Skip to main content

Benton H. Wilson to Walt Whitman, 3 February 1867

 loc_vm.01471_large.jpg Walt Whitman, Dear Friend2

Sunday Evening has come around again and I find myself again employed in the pleasant duty of answering one of your ever welcome letters. I rec'd yours of Jan 31st3 last night, and will not lose any time in answering it this time, but I do not know as you will approve of my writing on Sundays, but that is about the only time I have for writing except evenings and then my hands tremble so from my work (which is nearly all done by the hands) that I can scarcely write inteligibly​ so I feel certain you will excuse me.  loc_vm.01472_large.jpg I also received your "Leaves" of "Grass" and the pamphlet the "Good" "Gray" Poet,4 which I shall prize so highly that no money could purchase it but I do not know as you ought to have sent it to me, for I do not know as you could afford it, but I will try and repay you for it, if in no other way than Love which I can give from the heart.

The vindication I have read part of it and Father5 has read the rest of it to us, and I shall take the liberty of disagreeing with you in regard to his thinking more of you than you deserve for you deserve his love as well as that of thousands of others myself included, and I wish you to give him my best regards and tell him I am one [illegible] of friends that was visited  loc_vm.01473_large.jpg in Armory Square Hospital6 by his Good, Gray, Poet, Walt Whitman, and that I hope some day to make his acquaintance in person. I think Mr O'Connor was perfectly sane in writing his vindication, and I thank you very much for sending it to me for it has done me good already.

When I get to thoroughly reading your Book I shall probably have some questions to ask but I shall not get as bigoted as Secretary Harlan,7 and wish to turn you out of employment for your plainness of speech for I have failed as yet to find any indecent passages.

I have been talking and thinking very strongly of going to South America next spring to be gone a year or two and see if I could not get into  loc_vm.01474_large.jpg something there that would be of benefit to me financially. I have not decided what part of the country I would go to yet and I want to get your advice on the subject for I am not very well posted. Give me your opinion freely, and say whatever you wish to say on any subject. If I should go I would try to spend a day or two with you in Washington

I will try and give you a better letter next time I write, for I am not in very good writing mood to night​ . enclosed is some cards Fac Simile of those I sent you in the letter you did not get. I did not know but you would like to have them.

from your Loving Soldier Boy B. H. Wilson.  loc_vm.01475.jpg B.H. Wilson, Feb. 3. '67 (ans. March 15. '67)  loc_vm.01476_large.jpg

Benton H. Wilson (1843–1914?) was the son of Henry Wilson (1805–1870)—a harness and trunk maker—and Ann S. Williams Wilson (1809–1887). Benton Wilson was a U. S. Civil War soldier recovering in Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C., when he met Whitman. Later, Wilson was employed selling melodeons and sewing machines. He also sold life insurance and may have worked as a pawnbroker. He married Nellie Gage Morrell Wilson (ca. 1841–1892). Nellie had two children, Lewis and Eva Morrell, from a previous marriage, and she and Benton were the parents of five children. Wilson named his first child "Walter Whitman Wilson," after the poet; their other children were Austin, Irene, Georgie, and Kathleen Wilson. Benton Wilson's correspondence with Whitman spanned a decade, lasting from 1865 to 1875.


