Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to Lewis K. Brown, 8–9 November 1863

Dear son & comrade,2 | & all my dear comrades in the hospital,

I sit down this pleasant Sunday forenoon intending to write you all a good stout letter, to try to amuse you as I am not able at present to visit you, like I did—yet what I shall write about I hardly know until I get started—but, my dear comrades, I wish to help you pass away the time, for a few minutes any how—I am now home at my mother's in Brooklyn, N Y—I am in good health as ever & eat my rations without missing one time—Lew, I wish you was here with me, & I wish my dear comrade Elijah Fox3 in Ward G was here with me—but perhaps he is on his way to Wisconsin—Lewy, I came through from Washington to New York by day train, 2d Nov., had a very pleasant trip, every thing went lovely, & I got home in the evening between 8 and 9—Next morning I went up to the polls bright & early—I suppose it is not necessary to tell you how I voted—we have gained a great victory in this city—it went union this time, though it went democratic strong only a year ago, & for many years past—& all through the state the election was a very big thing for the union—I tell you the copperheads got flaxed out handsomely4—indeed these late elections are about as great a victory for us as if we had flaxed General Lee himself, & all his men—& as for personal good will I feel as if I could have more for Lee or any of his fighting men, than I have for the northern copperheads—

Lewy, I was very glad to get your letter of the 5th—I want you to tell Oscar Cunningham5 in your ward that I sent him my love & he must try to keep up good courage while he is confined there with his wound. Lewy, I want you to give my love to Charley Cate6 & all the boys in Ward K, & to Benton7 if he is [there still]—I wish you would go in Ward C and see James S Stilwell,8 & also Thomas Carson9 in same ward, & Chambers10 that lays next to him, & tell them I sent them my love. Give Carson this letter to read if he wishes it. Tell James Stilwell I have writ from here to his folks at Comac, L. I., & it may be I shall go down there next week on the L I railroad; & let him have this letter to read if he wishes it—Tell Manvill Winterstein11 that lays next to him in Ward C that I send him my love, & I hope his wound is healing good. Lew, I wish you to go in Ward B and tell a young cavalry man, his first name is Edwin,12 he is wounded in the right arm, that I sent him my love, & on the opposite side a young man named Charley13 wounded in left hand, & Jennings,14 & also a young man I love that lays now up by the door just above Jennings, that I sent them all my love. So, Lew, you see I am giving you a good round job, with so many messages—but I want you to do them all, dear son, & leave my letter with each of the boys that wish it, to read for themselves—tell Miss Gregg15 in Ward A that I send my love to Pleasant Borley,16 if he is still there, & if so I hope it will be God's will that he will live & get strong to go home yet—I send my love to little Billy,17 the Ohio boy in Ward A, & to Miss Gregg herself—& if Mrs Doolittle is in Ward B, please ask her to tell the boys in the ward I sent them my love, & to her too, & give her this letter some evening to read to the boys, & one of these days I will come back & read to them myself—& the same to Mrs Southwick in Ward H, if she wishes to read it to the boys for my sake.

Lew, I wish you would go in Ward G & find a very dear friend of mine in bed 11, Elijah D Fox, if he is still there. Tell him I sent him my best love, & that I make reckoning of meeting him again, & that he must not forget me, though that I know he never will—I want to hear how he is, & whether he has got his papers through yet—Lewy, I wish you would go to him first & let him have this letter to read if he is there—Lewy, I would like you to give my love to a young man named Burns in Ward I, & to all the boys in Ward I—& indeed in every ward, from A to K inclusive, & all through the hospital, as I find I cannot particularize without being tedious—so I send my love sincerely to each & all, for every sick & wounded soldier is dear to me as a son or brother, & furthermore every man that wears the union uniform & sticks to it like a man, is to me a dear comrade, & I will do what I can for him though it may not be much—& I will add that my mother & all my folks feel just the same about it, & would show it by their works too when they can—

