Skip to main content

Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 5 July 1864

 loc.00943.001.jpg Dear Walt,

It will be two weeks to-morrow since you left us,1 and I have missed you terribly every minute of the time. I think I never in my life felt so wholly blue and unhappy about any one's going away as I did and have since, about your going. I began to be really superstitious I felt so badly. I did not think that you were going to die, but I could not possibly overcome the feeling that our dear  loc.00943.002.jpgand pleasant circle was broken, and it seemed to me that we four should not be together any more as we have been. But now since you are so much better, I hope you will come back to Washington in the autumn to stay all winter, and I hope we shall spend a part of every day together, as we have so many days. Ah! Walt, I don't believe other people need you as much as we do. I am sure they don't need you as much as I do. William says it seems  loc.00943.003.jpgso desolate since you left,—and even yet in the evening when I hear a car coming, I find myself watching for you, and listening for you.

One reason that I have not written to you before is that I have been so unhappy I thought my letter would only make you so. I can't possibly tell you what a gap you have left, and how all seems gone since you left.

William got your note, and answered it but he directed it to Brooklyn only, so it may not be carried to your house, &  loc.00943.004.jpgyou may have to look after it. Charlie got your letter to him, & answered it the same day.2 He went off last Friday to pay the Staff Officers down at the front in the 5th Corps, Warren's & he said he wished you were here to go with them, as it would give you a fine chance to see your brother George. He expected to get back yesterday, but we have not seen him yet.

Poor Ashton is sick in bed with rheumatism, a fearful attack of it, & he is hourly expecting his brother to be sent-up, who has been badly  loc.00943.005.jpgwounded in the arm & neck, but I have promised him that if his brother arrives before I leave, I will go & see him.3

The Johnsons are all well, & still have good accounts of John.4

Our affairs remain as they did when you left, & that is one cause of my delay. I know that William prefers & I do, too, that this trouble concerning the house & hall be settled before I leave, but I think I must go this week at any rate.

Mr. Fessenden will probably be our Sec. of the Treasury, he has  loc.00943.006.jpgnot yet accepted we hear.

Mr. Irvinton made us a visit on Sunday. He is now located here, as you may know. He looked sick, & says he is. He has had chills & fever, caught in the James River.

I can't bear to write you, dear Walt, when I have so much to say to you, & so much to ask. You must tell me when you write, about the baby & the folk at home. Did the little California come up to the early promise of her babyhood? & how is  loc.00943.007.jpgyour mother? Tell me when you write.

In the hurry & suddenness of your leaving I forgot to give you Mrs. Beach's notes, shall I trust them to the mail or keep them for you till you come back?5

I asked Miss. Howard about Jesse Mullory, & she says he was sent to New York before you left Washington, but she says he was very deaf before he left & she thought him in a very bad way.6 She has been obliged to give up going for a week past but will begin again next week. & if you  loc.00943.008.jpgwant to know about any of your boys, or about Armory hospital generally, she would be very glad to tell you. Send her a note any time, & direct it to William & he will take it to her office.

The fourth was rather a dull day to me, the only satisfaction I had was in helping Mr. Wood pack his trunk, Jeannie & I spent two hours with him in the morning, helping him, as he was to leave to-day.7 He is still very poorly I think, but he has a  loc.00943.009.jpgvacation of two months, so I hope he will come back well.

I got my pictures last week, & they are rather bad, the front face, or rather three quarter face, is hideous, William forbids my giving any of them away. The side face is—well what do you say of it? I think it is very sharp, & I know I should not like any body that looked like it, do you?

What news from your brother George? I think our army affairs are looking rather dismal, don't you? And when  loc.00943.010.jpggold went up so last week, I thought we were going to have a crash in the finance at once, & now what a terrible rise there is in prices, sugar 38 cents a pound here. Is it so bad with you?

What about your book? Have you been able yet to give a thought even?

And just how are you? Tell me won't you? I hope you are very, very much better.

That Wednesday evening after you left I felt so badly at your leaving so suddenly. For it was sudden at  loc.00943.011.jpglast,—& I wished I had persuaded you to stay just one day longer, but the very next day was intensely hot, & so for four days, & then I was glad for your sake that you were safe home. Now it is cool, and I am one of the few who feel best the hottest days.

See what a long letter I have written you. Jeannie says tell Mr. Walt that I hope he will come home soon, & see papa, & tell him I send my love to him & a kiss. Louisa asks for you  loc.00943.012.jpgso does Mrs. Howells, & many more, Dr. & Mrs. Wood.8

Good bye Walt, with much love - Nelly.

P.S. Send to me here till I write you again, & if I know what day I am to leave I shall let you know, in the hope of seeing you as I pass through New York.



