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Walt Whitman to William S. Davis, 1 October 1863

The noble gift of your brother Joseph P Davis1 of [$20?] for the aid of the wounded, sick, dying soldiers here came safe to hand—it is being sacredly distributed to them—part of it has been so already—I may another time give you special cases—I go every day or night in the hospitals a few hours—2

As to physical comforts, I attempt to have something—generally a lot of—something harmless & not too expensive to go round to each man, even if it is nothing but a good home-made biscuit to each man, or a couple of spoonfuls of blackberry preserve, I take a ward or two of an evening & two more next evening &c—as an addition to his supper—sometimes one thing, sometimes another, (judgment of course has to be carefully used)—then, after such general round, I fall back upon the main thing, after all, the special cases, alas, too common—those that need special attention, some little delicacy, some trifle—very often, far above all else, soothing kindness wanted—personal magnetism—poor boys, their sick hearts & wearied & exhausted bodies hunger for the sustenance of love or their deprest spirits must be cheered up—I find often young men, some hardly more than children in age yet—so good, so sweet, so brave, so decorous, I could not feel them nearer to me if my own sons or young brothers—Some cases even I could not tell any one, how near to me, from their yearning ways & their sufferings—it is comfort & delight to me to minister to them, to sit by them—some so wind themselves around one's heart, & will be kissed at parting at night just like children—though veterans of two years of battles & camp life—

I always carry a haversack with some articles most wanted—physical comforts are a sort of basis—I distribute nice large biscuit, sweet-crackers, sometimes cut up a lot of peaches with sugar, give preserves of all kinds, jellies, &c. tea, oysters, butter, condensed milk, plugs of tobacco, (I am the only one that doles out this last, & the men have grown to look to me)—wine, brandy, sugar, pickles, letter-stamps, envelopes & note-paper, the morning papers, common handkerchiefs & napkins, undershirts, socks, dressing gowns, & fifty other things3—I have lots of special little requests. Frequently I give small sums of money—shall do so with your brother's contribution—the wounded are very frequently brought & lay here a long while without a cent. I have been here & in front 9 months doing this thing, & have learned much—two-thirds of the soldiers are from 15 to 25 or 6 years of age—lads of 15 or 16 more frequent than you have any idea—seven-eighths of the Army are Americans, our own stock—the foreign element in the army is much overrated, & is of not much account anyhow—As to these hospitals, (there are dozens of them in [&] around Washington) [there] are no hospitals you must understand like the diseased half-foreign collections under that name common at all times in cities—in these here, the noblest, cleanest stock I think of the world, & the most precious.4


  • 1. William S. Davis, a lawyer in Worcester, Massachusetts, acting upon instructions from his brother Joseph, who was in Peru, sent Jeff $50 for Walt Whitman's hospital work. On September 24, 1863, Jeff advised Whitman to acknowledge the gift and to describe his hospital work: "I consider it an opportunity for you to make this $50 the father of 100's without in the least seeming like one asking for it." Joseph returned from Peru in 1865, and he went with Jeff later to St. Louis; see Walt Whitman's letter to William D. O'Connor from May 5, 1867 (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:327–329). The brothers were descendants of a distinguished Massachusetts family. See also John Davis Estabrook, Three Generations of Northboro Davises, 1781–1894 (Westboro, Massachusetts: Chronotype, 1908), 35–36; and E. A. Davis, Eager-Davis Genealogy (1859). [back]
  • 2. The letter is endorsed, "Sent Oct 1 1863 | to W S Davis | Worcester | Massachusetts." Draft Letter. [back]
  • 3. According to Whitman's notations, the material in this paragraph up to this point was to have been incorporated into the preceding paragraph. Since there are no indications in the manuscript as to where he intended to place it, the document has been transcribed literally. [back]
  • 4. When Horace Traubel read this letter aloud on May 23, 1888, Whitman commented: "Sometimes I am myself almost afraid of myself—afraid to read such a letter over again: it carries me too painfully back into old days—into the fearful scenes of the war. I don't think the war seemed so horrible to me at the time, when I was busy in the midst of its barbarism, as it does now, in retrospect" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 1:198). [back]
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