Well, dear comrades, what shall I tell you to pass away the time? I am going around quite a great deal, more than I really desire to. Two or three nights ago I went to the N Y Academy of Music, to the Italian opera.18 I suppose you know that is a performance, a play, all in music & singing, in the Italian language, very sweet & beautiful. There is a large company of singers & a large band, altogether two or three hundred. It is in a splendid great house, four or five tiers high, & a broad parquette on the main floor. The opera here now has some of the greatest singers in the world—the principal lady singer (her name is Medori) has a voice that would make you hold your breath with wonder & delight, it is like a miracle—no mocking bird nor the clearest flute can begin with it—besides it is [a] very rich & strong voice—& besides she is a tall & handsome lady, & her actions are so graceful as she moves about the stage, playing her part. Boys, I must tell you just one scene in the opera I saw—things have worked so in the piece that this lady is compelled, although she tries very hard to avoid it, to give a cup of poisoned wine to her lover—the king her husband forces her to do it—she pleads hard, but her husband threatens to take both their lives (all this is in singing & music, very fine)—so the lover is brought in as a prisoner, & the king pretends to pardon him & make up, & asks the young man to drink a cup of wine, & orders the lady to pour it out. The lover drinks it, then the king gives her & him a look, & smiles & walks off the stage. And now came as good a piece of performance as I ever saw in my life. The lady as soon as she saw that her husband was really gone, she sprang to her lover, clutched him by the arm, & poured out the greatest singing you ever heard—it poured like a raging river more than any thing else I could compare it to—she tells him he is poisoned—he tries to inquire &c and hardly knows what to make of it—she breaks in, trying to pacify him, & explain &c—all this goes on very rapid indeed, & the band accompanying—she quickly draws out from her bosom a little vial, to neutralize the poison, then the young man in his desperation abuses her & tells her perhaps it is to poison him still more as she has already poisoned him once—this puts her in such agony, she begs & pleads with him to take the antidote at once before it is too late—her voice is so wild & high it goes through one like a knife, yet it is delicious—she holds the little vial to his mouth with one hand & with the other springs open a secret door in the wall, for him to escape from the palace—he swallows the antidote, & as she pushes him through the door, the husband returns with some armed guards, but she slams the door to, & stands back up against the door, & her arms spread wide open across it, one fist clenched, & her eyes glaring like a wild cat, so they dare not touch her—& that ends the scene. Comrades, recollect all this is in singing & music, & lots of it too, on a big scale, in the band, every instrument you can think of, & the best players in the world, & sometimes the whole band & the whole men's chorus & women's chorus all putting on the steam together—& all in a vast house, light as day, & with a crowded audience of ladies & men. Such singing & strong rich music always give me the greatest pleasure—& so the opera is the only amusement I have gone to, for my own satisfaction, for last ten years.

But, my dear comrades, I will now tell you something about my own folks—home here there is quite a lot of us—my father is not living—my dear mother is very well indeed for her age, which is 67—she is cheerful & hearty, & still does all her light housework & cooking—She never tires of hearing about the soldiers, & I sometimes think she is the greatest patriot I ever met, one of the old stock—I believe she would cheerfully give her life for the Union, if it would avail any thing—and the last mouthful in the house to any union soldier that needed it19—then I have a very excellent sister-in-law—she has two fine young ones—so I am very happy in the women & family arrangements. Lewy, the brother I mentioned as sick, lives near here, he is very poorly indeed, & I fear will never be much better20—he too was a soldier, has for several months had throat disease—he is married & has a family—I believe I have told you of still another brother in the army, down in the 9th Army Corps, has been in the service over two years, he is very rugged & healthy—has been in many battles, but only once wounded, at first Fredericksburgh.

Monday forenoon November 9. Dear comrades, as I did not finish my letter yesterday afternoon, as I had many friends come to see me, I will finish it now—the news this morning is that Meade is shoving Lee back upon Richmond, & that we have already given the rebs some hard knocks, there on the old Rappahannock fighting ground. O I do hope the Army of the Potomac will at last gain a first-class victory, for they have had to retreat often enough, & yet I believe a better Army never trod the earth than they are & have been for over a year.

Well, dear comrades, it looks so different here in all this mighty city, every thing going with a big rush & so gay, as if there was neither war nor hospitals in the land. New York & Brooklyn appear nothing but prosperity & plenty. Every where carts & trucks & carriages & vehicles on the go, loaded with goods, express-wagons, omnibuses, cars, &c—thousands of ships along the wharves, & the piers piled high, where they are loading or unloading the cargoes—all the stores crammed with every thing you can think of, & the markets with all sorts of provisions—tens & hundreds of thousands of people every where, (the population is 1,500,000), almost every body well-drest, & appearing to have enough—then the splendid river & harbor here, full of ships, steamers, sloops, &c—then the great street, Broadway, for four miles, one continual jam of people, & the great magnificent stores all along on each side, & the show windows filled with beautiful & costly goods—I never saw the crowd thicker, nor such goings on & such prosperity—& as I passed through Baltimore & Philadelphia it seemed to be just the same.

