Skip to main content
cropped image 1cropped image 1



(Fourth Paper.)


You will easily judge that one of the greatest institutions of Washington and its neighborhood this current time is the Hospital. I don't mean by that any particular hospital, for I think there are about fifty such establishments. There is a regular directory of them printed in most of the papers here in alphabetical order, and it has a dreary significance. Now, such a list makes a Washington journal much more called for, and is an indispensable part of the intelligence sought here.

Amid the confusion of this great army of sick it is almost impossible for a stranger to find any friend or relative, unless he has the patient's address to start upon. There are one or two general directories of the hospitals kept at Provost's headquarters, but they are nothing like complete; they are never up to date, and, as things are, with the daily streams of coming and going and changing, cannot be. I have known cases, for instance, such as a farmer coming here from Northern New York to find a wounded brother, faithfully hunting round for a week, and then compelled to leave and go home without getting any trace of him. When he got home he found a letter from the brother giving the right address in a hospital in Seventh street here.


I now regularly devote from four to five hours every day or evening going among the sick and wounded. I have not yet been to all the Washington establishments; to visit them effectually would be next to impossible for one visitor. I keep going a good deal to Campbell3 and Armory squares,4 and Judiciary5 and Emory Hospitals,6 and occasionally to that at the Patent Office (now broken up),7 and once or twice to others. There is plenty to do, and one soon falls in the way of putting his means where it will do the most good. Tobacco I buy by the quantity, and cut it up in small plugs. Then I buy now and then a box of oranges. Everything at retail is dear here in Washington (and wholesale, too, for that matter).


Of course when eligible, I generally encourage all the men to write, and myself, when called upon, write all sorts of letters for them, (including love letters, very tender ones.) Almost as I reel off this sketch, I write for a new patient to his wife. M. de F., of the Seventeenth Connecticut, Company H, has just come up ( 17) from Windmill Point, and is received in Ward H, Armory square. He is an intelligent looking man, has a foreign accent, black-eyed and haired, has a Hebraic appearance. Wants a telegraphic message sent to his wife, New Canaan, Ct. I agree to send the message—but to make things sure, I also sit down and write the wife a letter, and despatch it to the post-office immediately, as he fears she will come on, and he does not wish her to, as he will surely get well.


Let me mention a visit I made to the collection of barrack-like one-story edifices, called the Campbell Hospital, out on the flats, at the present end of the horse-railway route, on Seventh street. There is a long building appropriated to each ward. Let us go into Ward 6. It contains to-day, I should judge, eighty or a hundred patients, half sick, half wounded. The edifice is nothing but boards, well whitewashed inside, and the usual slender-framed iron bedsteads, narrow and plain. You walk down the central passage, with a row on either side, their feet toward you, and their heads to the wall. There are two or three large stoves, and the prevailing white of the walls is relieved by some ornaments, stars, circles, &c., made of evergreens.

The view of the whole edifice and occupants can be taken at once, for there is no partition. You see a melancholy spectacle. You may hear groans, or other sounds of unendurable suffering, from two or three of the iron cots, but in the main there is quiet—almost a painful absence of demonstration; but the pallid face, the dulled eye, and the moisture on the lip, are demonstration enough. Most of these sick or hurt are evidently young fellows from the country, farmers' sons, and such like. Look at the fine large frames, the bright and broad countenances, and the many yet lingering proofs of strong constitution and physique. I have never seen a more pathetic sight than the patient and mute manner of our American wounded and sick young soldiers, as they lie in such a sad collection; representatives from all New England, and from New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania—indeed, from all the States and all the cities—largely from the West. Most of them are entirely without friends or acquaintances here—no familiar face, and hardly a word of judicious sympathy or cheer through their sometimes long and tedious sickness, or the pangs of aggravated wounds.


