them from giving up & being a good deal with them—the men say it is so, & the doctors say it is so—& I will candidly confess I can see it is true, though I say it of myself—I know you will like to hear it, mother, so I tell you—

I am finishing this in Major Hapgood's office, about 1 o'clock—it is pretty warm, but has not cleared off yet—the trees look so well from where I am, & the Potomac—it is a noble river—I see it several miles, & Arlington heights—Mother, I see some of the 47th Brooklyn every day or two—the reg't is on the Heights—back of Arlington House, a fine camp ground—O, Matty, I have just thought of you—dear sister, how are you getting along? Jeff, I will write you truly—Good bye for the present, dearest mother, & all—



  • 1. Since this letter (previously printed with the one from September 8, 1863) obviously refers to the engagements at Gettysburg, it has been placed in correct sequence. Note also the first sentence in the letter from July 10, 1863 . [back]
  • 2. George Gordon Meade (1815–1872) unexpectedly replaced Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863, two days before the engagement at Gettysburg. On July 7, 1863, Jeff was writing to his brother: "We are awfully pleased and excited at the war news. Feel as if the man had been appointed that was thinking less of political affairs than of licking the rebs. . . . Bully for Meade! He has not only licked the rebs but the peace party headed by McClellan. Hope that he will not let them off but will poke it into them" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). Unfortunately, like his predecessors, Meade failed to press his advantage and destroy the "old fox." Whitman evaluated Meade's strengths and weaknesses in a letter from April 27 (?), 1864 . [back]
  • 3. Whitman visited the Smithsonian Institute for the first time on April 17, 1863, with one of his soldier friends, Calving P. Riegel: "The Building is good, solid, &c.—the grounds around are fine—I must go walk there oftener" (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 132). In a notebook, "The Congress of the United States" (1863), Whitman noted: "Smithsonian Institute—at night, under unfavorable circumstances—all dark—pokerish to walk through there in the dark" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection). [back]
  • 4. On February 27, 1863, the New York Herald published a grim account of squalor in the Contraband Camp. [back]
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