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Benton H. Wilson to Walt Whitman, 15 September 1867

 loc.01991.001_large.jpg Dear Friend2 Walt Whitman

I know that you will not think I have forgotten you by my long silence for I have been waiting patiently for more than four months for an answer to my last letter to you which was written some time in April, but I presume you have not received it.3 How well I remember the kind face that we used to look for at,  loc.01991.002_large.jpg Armory Square Hospital.4

I spent a week in New York City in June, my Wife5 was taken sick there while visiting her Sister6 and they sent for me to come.

I am at work at the same business that I was when I wrote to you last, Piano Forte and Melodeon7 work.

We have been drove quite hard with work this Summer and I have got pretty tired but there is no rest for us yet.

What do you think of the policy of President Johnson.8 I am inclined to think he is as big  loc.01991.003_large.jpg a traitor as Jeff Davis,9 and I am in hopes that when Congress meets that they will go on with the impeachment.10

The weather is getting quite cool here now so that it is comfortable to keep a fire.

I do not know of any thing to write about that will interest you, so I will close hoping that I will hear from you soon.

I remain yours with Love B. H. Wilson.  loc.01991.004_large.jpg  loc.01991.005_large.jpg Benton Wilson Sept—16, '67 ans. Sept 23 '67 Atty Genls also Oct 29 '67  loc.01991.006_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 Esq. | Atty Genls Office. | Washington D.C. It is postmarked: SYRACUSE | SEP | 16 | 67.; CARRIER | SEP | 17 | 7 P.M. | 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. In fact, Whitman did receive the letter Wilson refers to here. See the letter from Wilson to Whitman of April 21, 1867. Whitman's note on the envelope suggests he replied to Wilson on September 23, 1867, but that letter has not been located. The next known letter from Whitman to Wilson is dated April 15, 1870. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. Benton Wilson was married to Nellie Gage Morrell Wilson (ca. 1841–1892). Nellie had two children, Lewis and Eva Morrell, from a previous marriage, and she and Benton Wilson 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. [back]
  • 6. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 7. A melodeon was a type of reed organ common in the United States in the nineteenth century, before the Civil War. [back]
  • 8. Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) became President of the United States after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Johnson was the first president to be impeached, but the Radical Republican efforts to remove him from office ultimately failed. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman alludes to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Democratic Party leanings and to its opposition to Johnson's impeachment. Louisa read widely in political news: she subscribed to the Eagle and at various times also read the New York Times, the New York Herald, and the Brooklyn Daily Union. Walt Whitman in his January 26, 1868 letter had advised his mother to "take a morning paper, the Times or something" because the debates on Johnson's impeachment "are quite interesting now." According to Louisa's February 19, 1868 letter to Walt, she was also reading the Washington Star, presumably a copy that Walt had forwarded. [back]
  • 9. Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) was the President of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. After the Civil War, public opinion of Davis was mixed in both the North and the South, and Davis eventually wrote two books on his tenure as President: The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881) and A Short History of the Confederate States of America (1889). [back]
  • 10. Attempts to impeach President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) for violation of the Tenure of Office Act in his dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814–1869) continued throughout the Congressional session until its adjournment on March 3, 1867. Congress voted 126–47 to impeach Johnson on February 24, 1868; when the trial concluded in May 1868, the impeachment motion failed 35–19, one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed for an impeachment conviction. [back]
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