This young man in bed 25 is H. D. B., of the Twenty-seventh Connecticut, Company B. His folks live at Northford, near New Haven. Though not more than twenty-one, or thereabout, he has knocked much around the world, on sea and land, and has seen some fighting on both. When I first saw him he was very sick, with no appetite. He declined offers of money—said he did not need anything. As I was quite anxious to do something, he confessed that he had a hankering for a good home-made rice pudding—thought he could relish it better than anything. At this time his stomach was very weak. The doctor, whom I consulted, said nourishment would do him more good than anything; but things in the hospital, though better than usual, revolted him.

I soon procured B. his rice-pudding. A Washington lady (Mrs. O'C.),8 hearing his wish, made the pudding herself, and I took it up to him the next day. He subsequently told me he lived upon it for three or four days.

This B. is a good sample of the American Eastern young man—the typical Yankee. I took a fancy to him, and gave him a nice pipe, for a keepsake. He received afterwards a box of things from home, and nothing would do but I must take dinner with him, which I did, and a very good one it was.


Here in this same ward are two young men from Brooklyn, members of that war-worn regiment, the Fifty-first New York. I had known both the two as young lads at home, so they seem near to me. One of them, J. L., lies there with an amputated arm, the stump healing pretty well. (I saw him lying on the ground at Fredericksburgh last December, all bloody, just after the arm was taken off. He was very phlegmatic about it, munching away at a cracker in the remaining hand—made no fuss.) He will recover, and thinks and talks yet of meeting the Johnny Rebs.9


One hardly supposed there were so many mules in the Western world as you see these times about Washington and everywhere in the military camps, little and large, through Virginia. Saturday forenoon last on K street, moving up, I saw an immense drove of mules, I should think towards two thousand, and most of them very fine animals. Three or four horsemen went just ahead, with peculiar cries that seemed to have a kind of charm over the creatures, for those along the front part of the drove followed the shouting horsemen implicitly, and thus the great mass were drawn resistlessly on. Other horsemen—a score of them—dashed athwart the sides, whipping in the stragglers; but it was remarkable to me how such a great mule army in motion kept together with so little perversity and off-shooting. The charm was the magnetic shouting of the men on the lead, and the keeping of the mass in pretty good headway all the time.

But there was one obstinate fellow that redeemed the mulish reputation. Some two or three minutes after the mass entire had passed along, followed two horsemen having a sullen, laggard skedaddler under their charge. He had evidently deserted a while before, and made them a good deal of trouble. It was quite fresh and nomadic, the way these two primal cavaliers, well mounted as they were on expert nags, turned short and halted, and veered and sped on, and turned again, and surrounded and cut off the persistent efforts of muley to get away.


Washington, 1863—Summer.—Great as the Army Hospitals already are, they are rapidly growing greater and greater. I have heard that the number of our army sick regularly under treatment now exceeds three hundred and fifty thousand. They are spread everywhere. Here and in the cities of the Middle and Northeastern States, they are collected in establishments already assuming special character, with much that is novel and national.

The newspaper reader off through the agricultural regions, East or West, sees frequent allusions to these hospitals, but has probably no clear idea of them. Here in Washington, when they are all filled (as they have been already several times), they contain a population more numerous in itself than the whole of the Washington of ten or fifteen years ago. Within sight of the Capitol, as I write, are some threescore such army collections or camps of the sick and wounded; they have at times held from fifty to seventy thousand men. The buildings are peculiar. Looking from any eminence and studying the topography in my rambles, I use them as landmarks.

Through the rich August verdure of the trees see that white group of buildings off yonder in the outskirts; then another cluster half a mile to the left of the first; then another a mile to the right, and another a mile beyond, and still another between us and the first. Indeed, we can hardly look in any direction but these grim clusters are dotting the beautiful landscape and environs. That little town, as you might suppose it, off there on the brow of a hill, is indeed a town, but of wounds, sickness, and death. It is Finley Hospital,10 northeast of the city, on Kendall Green, as it used to be called. That other is Campbell Hospital. Both are large establishments. I have known these two alone to have from two thousand to twenty-five hundred inmates. Then there is Carver Hospital,11 larger still, a walled and military city regularly laid out, and guarded by squads of sentries. Again, off east, Lincoln Hospital,12 a still larger one; and half a mile further Emory Hospital. Still sweeping the eye around down the river toward Alexandria, we see, to the right, the locality where the Convalescent Camp stands, with its five, eight, or sometimes ten thousand inmates. Even all these are but a portion. The Harewood,13 Mount Pleasant,14 Armory square, and Judiciary Hospitals, are some of the rest, already mentioned, and all of them large collections. (I have no means of getting at the number of hospitals, camps of sick, &c., holding our sick and wounded soldiers in the whole United States, but at a random guess I should put the number at five hundred.)


