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Walt Whitman to Margaret S. Curtis, 4 October 1863

Dear Madam,2

Your letter reached me this forenoon with the $30 for my dear boys, for very dear they have become to me, wounded & sick here in the government hospitals—As it happens I find myself rapidly making acknowledgment of your welcome letter & contribution from the midst of those it was sent to aid—& best by a sample of actual hospital life on the spot, & of my own goings around the last two or three hours—As I write I sit in a large pretty well-fill'd ward by the cot of a lad3 of 18 belonging to Company M, 2d N Y cavalry, wounded three weeks ago to-day at Culpepper—hit by fragment of a shell in the leg below the knee—a large part of the calf of the leg is torn away, (it killed his horse)—still no bones broken, but a pretty large ugly wound—I have been writing to his mother at Comac, Suffolk co. N Y—She must have a letter just as if from him, about every three days—it pleases the boy very much—has four sisters—them also I have to write to occasionally—Although so young he has been in many fights & tells me shrewdly about them, but only when I ask him—He is a cheerful good-natured child—has to lie in bed constantly, his leg in a box—I bring him things—he says little or nothing in the way of thanks—is a country boy—always smiles & brightens much when I appear—looks straight in my face & never at what I may have in my hand for him—I mention him for a specimen as he is within reach of my hand & I can see that his eyes have been steadily fixed on me from his cot ever since I began to write this letter.

There are some 25 or 30 wards, barracks, tents, &c in this hospital—This is ward C, has beds for 60 patients, they are mostly full—most of the other principal wards about the same—so you see a U S general hospital here is quite an establishment—this has a regular police, armed sentries at the gates & in the passages &c.—& a great staff of surgeons, cadets, women & men nurses &c &c. I come here pretty regularly because this hospital receives I think the worst cases & is one of the least visited—there is not much hospital visiting here now—it has become an old story—the principal here, Dr Bliss, is a very fine operating surgeon4—sometimes he performs several amputations or other operations of importance in a day—amputations, blood, death are nothing here—you will see a group absorbed [in] playing cards up at the other end of the room.

I visit the sick every day or evening—sometimes I stay far in the night, on special occasions. I believe I have not missed more than two days in past six months. It is quite an art to visit the hospitals to advantage. The amount of sickness, and the number of poor, wounded, dying young men are appalling. One often feels lost, despondent, his labors not even a drop in the bucket—the wretched little he can do in proportion. I believe I mentioned in my letter to Dr Russell5 that I try to distribute something, even if but the merest trifle, all round, without missing any, when I visit a ward, going round rather rapidly—& then devoting myself, more at leisure, to the cases that need special attention. One who is experienced may find in almost any ward at any time one or two patients or more, who are at that time trembling in the balance, the crisis of the wound, recovery uncertain, yet death also uncertain. I will confess to you, madam, that I think I have an instinct & faculty for these cases. Poor young men, how many have I seen, & known—how pitiful it is to see them—one must be calm & cheerful, & not let on how their case really is, must stop much with them, find out their idiosyncrasies—do any thing for them—nourish them, judiciously give the right things to drink—bring in the affections, soothe them, brace them up, kiss them, discard all ceremony, & fight for them, as it were, with all weapons. I need not tell your womanly soul that such work blesses him that works as much as the object of it. I have never been happier than in some of these hospital ministering hours.

It is now between 8 & 9, evening—the atmosphere is rather solemn here to-night—there are some very sick men here—the scene is a curious one—the ward is perhaps 120 or 30 feet long—the cots each have their white musquito curtains—all is quite still—an occasional sigh or groan—up in the middle of the ward the lady nurse sits at a little table with a shaded lamp, reading—the walls, roof, &c are all whitewashed—the light up & down the ward from a few gas-burners about half turned down—It is Sunday evening—to-day I have been in the hospital, one part or another, since 3 o'clock—to a few of the men, pretty sick, or just convalescing & with delicate stomachs or perhaps badly wounded arms, I have fed their suppers—partly peaches pealed, & cut up, with powdered sugar, very cool & refreshing—they like to have me sit by them & peal them, cut them in a glass, & sprinkle on the sugar—(all these little items may-be may interest you).

I have given three of the men, this afternoon, small sums of money—I provide myself with a lot of bright new 10ct & 5ct bills, & when I give little sums of change I give the bright new bills. Every little thing even must be taken advantage of—to give bright fresh 10ct bills, instead of any other, helps break the dullness of hospital life—


  • 1. Endorsed (by Walt Whitman): "Oct 5, '63. | Margarete S Curtis | care Charles P Curtis | Boston | Mass." [back]
  • 2. Margaret S. Curtis, wife of a Boston counselor, and her sister, Hannah E. Stevenson, sent sums of money to Whitman (see also Whitman's letter from October 8, 1863). Mr. and Mrs. Curtis had sent $30 on October 1, 1863. According to the Boston Directory of 1888, Mrs. Curtis died on March 13 of that year. After Whitman gave this letter to Horace Traubel on July 27, 1888, he observed: "My main motive would be to say things: not to say them prettily—not to stun the reader with surprises—with fancy turns of speech—with unusual, unaccustomed words—but to say them—to shoot my gun without a flourish and reach the mark if I can. The days in the hospitals were too serious for that" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 2:51). [back]
  • 3. James S. Stilwell, Second New York Cavalry, was confined in Ward C of Armory Square with a gunshot wound in his left leg; see "Notebook: September–October, 1863" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection) and "Hospital Notes" (Henry E. Huntington Library). He recovered slowly from his injury. About the end of May in the following year he was sent to Mower Hospital, Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, where he remained until he was granted a furlough in August 1864. He later returned to Mower Hospital and wrote to Whitman on September 27, 1864, that his wound was "most healed up," and that he expected either to be discharged or to be transferred to New York. See also Stilwell's letters to Whitman from July 5, 1864, and September 2, 1864. He was the brother of Julia and John Stilwell. See also Whitman's letters from October 21, 1863, and November 15, 1863 . [back]
  • 4. Originally Whitman wrote: "the principal surgeon, Dr Bliss, is a capital surgeon, & a pretty good head manager of hospital." [back]
  • 5. See the letter from December 3, 1863 . The letter Whitman referred to, probably written in September, is not extant. [back]
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