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About this Item

Title: Washington in the Hot Season

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as Whitman]

Date: August 16, 1863

Whitman Archive ID: per.00197

Source: New-York Times 16 August 1863: 2. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: Walt Whitman was undoubtedly the author of this piece. Whitman included portions of the article in Memoranda During the War (1875–76) and Specimen Days (1882–83). A manuscript in Whitman's hand (tex.00467) also contains a brief description of locusts "whirring" in Washington that is similar to a description from this article.

Contributors to digital file: Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, Elizabeth Lorang, and Kevin McMullen

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Persons, Current Sights and Scenes—The Heat—Songs in Hospital—Talks, &c., with the Soldiers.

WASHINGTON, Wednesday Evening, Aug. 12, 1863.


I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. Does the reader need to be informed that Mr. LINCOLN never reposes at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location, some three miles north of the city, the Soldiers' Home, a United States benevolent establishment?1 I saw him this morning about 8½ coming in to business, riding on Vermont-avenue, near L street. The sight is a significant one. He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry, with sabres drawn, and held upright over their shoulders. The party makes no great show in uniforms or horses. Mr. LINCOLN generally rides a good-sized easy-going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty; wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man. A Lieutenant, with yellow straps, rides at his left, and following behind, two by two, come the cavalry men in their yellow-striped jackets. They are generally going at a slow trot, as that is the pace set them by the dignitary they wait upon.

The sabres and accoutrements clank, and the entirely unornamental cortége trots slowly toward Lafayette-square. It arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes. I saw very plainly the President's dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, &c., always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression.

Sometimes the President goes and comes in an open barouche. The cavalry always accompany him, with drawn sabres. Often I notice as he goes out evenings, and sometimes in the morning, when he returns early, he turns off and halts at the large and handsome residence of the Secretary of War, on K-street, and holds conference there. If in his barouche, I can see from my window he does not alight, but sits in the vehicle, and Mr. STANTON comes out to attend him.2 Sometimes one of his sons, a boy of ten or twelve, accompanies him, riding at his right on a pony.

Earlier in the Summer you might have seen the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. LINCOLN was dressed in complete black, with a long crape veil.3 The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They passed me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slow, and his look, though abstracted, happened, to be directed steadily in my eye. I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures have caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face. They have only caught the surface. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.


Washington is unrivaled for fine healthy shade trees. They come in very good this weather, and indeed go far toward making the place and time endurable. I often retreat to the Capitol grounds, west side. (I should advise that just as soon as the Capitol front is finished, with the splendid entrance to the Senate and Representative wings, the city railroad track on the east side, intersecting the grounds there, be removed to some street further east, and the fine flat space on that side too, be preserved and improved unimpaired.)

As folks know, the back or west side of the Capitol is practically the front of that edifice. Every one goes and comes that way. The grounds on that side are not large, but kept in perfection. I go there occasionally of an afternoon. The dense shade is a great help. The trees are plenty, some of them large, some of them giving out aromatic smells. I find there, (I think the light is extra-powerful here,) besides a large effect of green, varied with the white of the Capitol, fountains playing, locusts whirring, the grass cutters whetting their scythes, the chirp of robins, the tinkling of the Georgetown and Navy-yard cars as they wind the hill, a few lazy promenaders, soldiers, some with crutches or one-armed, come to take a look, and lots of loungers on the iron settees, completely sheltered from the sun by the dense umbrage.


We have put the draft through, have conscribed a goodly lot of whites, blacks and Secessionists; and it is the height of the Summer interregnum of Congress, and there is a lull in the war, and we are having an unprecedented heated term. Men and horses suffer fearfully. The army off at Warrenton, or beyond, bakes in its tents or melts under the march. In the huge Government hospitals here the poor sick and wounded lie languishing in their cots; and many an old bad wound I find now taking an irrevocable turn for the worst from this cruel heat.


Yet Washington is having a livelier August, and is probably putting in a more energetic and satisfactory Summer than ever before during its existence. There is probably more human electricity, more population to make it, more business, more light-heartedness than ever before. The armies that swiftly circumambiated from Fredericksburgh,4 marched, struggled, fought; had out their mighty clinch and hurl at Gettysburgh,5 wheeled, have circumambiated again, returned to their ways, touching us not, either at their going or coming. And Washington feels that she has passed the worst; perhaps feels that she is henceforth mistress. So here she sits with her surrounding hills and shores spotted with guns; and is conscious of a character and identity not only different from of old, but markedly different from what it was five or six short weeks ago, and very considerably pleasanter and prouder.