I am quite fond of crossing on the Fulton ferry, or South ferry, between Brooklyn & New York, on the big handsome boats. They run continually day & night. I know most of the pilots, & I go up on deck & stay as long as I choose. The scene is very curious, & full of variety. The shipping along the wharves looks like a forest of bare trees. Then there are all classes of sailing vessels & steamers, some of the grandest & most beautiful steamships in the world, going or coming from Europe, or on the California route, all these on the move. As I sit up there in the pilot house, I can see every thing, & the distant scenery, & away down toward the sea, & Fort Lafayette &c. The ferry boat has to pick its way through the crowd. Often they hit each other, then there is a time—

My loving comrades, I am scribbling all this in my room in my mother's house. It is Monday forenoon—I have now been home about a week in the midst of relations, & many friends, many young men, some I have known from childhood, many I love very much. I am out quite a good deal, as we are glad to be with each other—they have entertainments &c. But truly, my dear comrades, I never sit down, not a single time, to the bountiful dinners & suppers to which I am taken in this land of wealth & plenty without feeling it would be such a comfort to all, if you too, my dear & loving boys, could have each your share of the good things to eat & drink, & of the pleasure & amusement. My friends among the young men make supper parties, after which there is drinking &c., every thing prodigal & first rate, one, Saturday night, & another last night—it is much pleasure, yet often in the midst of the profusion, the palatable dishes to eat, & the laughing & talking, & liquors &c, my thoughts silently turn to Washington, to all who lie there sick & wounded, with bread & molasses for supper—

Lewy, dear son, I think I shall remain here ten or twelve days longer, & then I will try to be with you once again. If you feel like it I would like to have you write me soon, tell me about the boys, especially James Stilwell, Pleasant Borley, Cunningham, & from the cavalry boy Edwin in ward B—tell me whether Elijah Fox in ward G has gone home—Lew, when you write to Tom Sawyer21 you know what to say from me—he is one I love in my heart, & always shall till death, & afterwards too—I wish you to tell a young man in ward D, 2d bed below the middle door, (his first name is Isaac,22 he is wounded in left leg, & it has had erysipelas), that I sent him my love, & I wish him to have this letter to read if he desires it, & I will see him again before long.

So, Lew, I have given you a lot of messages but you can take your time to do them, only I wish each of the boys I have mentioned to have my letter that wishes it, & read it at leisure for themselves, & then pass to another. If Miss Hill in ward F or the lady nurse in ward E cares about reading it to the boys in those wards for my sake, you give it them some evening, as I know the boys would like to hear from me, as I do from them.

Well, Lewy, I must bid you good bye for present, dear son, & also to all the rest of my dear comrades, & I pray God to bless you, my darling boys, & I send you all my love, & I hope it will be so ordered to let things go as easy as possible with all my dear boys wounded or sick, & I hope it will be God's will that we shall all meet again, my dear loving comrades, not only here but hereafter.

