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Walt Whitman to John Townsend Trowbridge, 8 February 1864

Dear friend,1

I ought to have written to you before, acknowledging the good package of books, duly received by express, & actively used since, changing them around in places where most needed among the soldiers—(I found a small hospital of U. S. teamsters, entirely without reading, I go there considerable, & have given them largely of your reading contribution)—I am down here pretty well toward the extreme front of the Army, eight or ten miles south of headquarters, (Brandy Station)—We had some fighting here, below here on picket lines, day before yesterday—We feared they, the rebs, were advancing upon us in our depleted condition, especially feared their making a flank movement up on our right. We were all ready to skedaddle from here last night, & expected it—horses harnessed in all directions, & traps packed up, (we have held & lost Culpepper three or four times already)—but I was very sleepy & laid down & went to sleep, never slept fresher or sweeter—but orders came during the night to stay for the present, there was no danger—during the night I heard tremendous yells, I got up & went out, & found it was some of the men returning from the extreme front—As day before yesterday a strong force, three corps, were moved down there—These were portions of them now returning—it was a curious sight to see the shadowy columns coming in two or three o'clock at night—I talked with the men—how good, how cheerful, how full of manliness & good nature our American young men are—I staid last night at the house of a real secesh woman, Mrs. Ashby—her husband (dead) a near relation of the famous reb Gen Ashby2—she gave me a good supper & bed—There was quite a squad of our officers there—she & her sister paid me the compliment of talking friendlily & nearly altogether exclusively with me—she was dressed in very faded clothes but her manners were fine, seems to be a travelled educated woman—quite melancholy—said she had remained through fearful troubles & changes here on acct of her children—she is a handsome middle-aged woman—poor lady, how I pitied her, compelled to live as one may say on chance & charity, with her high spirit—

Dear friend, I am moving around here among the field hospitals—(O how the poor young men suffer)—& to see more of camp life & war scenes, & the state of the army this winter—Dear friend, I have much to tell you, but must abruptly close—

Walt Whitman

Write to me same address Washington, D. C.—has Caleb Babbitt gone home from Mason Hospital—I left the book at Mr. Chase's3— J. T. Trowbridge, / Somerville, Massachusetts.


  • 1. John Townsend Trowbridge was a novelist, poet, author of juvenile stories, and antislavery reformer. Though Trowbridge became familiar with Whitman's poetry in 1855, he did not meet Whitman until 1860 when the poet was in Boston overseeing the Thayer and Eldridge edition of Leaves of Grass. He again met Whitman in Washington in 1863, when Trowbridge stayed with Secretary Chase in order to gather material for his biography, The Ferry Boy and the Financier (Boston: Walker and Wise, 1864); he described their meetings in My Own Story, with recollections of noted persons (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1903), 360–401. On December 11, Trowbridge had presented to Chase Emerson's letter recommending Whitman; see the letter from January 10, 1863 . Though Trowbridge was not an idolator of Whitman, he wrote to O'Connor in 1867: "Every year confirms my earliest impression, that no book has approached the power and greatness of this book, since the Lear and Hamlet of Shakespeare" (Rufus A. Coleman, "Trowbridge and O'Connor," American Literature, 23 [1951–52], 327). For Whitman's high opinion of Trowbridge, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 3:506. See also Coleman, "Trowbridge and Whitman," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America [PMLA], 63 (1948): 262–273. For several weeks in 1863, Trowbridge stayed with Whitman in Washington, D.C., along with John Burroughs and William D. O'Connor. [back]
  • 2. Turner Ashby (1828–1862), Confederate cavalry officer, was killed on June 6, 1862, while he fought a rear-guard action for Stonewall Jackson's troops. This sentence does not appear in the Stanford transcription. [back]
  • 3. Trowbridge replied, on February 12 (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1906–1996], 2:524), that Babbitt had left the hospital in late December, and that he had heard from another soldier-patient that Babbitt had regained "his strength, though not his voice." Trowbridge also reported that he had written "a few days ago" to Chase on Whitman's behalf, and that Chase had received the book—evidently the copy of Drummer Boy referred to in the letter from December 27, 1863. [back]
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