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CHAPTER XII THE PROOF OF COMRADESHIP
Whitman’s residence in Washington and the nature of his occupation in the hospitals, through the years of the war, have rendered an outline of their history almost necessary. Of his manner of life during this period we have many notes and records, both in his own letters and memoranda and in the biographical accounts afterwards printed by his friends.

During the first five or six months after his arrival he took his meals and spent much of his spare time with Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor, who had recently settled in the city.[359] He boarded in the same house as they, about six blocks from the Treasury building, where O’Connor worked, and a mile from the Armory Square Hospital, where lay many of his own wounded friends.

William Douglas O’Connor was a strikingly handsome man of thirty years, full of spirit and eloquence.[360] He had previously been a Boston journalist, had married in that city a charming wife, and was the father of two children. He had lost his post there through his outspoken support of John Brown and the attack on Harper’s Ferry. While out of employment he had written his novel, Harrington, an eloquent story of the Abolitionist cause, which was published by Thayer & Eldridge. In 1861 he had obtained a comfortable clerkship in the Lighthouse Bureau under the new Lincoln administration.
Picture of William Douglas O'Connor.

WILLIAM DOUGLAS O’CONNOR

Whitman had already made his acquaintance in Bos[Pg 191]ton, and their friendship now became most cordial and intimate. Generous and romantic in his view of life, O’Connor’s whole personality was very attractive to Whitman from the day of their first encounter. He had the warm Irish temperament which Walt loved; he was a natural actor, and Walt was always at home with actors.[361] Moreover, he was an eager and intelligent admirer of Leaves of Grass; and his keen insight, wide reading and remarkable powers of elocution sometimes revealed to their author meanings and suggestions in his own familiar words of which he himself had been unconscious. O’Connor’s personal attachment to and reverence for the older man is evident upon every page of The Carpenter, a tale which he afterwards contributed to Putnam’s Magazine;[362] while in the impassioned eulogium of The Good Gray Poet he has expressed his admiration for the Leaves.

Upon politics however the two friends never agreed, and, unfortunately, O’Connor was always eager for political argument. He was a friend of Wendell Phillips, that anti-slavery orator who once described Lincoln as “the slave-hound of Illinois,” because the latter approved the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law while it remained on the statute-book: and to O’Connor, compulsory emancipation always came before the preservation of the union. This of course was not Whitman’s view, and it was upon the negro question that their friendship finally suffered shipwreck.[363]

O’Connor’s rooms soon became the centre of an interesting group of literary friends. Mr. Eldridge, the publisher,[364] came to Washington after the wreck of his Boston business, and a little later Mr. John Burroughs,[365] a student of Wordsworth, Emerson and the Leaves, being attracted to the capital, whither all eyes were turning, gave up teaching in New England, and obtained a Government clerkship. Mr. E. C. Steadman,[366] a poet and journalist in those days, and a clerk in the[Pg 192] Attorney-General’s department, was of the O’Connor group; and Mr. Hubley Ashton[367] also, then a rising young lawyer, who afterwards intervened successfully on Whitman’s behalf at a critical moment.

The last-named of these gentlemen tells me that he first saw Whitman late one evening at the rooms of their mutual friend. It was indeed past midnight when Walt appeared asking for supper. He was wearing army boots, his sleeves were rolled up, and his coat was slung across his arm. He had just come in with a train-load of wounded from the front, and had been disposing of his charges in the Washington hospitals. Very picturesque he looked, as he stood there, stalwart, unconventional, majestic, an heroic American figure.

That figure rapidly became as familiar in Washington as it had been in New York.[368] No one could miss or mistake this great jolly-looking man, with his deliberate but swinging gait, his red face with its grey beard over the open collar, and crowned by the big slouch hat; and every one wondered who and what he might be. Some Western general, or sea-captain, or perhaps a Catholic Father, they would guess;[369] for he seemed a leader of men, and there was a freshness about his presence that surely must have come either from the prairies, the great deep, or the very heart of humanity. He had the bearing, too, of a man of action; he looked as though he could handle the ribbons, or swing an axe with the best, as indeed he could.

Whitman was more puzzled than any of the onlookers about his occupation, or rather his business. Occupation he never lacked while the hospitals were full; but for years he was very poor, and once, at least, seriously in debt.[370] The need for money, to supply the little extras which might save the life of many a poor fellow in the wards, was constant; and now, probably for the first time, he found it difficult to earn his own liveli[Pg 193]hood. He had failed in his application for a Government clerkship. Living in Washington was in itself costly, and the paragraphs and letters which he contributed to the local and metropolitan press, with his two or three hours a day of copying in the paymaster’s office—a pleasant top-room overlooking the city and the river—brought him but a meagre income.

Moreover the need for money began to press in a new direction; for first, the family breadwinner at Brooklyn was threatened, and then, though he was not drawn for the army, his salary was cut in two.[371] Whereupon brother Andrew, always one suspects rather a poor tool, fell ill; and died after a lingering malady,[372] leaving a widow and several little children in poverty.

Walt himself lived in the strictest simplicity. For awhile, as we have seen, he boarded with the O’Connors; then he took a little room on a top-floor;[373] breakfasted on tea and bread, toasted before an oil-stove, and had for his one solid meal a shilling dinner at a cheap restaurant. To all appearance he was in magnificent health. At the beginning of the first summer he is so large and well, as he playfully tells his mother, that he looks “like a great wild buffalo, with much hair”.[374] Simplicity of life was never a hardship to him. There was something wild and elemental in his nature that chose a den rather than a parlour or a club-room for its shelter.

