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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 15 September 1863

Dear Mother

Your letters were very acceptable—one came just as I was putting my last in the post office—I guess they all come right—I have written to Han & George, & sent George papers—Mother, have you heard any thing whether the 51st went on with Burnside, or did they remain as a reserve in Kentucky2—Burnside has managed splendidly so far, his taking Knoxville & all together, it is a first class success—I have known Tennessee union men here in hospital, & I understand it therefore—the region where Knoxville is, is mainly union but the southerners could not exist without it, as it is in their midst—so they determined to pound & kill & crush out the unionists—all the savage & monstrous things printed in the papers about their treatment are true, at least that kind of thing is—as bad as the Irish in the mob treated the poor niggers in New York3—we north[erners] dont understand some things about southerners, it is very strange—the contrast—if I should pick out the most genuine union men & real patriots I have ever met in all my experience, I should pick out two or three Tennesse & Virginia unionists I have met in the hospitals, wounded or sick—one young man I guess I have mentioned to you in my letters, John Barker,4 2d Tennessee Vol. (union)—was a long while a prisoner in secesh prisons in Georgia, & in Richmond—three times the devils hung him up by the heels to make him promise to give up his unionism, once he was cut down for dead—he is a young married man with one child—his little property destroyed, his wife & child turned out—he hunted & tormented, & any moment he could have had any thing if he would join the confederacy—but he was firm as a rock—he would not even take an oath to not fight for either side—they held him about 8 months—then he was very sick, scurvy, & they exchanged him & he came up from Richmond here to hospital, here I got acquainted with him—he is a large, slow, good natured man (somehow made me often think of father), shrewd, very little to say—wouldn't talk to any body but me—his whole thought was to get back & fight, he was not fit to go, but he has gone back to Tennessee—he spent two days with his wife & young one there & then to his regiment—he writes to me frequently, & I to him— he is not fit to soldier, for the rebels have destroyed his health & strength (though he is only 23 or 4), but nothing will keep him from his regiment, & fighting—he is uneducated, but as sensible a young man as I ever met, & understands the whole question—well, mother, Jack Barker is the most genuine Union man I have ever yet met—I asked him once very gravely why he didn't take the southern oath & get his liberty—if he didn't think it was foolish to be so stiff &c—I never saw such a look as he gave me, he thought I was in earnest—the old devil himself couldn't have had put a worse look in his eyes—

Mother, I have no doubt there are quite a good many just such men—he is now down there with his regiment, (one of his brothers was killed)—when he fails in strength, he gets the Colonel to detach him to do teamster's duty for a few days, on a march till he recruits his strength—but he always carries his gun with him—in a battle he is always in the ranks—then he is so sensible, such decent manly ways, nothing shallow or mean, (he must have been a giant in health, but now he is weaker, has a cough too)—Mother, can you wonder at my getting so attached to such men, with such love, especially when they show it to me—some of them on their dying beds, & in the very hour of death or just the same when they recover, or partially recover—I never knew what American young men were till I have been in the hospitals—

Well, mother, I have got writing on—there is nothing new with me, just the same old thing—as I suppose it is with you there—Mother, how is Andrew, I wish to hear all about him—I do hope he is better, & that it will not prove any thing so bad—I will write to him soon myself, but in the mean time you must tell him to not put so much faith in medicine, drugs I mean, as in the true curative things, namely diet & careful habits, breathing good air, &c—you know I wrote in a former letter5 what is the cause & foundation of the diseases of the throat, & what must be the remedy that goes to the bottom of the thing—sudden attacks &c are to be treated with applications & medicines, but diseases of a seated character are not to be cured by them, only perhaps a little relieved, (& often aggravated, made firmer)—

Dearest mother, I hope you yourself are well, & getting along good—About the letter in the Times,6 I see ever since I sent it they have been very crowded with news that must be printed—I think they will give it yet. I hear there is a new paper in Brooklyn,7 or to be one—I wish Jeff would send me some of the first numbers without fail, & a stray Eagle in same parcel to make up the 4 ounces—I was glad to hear Mat was going to write me a good long letter—every letter from home is so good, when one is away—(I often see the men crying in the hospital when they get a letter)—Jeff too I want him to write whenever he can, & not forget the new paper—we are having pleasant weather here, it is such a relief from that awful heat—(I can't think of another such seige without feeling sick at the thought)—Mother, I believe I told you I had written to Mrs. Price—do you see Emma? Are the soldiers still on Fort Greene?8

Well, mother, I have writ quite a letter—it is between 2 & 3 o'clock—I am in Major Hapgood's all alone—from my window I see all the Potomac, & all around Washington—Major & all gone down in the Army to pay troops & I keep house—I am invited to dinner to-day at 4 o'clock at a Mr Boyle's9—I am going—(hope we shall have something good)—dear Mother, I send you my love, & same to Jeff & Mat & all, not forgetting Mannahatta (who I hope is a help & comfort to her grandmother)—well I must scratch off in a hurry, for it is nearly a hour later than I thought—good bye for present, dear mother—



  • 1. Endorsed (by Walt Whitman): "letter ab't Jack Barker." [back]
  • 2. From a camp near Nicholasville, Kentucky, George reported to his mother on September 7, 1863, that, as he wrote, orders for his regiment to move to join Burnside's forces were countermanded. On September 22, 1863, from Camp Nelson, near Hickman's Bridge, Kentucky, George informed Jeff that "as our regt. was pretty well used up . . . we were left here to do guard duty" (Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library). Like Walt Whitman, George was pleased with Burnside's victory: "Jeff, that was rather a slick thing 'old Burny' did up there wasent it, he fooled the rebs that time nicely." [back]
  • 3. Lawrence Lader has explained the racial tensions in New York City preceding the draft riots: "The mob's savagery to the Negro sprang from complex motivations—economic, social, and religious. Most of its members were Irish. Comprising over half the city's foreign-born population of 400,000, out of a total of about 814,000, the Irish were the main source of cheap labor, virtually its peon class. Desperately poor and lacking real roots in the community, they had the most to lose from the draft. Further, they were bitterly afraid that even cheaper Negro labor would flood the North if slavery ceased to exist" American Heritage, 10 (June 1959), 48. [back]
  • 4. John "Jack" J. 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. After Barker left the hospital, he wrote to Whitman from Camp Summerset, Kentucky, on June 5, 1863, and June 19, 1863. [back]
  • 5. See the letter from April 15, 1863 . [back]
  • 6. "Letter from Washington," dated October 1, 1863, appeared in the New York Times on October 4; reprinted in Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1921), 2:29–36. This letter is typical of Whitman's newspaper correspondence—chatty, discursive, and informal. Whitman described the Capitol and various Washington sights; only one section, "Army Wagons and Ambulances," was topical. Burroughs termed the article "one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever seen" (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931], 13). [back]
  • 7. The first issue of the Brooklyn Standard Union appeared on September 14, 1863. [back]
  • 8. See Whitman's letter from September 8, 1863 . [back]
  • 9. Perhaps the Boyle referred to in "Letter from Walt Whitman to Peter Doyle, 23 September 1870" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77] 2:112–113). [back]
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