I have said that there has lately been much suffering here too from heat. We have had it upon us now eleven days. I go around with an umbrella and a fan. I saw two cases of sun-stroke yesterday, one in Pennsylvania-avenue and another in Seventh-street. The City Railroad Company loses some horses every day. The soda water and ice-cream trade is tremendous. Confidentially, I am pained to inform you I doubt if there is any good lager in Washington.


I must give you a scene from one of the great Government Hospitals here. I go to them every day to inspirit the drooping cases, and give the men little gifts, sometimes of articles, sometimes of money. Two or three nights ago, as I was trying to keep cool, sitting by a wounded soldier in Armory-square Hospital, I was attracted by some pleasant singing in an adjoining ward.6 As my soldier was asleep, I left him, and entering the ward where the music was, I walked half way down and took a seat by the cot of a young Brooklyn friend, S. [R.?], badly wounded in the hand at Chancellorsville, and who has suffered much, but who at that moment in the evening was wide awake and comparatively easy. He had turned over on his left side to get a better view of the singers, but the plentiful drapery of the musquito curtains of the adjoining cots obstructed the sight. I stepped round and looped them all up, so that he had a clear show, and then sat down again by him, and looked and listened. The principal singer was a young lady nurse of one of the wards, accompanying on a melodeon, and joined by the lady nurses of other wards. They sat there, making a charming group, with their handsome, healthy faces; and standing up a little behind them were some ten or fifteen of the convalescent soldiers, young men, nurses, &c., with books in their hands, taking part in the singing. Of course it was not such a performance as MEDORI7 or BRIGNOLI8 and the choruses at your New-York Fourteenth-street9 take a hand in; but I am not sure but I received as much pleasure, under the circumstances, sitting there, as I have had from the best Italian compositions, expressed by world-famous performers.

The scene was, indeed, an impressive one. The men lying up and down the hospital, in their cots, (some badly wounded—and, perhaps, never to rise thence,) the cots themselves, with their drapery of white curtains, and the shadows down the lower and upper parts of the ward; then the silence of the men, and the attitudes they took—nothing to interrupt the singing—and the whole combination was a sight to look around upon again and again. And there, sweetly rose those fresh female voices up to the high, whitewashed wooden roof, and pleasantly the roof sent it all back again. They sang very well; mostly quaint old songs and declamatory hymns, to fitting tunes. Here, for instance, is one of the songs they sang:

Out on an ocean all boundless we ride,
We're homeward bound—homeward bound;
Toss'd on the waves of a rough, restless tide,
Yet homeward bound, homeward bound.
Far from the safe, quiet harbor we've rode,
Seeking our Father's celestial abode.
Promise of which on us each he bestowed,
So we're homeward bound.
Wildly the storm sweeps on us where it roars,
Yet we're homeward bound;
Look! yonder lie the bright heavenly shores,
Where we're homeward bound;
Steady, oh! pilot, stand firm at the wheel;
Steady! we soon shall outweather the gale;
Oh! how we fly 'neath the loud-creaking sail,
As we're homeward bound.
Now toward the harbor of Heaven we glide,
We're home at last;
Softly we drift on its bright silver tide—
Yes! we're home at last.
Glory to God, all our dangers are o'er,
Stand we secure on the beautiful shore,
Glory to God we will shout evermore,
We're home at last.

As the strains reverberated through the great edifice of boards, (an excellent place for musical performers,) it was plain to see how it all soothed and was grateful to the men.

The singers went on; they sang "Home, Sweet Home,"11 and a beautiful hymn called "Shining Shores."12 I saw one of the soldiers near me turn over, and bury his face partially in his pillow; he was probably ashamed to be seen with wet eyes. Since I have mentioned it, let me give a verse or two:

My days are swiftly gliding by, and I a Pilgrim stranger,
Would not detain them as I fly, those hours of toil and danger;
For O we stand on Jordan's strand, our friends are passing over,
And just before, the shining shores we may almost discover.
We'll gird our loins my brethren dear, our distant home discerning.
Our absent Lord has left us word, let every lamp be burning,
For O we stand on Jordan's strand, our friends are passing over,
And ju t before, the shining shores we may almost discover.

