Skip to main content

Helen S. Cunningham to Walt Whitman, 9 May 1864

Mr. Walt Whitman

I1 will address you a short time through the medium of the pen I am thankfull I have the privelige of doing so that I may tell you in part how gratefull we are to you for your kindness to one so dear to us as Oscar is I feel as if you was his true friend2. I am glad you feel an interest in him while he is sick and among strangers. I recd your letter of the 5 inst [This letter is currently lost], the evening of the 7. We had been apprised of Oscars loss by a lady by the name of Hatch which I think was very kind of her oh with what a throbing heart did I open your letter I was fearfull it contained worse news. the loss of a limb is bad enough but how much worse we would have felt had not his life been spared but poor fellow he must have sufered almost everything but death in the last year. he never has told us realy how bad he was yet we knew he was suffering verry much all the time or he would have got along faster than he did and I have long thought it would be necessary to amputate his limb before he would get well.

We are all rejoiced to hear you speak in such favorable terms of his recovery yet we feel he is not out of danger I believe God will answer our prayers and restore him to health and friends and more is our daily prayer, may the good God be with him and strengthen him in this his affliction—

if you and Oscar both think I had better not come I suppose I will have to stay at home. I felt as though it was my duty to go to him for he is one of the dearest brothers ever was given to a sister. Father & Mother send many thanks & kind wishes to you they can never forget you for your kindness to Oscar and if ever in any way they could repay your they will do it. we will ever feel gratefull to you for what you have been to him—tell Oscar we are all well & simpathise with him in all his trouble & that I will write tomorrow or next day. I wrote him last friday. we will espect to hear from him this week again and you will tell us just how he is getting along do not conceal his suffering from us any more I do hope he may gain strength very fast and think he will if the disease had not worked up in his body. Please write to us as often as convenient and you will greatly oblige


  • 1. Helen S. Cunningham was the sister of Oscar Cunningham, a soldier and patient in Armory Square Hospital. [back]
  • 2. "Oscar Cunningham, a young farmer from Delaware, Ohio, ... was wounded on May 3, 1863, in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Upon seeing him at Armory Square in June, Whitman was immediately struck by the beauty of the tall and fair soldier: 'Oscar H Cunningham bed 20 Ward K, Ohio boy, large, (told me he had usually weighed 200 lb) fracture of leg, above knee, rather bad—(a fine, magnificent specimen of western manliness).' Almost a full year after Oscar's arrival at Armory Square, Whitman noted that Oscar's 'leg is in a horrible condition, all livid & swollen out of shape—the chances are against him poor fellow.' On May 1, 1864, the doctors amputated Cunningham's right leg, and Whitman wrote on Oscar's behalf to his family, expressing new hope for Cunningham's recovery and telling them that it was unnecessary to make the long trip East. By June 3, 1864, however, Whitman told his own mother that the soldier he had visited for so long was near death: 'I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy—he is in a dying condition—there is no hope for him—it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him—his is all wasted away to a skeleton, & looks like some one fifty years old—you remember I told you a year ago, when he was first brought in, I thought him the noblest specimen of a young western man I had seen, a real giant in size, & always with a smile on his face—O what a change, he has long been very irritable, to every one but me, & his frame is all wasted away.' Cunningham died on June 4, 1864, and was one of the first soldiers to be buried in the new Arlington National Cemetery. After Oscar's death, his sister Helen corresponded with Whitman. Although grateful to Oscar's hospital friend for his devoted service, Helen couldn't help reproaching Whitman for discounting the seriousness of Oscar's final illness and dissuading her from visiting. 'I recd yours of the 2nd telling us of Oscars condition last Wednesday,' she wrote. 'I was going to start right of to see him I would have come long ago but he thought not, so did you. this time I intended to go whether anyone thought best or not but the same eve Liut Perry came bringing us the sad news of his death,'" (Martin G. Murray, "Traveling with the Wounded: Walt Whitman and Washington's Civil War Hospitals," Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 8 (Fall/Winter 1996–1997), 58–73, 92–93. Read the full article here.) See also Whitman's letters to his mother, which chronicle Oscar Cunningham's health and decline, written May 6, 1864, May 10, 1864, May 25, 1864, June 3, 1864, and June 7, 1864. [back]
Back to top