In general terms a hospital in and around Washington is a cluster of long one-story wooden buildings for the sick wards, and lots of other edifices and large and small tents. There will be ten or twelve wards grouped together, named A, B, C, &c., or numerically 1, 2, or 3, &c. One of these wards will be a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet long, twenty-five or thirty feet wide, and eighteen or twenty feet high, well-windowed, whitewashed inside and out, and kept very clean. It will contain from sixty to a hundred cots, a row on each side, and a space down the middle. In summer the cots often have musquito-curtains, and look airy and nice. Nearly all the wards are ornamented with evergreens, cheap pictures, &c.

These places unfold a new world to a man. Everywhere I have found most powerful and pathetic, though curiously mute, calls for some form of contribution, or some good office. Each case has its peculiarities, and needs some new adaptation. I have learnt to thus conform—learnt a good deal of hospital wisdom. Some of the poor young men, away from home for the first time in their lives, hunger and thirst for magnetism, affection. This is sometimes the only thing that will reach their condition. (Many of the sick are mere boys.)

I have already distributed quite a large amount of money, put in my hands for that purpose by benevolent friends. I provide myself with a quantity of bright new ten-cent and five-cent bills, and, when I think it incumbent, I give 25 or 30 cents, or perhaps 50 cents, and occasionally a still larger sum to some particular case. Then I scatter around a variety of articles, literally too numerous to mention. I regularly carry a haversack with me, and my coat has two of the biggest kind of pockets.

[To be Continued.]


1. Whitman got involved with the Washington, D.C., hospitals while searching for his brother George Whitman, who was wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg. After finding his brother, he was asked to help move the wounded to Washington. His subsequent involvement with the hospitals lasted much of the rest of the war. [back]

2. Campbell Hospital, converted from an army barracks, was the first hospital Whitman visited in Washington. For a more detailed discussion, see Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

3. Armory Square Hospital was the hospital Whitman most frequently visited in Washington, D.C. 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]

4. Judiciary Square Hospital, unlike Campbell and Emory Hospitals, was originally built with the purpose of treating the wounded. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

5. Like Campbell Hospital, Emory Hospital was first built as an army barracks and then converted to a hospital. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

6. The U.S. Patent Office building became a hospital by necessity during the war. This same building housed the Bureau for Indian Affairs, where Whitman worked in 1865. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

7. Whitman is probably referring to Ellen M. O'Connor, the wife of William Douglas O'Connor. Whitman rented a room from the O'Connors during his first months in Washington and corresponded with both of them during the later years of the Civil War. For examples of correspondence between Whitman and Ellen O'Connor, see his letter to her of 11 September 1864 and her letter to him of 30 November 1864. [back]

8. "Johnny Rebs" was a nickname for common Confederate soldiers. [back]

9. Finley Hospital, like Campbell Hospital and others, had been converted from an army barracks. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

10. Carver Hospital was also a former barracks. It was here that, one afternoon, Whitman distributed ice cream to all the hospital's wards, as he describes in his March 7, 1874 article. Also see Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

11. Like Judiciary Square, Lincoln Hospital was built as a model hospital. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

12. Harewood Hospital, a model hospital like Judiciary Square and Lincoln, was built on the estate of William Wilson Corcoran. It was the last Washington wartime hospital to close. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

13. Mount Pleasant, a model hospital like Judiciary Square and others, was among the hospitals built on Meridian Hill, near present-day George Washington University. See Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals." [back]

Back to top