Such were the fine and vivifying songs these girls sang there for all our sakes, until quite late in the night. The sounds and scene altogether had made an indelible impression on my memory.


Soldiers you meet everywhere about the city, often superb looking young men, though invalids dressed in worn uniforms, and carrying canes or, perhaps, crutches. I often have talks with them, occasionally quite long and interesting. One, for instance, will have been all through the Peninsula under MCCLELLAN,13 narrates to me the fights, the marches, the strange, quick changes of that eventful campaign, and gives glimpses of many things untold in any official reports or books or journals. These, indeed, are the things that are genuine and most precious. The man was there, has been out two years, has been through a dozen fights, the superfluous flesh of talking is long worked off him, and now he gives me little but the hard meat and sinew.

I find it so refreshing to talk with these hardy, bright intuitive, American young men (experienced soldiers with all their youth.) The vital play and significance of their talk moves one more than books. Then there hangs something majestic about a man who has borne his part in battles, especially if he is very quiet regarding it when you desire him to unbosom. I am continually lost at the absence of blowing and blowers among these old-young American militaires.

But in the hospitals I have talked most with the men for months past. I have found some man or another who has been in every battle since the war began, and have talked with them about each one, in every part of the United States, and many of the engagements on the rivers and harbors too. I find men here from every State in the Union, without exception. (There are more Southerners, especially Border State men, in the Union army than is generally supposed.) I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I have had for the past seven or eight months in the hospitals.



1. The Soldiers' Home has been described as a "kind of Camp David for President Lincoln" by Matthew Pinsker. The Home was established in the 1850s as an institution for disabled veterans, the first of its kind in the United States, and soon became a retreat for Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln. For more on the Soldiers' Home, see Pinsker, Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). [back]

2. Edwin Stanton was Lincoln's Secretary of War. [back]

3. Mary Todd Lincoln wore mourning attire following the death of the Lincolns' son Willie, who died on February 20, 1862. [back]

4. In the First Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia, December 13, 1862), Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated Union General Ambrose Burnside. Whitman's brother, George Washington Whitman, was wounded in this battle. [back]

5. Most historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg (Pennsylvania, July 1–3, 1863) to be the turning point of the war, with Union General George G. Meade defeating Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This battle claimed the war's highest number of casualties, about 50,000 altogether. [back]

6. Armory Square General 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]

7. Giuseppina Medori, a leading soprano from Belgium, had made her New York debut earlier in 1863. [back]

8. Pasquilino Brignoli, who often signed "P. Brignoli" because of his difficult first name, eventually became "Dear Old Brig" to American audiences. He was a leading tenor from Italy. See Michael B. Dougan, "Pasquilino Brignoli: Tenor of the Golden West," in Opera of the Golden West, eds. John Louis DiGaetani and Josef P. Sirefman (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1994), 98–110. [back]

9. Here Whitman refers to the Academy of Music, a major opera house that opened in 1853 at Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. [back]

10. "Homeward Bound" was written by W. F. Warren, with music usually attributed to J. W. Dadmun. The composition dates are unknown. [back]

11. John Howard Payne was the lyricist, and Sir Henry Bishop the composer, of "Home, Sweet Home." Originally part of a libretto in the opera Clari, which debuted in London in 1823, the song quickly became familiar to many Americans. "Home, Sweet Home" once famously paused the fighting during the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862) when one side took up the refrain and soon both sides had begun singing. See Irwin Silber and Jerry Silverman, Songs of the Civil War (Chelmsford, Massachusetts: Courier Dover Publications, 1995), 120–121. [back]

12. "Shining Shores," also called "My Days are Swiftly Gliding By," was written by David Nelson in 1835, and George Root wrote the music in 1855. Whitman quoted his account of the soldiers singing "Shining Shores" in "Home-Made Music" in Specimen Days (1882). [back]

13. Major-General George C. McClellan briefly served as commander of the Army of the Potomac from November 1861 until March 1862. [back]


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