July of 2005 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In my last two posts, I have offered excerpts from his elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. But Whitman was much more than a great bardic seer; he was a lover of all and embodied a radically inclusive and all-embracing vision expressed not only through his poetry but, during the Civil War, through his ministry to the sick and dying soldiers in the Washington hospitals.
From February, 1863 to after the close of the war in 1865, Whitman tirelessly walked through the hospital wards stopping by the iron cots of the soldiers, offering little gifts from out of his haversack--oranges and apples, strawberry jam, oysters, pickles, plugs of tobacco, stationary, stamps, pens and pencils--or simply sat by their bedside, writing letters home for them, touching and soothing them, keeping long vigil with the dying, often through the night. His flexible hours as a clerk in the Paymaster's Office and in other government agencies allowed him to go to the hospitals several hours every day. It has been estimated that he made some six hundred visits in three years.
The suffering Whitman witnessed was on a scale unparalleled in American history--the sights of the dismembered, ailing soldiers, the smells of putrefying wounds, the sound of the irrepressible groans or screams sounding through the wards, was his daily bread. "These thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men," he wrote, "badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia..." Often he would put himself, as he wrote, "in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife." He was making good on the prophetic verses he had written in his collection Leaves of Grass some seven years earlier:
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp, but I also lie at the last gasp.
My face is ash-colored, my sinews gnarl...
I am the man...I suffered...I was there.
And later, he describes his actual experience of walking among the men in the wards in his poem The Wound-Dresser:
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, nor one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young.
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad.
(many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
He kept a notebook with him on his visits, recording the soldier's names, the nature of their wounds and illnesses, and what they asked of him. His scribbled notes almost take on the character of a poetic utterance, his staccato lists not unlike those found in Leaves of Grass:
Chester H. Lilly (Bed 6) 145th Penn down with Erysipelas and jaundice also wounded/wants some preserve or jelly...shirt and drawers for J.H Culver Ward G bed 24...Albert Maurier co. B 55th Ohio amputated left leg--toothbrush...J.W. Smith co. G 25th Ohio comp [lications] from right thigh also some fever/ some fruit (strawberries or sweet peaches)...Corp. Justus F. Boyd bed 22 co. D 6th Michigan cavalry been infive months, four sick, affection [infection] of kidneys and pleurisy--wants some paper and envelope and something to read...
Whitman's magnetic presence was powerfully healing, soothing, humanizing--he held the hand of some, others he would read aloud to, "while others asked him to write a parent, sister, or lover. Some, wounded in wrist or shoulder, liked to have Whitman feed them, others asked for a cooling drink. He would go around a ward from cot to cot with a jar of raspberry preserves in one hand and a spoon in the other, offering sweet stuff to all takers." (Epstein, Daniel Mark; Whitman and Lincoln)
He was not unaware of the influence he was having. He wrote: "My profoundest help to these sick and dying men is probably the soothing invigoration I steadily bear in mind, to infuse in them through affection, cheering love, [and] the like, between them and me. It has saved more than one life. There is a strange influence here."
(Photo: Washington hospital; Google Image)