Walt Whitman

Portland avenue near Myrtle Brooklyn New York


  • 1. The envelope for this letter bears the address: Lewis K Brown | Ward K Armory Square Hospital | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: N (?) | Nov | 9 | 1863. [back]
  • 2. See Whitman's letter from August 1, 1863. When Whitman presented this letter to Traubel on November 15, 1888, he said: "You'll find two versions—that is, the vague notes, then the inked letter—the letter that went was passed around: they don't essentially differ, if at all: I got the sent letter back from Lew Brown" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 3:100). On the following day he remarked to Traubel: "Did you read the huge hospital letter? Did it remind you of anything? My relations with the boys there in Washington had fatherly, motherly, brotherly intimations—touched life on many sides: sympathetically, spiritually, dynamically: took me away from surfaces to roots. I don't seem to be able to review that experience, that period, without extreme emotional stirrings—almost depressions. . . I don't seem to be able to stand it in the present condition of my body'" (3:110–111). [back]
  • 3. Elijah Douglass Fox was a Union soldier in the Third Infantry Wisconsin. At the time of his enlistment in May 1861, he resided in Buena Vista, Wisconsin. According to the "Notebook: September–October, 1863" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection), Fox was brought to Armory Square Hospital on September 26, 1863; it was here where he met Walt Whitman. He was discharged from the Union army on November 10, 1863, due to disability. [back]
  • 4. On November 5, 1863, the New York Times observed that the elections in Brooklyn two days earlier "resulted in the choice of a majority of the Union candidates for county and state offices." On the same day the New York Herald proclaimed: "The agony is over…The copperheads…have been routed, horse, foot and artillery." [back]
  • 5. See the letter from May 3, 1864. [back]
  • 6. According to Alonzo S. Bush's letter on December 22, 1863, Cate was ward master in Armory Square Hospital. [back]
  • 7. See "Letter from Walt Whitman to Benton H. Wilson, 12 April 1867" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977], 1:323–324). [back]
  • 8. See Whitman's letter from October 21, 1863. [back]
  • 9. Thomas J. Carson, Fourth Ohio Volunteers, had a compound fracture of the knee, according to the "Hospital Notebook" (Henry E. Huntington Library). [back]
  • 10. We have not been able to identify this Chambers to whom Whitman refers. [back]
  • 11. Manville Ellwood Wintersteen (1841–1917), a Pennsylvania native, was a Union solder during the U. S. Civil War. He served in the Sixth Ohio Cavalry, was wounded in the left shoulder, and, according to Whitman's "Notebook: September–October, 1863" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), "came in frozen" from a "cav[alry] fight." According to Wintersteen's service records and his records from an Ohio National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, he suffered a gun shot wound in the left side of his chest in 1863, in Culpeper, Virginia, during the Battle of Culpeper Court House. In his hospital notes, Whitman termed him "a noble sized young fellow" (Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933], 150), and referred to him briefly in Specimen Days as "Manvill Winterstein" (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1882–1883, 77). In 1875 Whitman wrote to Wintersteen, who, on March 1, replied: "I can not place you as I did not learn your name but havent forgot the kindness I recived while in the Arm[or]y Square Hospital." On March 10 of the same year, Wintersteen acknowledged receipt of Whitman's picture, and on August 8 described his not-so-prosperous circumstances. Whitman's letters to Wintersteen have not yet been located. [back]
  • 12. Probably Edwin H. Miller, Ninth New York Cavalry; see Charles I. Glicksberg, Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), 157. [back]
  • 13. "Charley" may be Charles H. Harris, who wrote to Whitman from West Brattleboro, Vermont, on May 30, 1864. [back]
  • 14. In the "Notebook: September–October, 1863" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection), a J. E. Jennings is referred to. [back]
  • 15. See the letter from September 7, 1863. [back]
  • 16. Pleasant Borley, Company A, First U.S. Cavalry, was admitted to the hospital on August 2, 1863, with a wound in the left leg, which gangrened. According to the "Notebook: September–October, 1863" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection), his "principal disease," however, was consumption. Whitman recorded a "dying scene night of October 22": "—speaks of the doctor, the lady nurse so kind, so tender, 'the doctor thinks he cant do any thing for you'—'I can die'—a pause—'I dont think the doctor cares much any how.'" [back]
  • 17. On December 22, 1863, Alonzo S. Bush referred to "Billy Clements." [back]
  • 18. Medori (see the letter from March 31, 1863 ) appeared in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia at the New York Academy of Music on November 4. [back]
  • 19. In view of Jeff's frequent references to his mother's frugality (see notes to letters from September 8, 1863 and October 13, 1863), this remark seems somewhat ironic. [back]
  • 20. From George's letters to his mother, it is possible to pinpoint Andrew's military service. On June 9, 1862, George wrote: "So Bunkum [Andrew] has gone Sogering too has he, well they will have good times in Baltimore." On July 21, 1862, he noted: "I shall try and go down to see Bunkum at Suffolk." George's last reference to Andrew's military career appears in the letter of September 30, 1862, from Antietam, Maryland: "Bunkum I guess is around somewhere looking for a good chance to go sogering." Undoubtedly, Andrew was released from service because of his health. [back]
  • 21. See Whitman's letter from April 21, 1863. [back]
  • 22. On the envelope of this letter there is the following note: "This letter has been Read by Isaac Linensparger in Ward D. I think it is a very good letter & I am very much pleased & delited with it. I love to read such letters. I am yours truly." Linensparger wrote to Whitman on May 7, 1864, after he returned home to Bloom, Ohio. [back]
Back to top