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Atty Gens Office | Washington | D.C.. It is postmarked: SYRACUSE | FEB | 4 | 67.; CARRIER | FEB | 6 | 2 Del. [back]
  • 2. The friendship between Whitman and Wilson, a former U. S. Civil War soldier, can be reconstructed from Wilson's letters (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). On July 18, 1869, Wilson recalled his confinement in Armory Square Hospital (as mentioned in Whitman's November 8–9, 1863, letter to Lewis K. Brown), "when your kind face & pleasant words cheered the soldier Boys & won their hearts. I never shall forget the first time you came in after David & I got there. We Loved you from the first time we spoke to you." In Wilson's first letter, written on November 11, 1865, he began: "I suppose you will think that I have forgotten you long before this time but I have not, your kindness to me while in the hospital will never be forgotten by me." After a lapse in the correspondence, he wrote on December 16, 1866: "I wish if aggreeable to yourself to keep up a regular correspondence between us ... I think it will be of benefit to me morally, and perhaps will not be of any detriment to you." In this letter he admitted that he had just discovered that Whitman was a poet. On January 27, 1867, he informed Whitman that he had been reading Leaves of Grass, but complained: "I wrote to you a year and more ago that I was married but did not receive any reply, so I did not know but you was displeased with it"; he concluded the letter: "I remain as ever your 
      Boy Friend 
      with Love 
      Benton H. Wilson." Walt Whitman replied (lost), and sent The Good Gray Poet, which Wilson acknowledged on February 3, 1867. On April 7, 1867, after he informed Whitman that his wife had gone to the hospital for her first confinement (the child was to be named Walt Whitman), Wilson complained: "I am poor and am proud of it but I hope to rise by honesty and industry. I am a married man but I am not happy for my disposition is not right. I have got a good Woman and I love her dearly but I seem to lack patience or something. I think I had ought to live alone, but I had not ought to feel so." On April 21, 1867, Wilson acknowledged Whitman's reply of April 12, 1867: "I do not want you to misunderstand my motives in writing to you of my Situation & feelings as I did in my last letter or else I shall have to be more guarded in my letters to you. I wrote so because you wanted me to write how I was situated, and give you my mind without reserve, and all that I want is your advice and Love, and I do not consider it cold lecture or dry advice. I wish you to write to me just as you feel & express yourself and advise as freely as you wish and will be satisfied." On September 15, 1867, Wilson wondered why Whitman had not replied. In his letter of December 19, 1869, Wilson reported that he had moved to Greene, N. Y., but was still selling melodeons and sewing machines. On May 15, 1870, Wilson informed Whitman of his father's death two weeks earlier and related that his son "Little Walt . . . is quite a boy now . . . and gets into all kinds of Mischief." Evidently Wilson wrote to the poet for the last time on June 23, 1875, when he wanted to know "what I can do to contribute to your comfort and happiness."
  • 3. This letter has not been located. [back]
  • 4. William Douglas O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication was published by Bunce & Huntington, 459 Broome Street, New York, in 1866 and was reprinted by Richard Maurice Bucke in his 1883 biography of Walt Whitman. The 46-page pamphlet opposed Whitman's critics while praising those who held the poet in high regard. The nickname "Good Gray Poet" originated here and remained with Whitman throughout his life. The correspondence between the publishers and O'Connor is in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]
  • 5. Henry Wilson (1805–1870) was the father of Benton H. Wilson—a former U. S. Civil War soldier and one of Whitman's correspondents (for Benton Wilson, see Whitman's letters of April 12, 1867, and April 15, 1870). On May 15, 1870, Wilson informed Whitman of his father's death two weeks earlier; Benton's father, who "was insane at times," had written to Whitman on January 17, 1867, and on March 30, 1868. [back]
  • 6. Armory Square Hospital was the hospital Walt Whitman most frequently visited in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. Because of Armory Square's location near a steamboat landing and railroad, it received the bulk of serious casualties from Virginia battlefields. At the end of the war, it recorded the highest number of deaths among Washington hospitals. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]
  • 7. James Harlan (1820–1899), secretary of the interior from 1865 to 1866, dismissed Whitman from his second-class clerkship on June 30, 1865. Harlan apparently took offense at the copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass which Whitman was revising and which he kept at his desk. With the help of William Douglas O'Connor and Assistant Attorney General J. Hubley Aston, Whitman secured a position in the attorney general's office. The Harlan episode led directly to O'Connor's pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet." Although Harlan was a Methodist, he was not a parson. Whitman may have sarcastically applied this term to Harlan because on May 30, 1865, Harlan had issued an official directive asking for the names of employees who disregarded "in their conduct, habits, and associations the rules of decorum & propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization" (Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman's Champion [College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978], 57). Harlan resigned in 1866 and returned to the Senate in the following year. [back]
Back to top