  • 1. For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William D. O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. Ellen "Nelly" O'Connor, William's wife, had a close personal relationship with Whitman. In 1872 Whitman would walk out on a debate with William over the Fifteenth Amendment, which Whitman opposed and O'Connor supported. Ellen defended Whitman's opinion, and in response William established a separate residence. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889). [back]
  • 2. Charles W. Eldridge was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who put out the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Walt Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster and eventually obtained a desk for Whitman in the office of Major Lyman Hapgood, the army paymaster. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge see "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]
  • 3. J. Hubley Ashton, the assistant Attorney General, actively interested himself in Walt Whitman's affairs, and obtained a position for the poet in his office after the Harlan fracas. [back]
  • 4. Arnold Johnson was a friend of the O'Connors and private secretary to Senator Summer; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931), 10. He was listed in the 1866 Directory as a clerk in the Treasury Department. [back]
  • 5. The review of Leaves of Grass that appeared in the New–York Saturday Press on June 2, 1860, was signed "Juliette H. Beach," but it had really been written by her husband, Calvin Beach. Expecting a favorable response, the editor of the Saturday Press, Henry Clapp, Jr., had forwarded a copy of Whitman's book to Juliette Beach for review. Her husband, however, angered that Clapp had sent the book to his wife, appropriated it and wrote a scathing review, which was published in his wife's name. In a letter to Clapp dated June 7, 1860, Juliette Beach explained the nature of the mistake and expressed her regret at not having had the opportunity to publish her own favorable opinion of Leaves of Grass. In an attempt to undo some of the damage, Clapp printed a notice titled "Correction" in the subsequent issue of his newspaper, alongside three positive commentaries on Leaves of Grass by women. (For Calvin Beach's review of the 1860 Leaves of Grass see "Leaves of Grass.") Ellen O'Connor contributed her bit to the theory that Beach and Walt Whitman had a love affair when she asserted that "Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd," published in Drum-Taps, was composed for "a certain lady" who had angered her husband because of her correspondence with the poet (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1921], 1:lviii). "Mrs. Beach's notes" may be the letters to Walt Whitman, which later Burroughs vainly asked Mrs. Beach to print; see Clara Barrus, The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925), 1:120. If these were love letters, Walt Whitman hardly treated Mrs. Beach's heart-stirrings discreetly. See also Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967), 340–342. [back]
  • 6. In several letters Mullery referred to the kindnesses of a Miss Howard while he was in the hospital, and another soldier, Charles H. Harris, on May 30, 1864, asked to be remembered to Miss Howard and her sister. On February 20, 1866, Mullery wrote that one of the Howard sisters had died the preceeding fall, and recalled "the Same Sad Smile on her countenance" (Library of Congress). Probably these were the Misses Sallie and Carrie Howard listed in the 1866 Directory, or the Miss Garaphelia "Garry" Howard, one of Whitman's Washington friends, mentioned in Jesse Mullery's letter to Walt Whitman from November 26, 1864. According to Whitman's "Hospital Book 12" (Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress), Sergeant Jesse Mullery, Company K, Fifteenth New Jersey, was in Ward A, Armory Square Hospital, on May 14, 1864. The twenty-year-old boy had been "shot through shoulder, ball in lung—(ball still probably near lung)—lost right finger." On June 23, 1864, he went home to Vernon, New Jersey, on furlough, and then served as assistant cook in the army hospital in Newark. On December 26, 1864, Mullery proposed a visit to Brooklyn. He was still at the Newark hospital on January 23, 1865. According to his letters of May 3, 1865, and June 11, 1865, he later was able to return to active duty. [back]
  • 7. George Wood (1799–1870) worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department in 1822, and he held various posts in that bureau until his death. He was the author of several satirical works, Peter Schlemihl in America (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1848) and The Gates Wide Open; or, Scenes in Another World (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869); see National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Undoubtedly he became acquainted with Whitman through Ellen and William O'Connor. Ellen O'Connor mentioned a Mr. Wood in her letter of July 5, 1864. In reply to Whitman's letter, evidently delivered by O'Connor and dated "Thursday"—probably [January 15, 1863]—Wood wrote: "You sometimes find a poor soldier whom a Small Sum would relieve and I beg you will distribute these pieces of paper as you shall see best on your visit to the Hospital." [back]
  • 8. Mrs. Howells was the wife of Charles Joseph Howells, who, according to entries in New York Directories, must have been versatile (and perhaps eccentric): in 1864–1865 he was an "inventor," in 1865–1866 an inspector in the Custom House, in 1866–1867 simply an "inspector," and in 1867–1868 a seller of hairpins. [back]
Back to top