The money difficulty renewed his thoughts of lecturing, and after the first summer in Washington his home—letters often refer to it.[375] But the plan now appears less as an apostolate than as a means of raising funds for his hospital service. The change may, of course, be due in part to the fact that he was writing of his plans to his old mother, who would be most likely to appreciate this motive; but it was chiefly the result of his present complete absorption in those immediate tasks of comradeship for which he seemed to be born.

[Pg 194]

He was, however, well advised not to actually attempt the enterprise. Even a famous orator could hardly have found a hearing during the crisis of the war, when the newspaper with its casualty lists was almost the sole centre of interest. And even had he been sure of success, his hospital service would not have let him go.

During this first summer Whitman hurt his hand, and had to avoid some of the worst cases in order to escape blood-poisoning;[376] but in September he wrote home: “I am first-rate in health, so much better than a month or two ago: my hand has entirely healed. I go to hospital every day or night. I believe no men ever loved each other as I and some of these poor wounded sick and dying men love each other.”[377] Such words are a fitting commentary upon the pages of Calamus. Here, among the perishing, the genius of this great comrade of young men found its proper work of redemption.

Great, indeed, was his opportunity. The federal city was full of troops and of wounded soldiers. The whole of the district a few blocks north of Pennsylvania Avenue, and of that lying east of the Capitol, were alike occupied by parade grounds, camps and hospitals. The latter even invaded the Capitol itself; and for a time the present Hall of Statuary was used as a ward.[378] Midway between the Capitol and the present Washington Monument, and close to the Baltimore and Potomac railway station, is the site of the Armory Square Hospital; four blocks to the north again is the Patent Office, for a long time filled with beds. And hard by, in Judiciary Square, where the hideous Pension Office now stands, was another great camp of the “boys in white”. Whitman was a frequent visitor at all of these.

There were fourteen large hospitals in the city by the summer of 1863; and the total number in and[Pg 195] about it rose to fifty. They spread away over the surrounding fields and hill-sides, as far as the Fairfax Seminary[379] on the ridge above the quaint Washingtonian town of Alexandria. This was almost in the enemy’s country. And even the melancholy strains of the Dead March were welcomed with covert rejoicings by its citizens when the funeral of some union soldier passed their doors.[380] All through the war Washington itself was full of disaffected persons; and for a while, looking out from the height of the Capitol, one could see the Confederate flag flying on the Virginian hills opposite.

The greater part of the hospital nursing was done, of course, by orderlies; and a more or less severe and mechanical officialism prevailed in most of the wards. But this frigid atmosphere was warmed by the presence of a number of women; emissaries of Relief Associations supported by individual States, or of the Sanitary and Christian Commissions. It is difficult to overestimate the good that was done by Dorothea Dix and her helpers, among whom were not a few Quakeresses; and by all the devoted Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Charity whose goodwill never failed.

But even then the field for service was so vast that much remained undone. Many of the doctors and surgeons were able and kindly, some of them were absolutely devoted to their painful labours; and many of the nurses were more than patient and faithful; but the lads who were carried in wounded and sick from the cold and ghastly fields, wanted the strong support of manly understanding and prodigal affection in fuller measure than mere humanity seemed able to give.[381] Human as he was, Walt came to hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, like a Saviour. In after years they remembered “a man with the face of an angel” who had devoted himself to their individual needs.[382]

The mere presence of a perfectly sane and radiant personality raised the tone of a whole ward.[383] The dead-[Pg 196]weight of cloudy depression brooding upon it would melt in the ineffable sunshine that streamed from him. And then he always seemed to know exactly what was wanted, and he was never in a hurry. When anything was to be done or altered, he spoke with the authority of the man who alone, among overpressed and busy people, has the leisure for personal investigation; and therefore in most cases he had his way.

Absolutely unsparing of himself, he knew too well wherein his strength lay to be careless of his health. If his food was sometimes insufficient, he would yet take his one square meal,[384] after refreshing himself with a bath, before starting upon his rounds. And when they were over, he cleared his brain under the stars before he turned in to sleep. Thus he kept his power at the full, and his presence was like that of the open air. He would often come into the wards carrying wild flowers newly picked, and strewing them over the beds, like a herald of the summer. Well did he know that they were messengers of life to the sick, words to them from the Earth-mother of men.

Whatever he might be in the literary world of Washington or New York, here Whitman was nothing but Walt the comrade of soldiers. And for himself, he said in later years, that the supreme loves of his life had been for his mother and for the wounded.[385] It is a saying worthy of remembrance, for it indicates the man.

Of the efficiency of his service there can be no question.[386] He worked his own miracles. He knew it positively himself, and besides, both the lads and the doctors assured him, time and again, that he was saving lives by refusing to give them over to despair. “I can testify,” he writes to The Brooklyn Eagle, his old paper, “that friendship has literally cured a fever, and the medicine of daily affection a bad wound.”[387] In his own words, he distributed himself,[388] as well as the contents of his pockets and haversack, in infinitesimal quantities, cer[Pg 197]tain that but little of his giving would be wasted. And yet he never gave indiscriminately;[389] he knew always what he was doing, and did it with deliberation.

The feeling that the lads wanted him had detained him at the first; the superabundance of his life, and the fulness of his health and spirits, carrying with them a conviction of duty when he entered these vestibules of death.[390] Here was something that he, and he only, could adequately accomplish; here was a cry he was bound by the law of his being to answer; and the cry of the hospitals continued to hold him till the war was done. As he left of a night, after going his last round and kissing many a young, pale, bearded face, in fulfilment of his own written injunctions, he would hear the boys calling, “Walt, Walt, Walt! come again, come again!” And it would have required a harder heart than his to refuse them, even had the answer within been less loud and insistent.

They kept him busy, too. He provided them with pens, stamps, envelopes and paper, and wrote their letters for them;[391] letters to mothers, wives and sweethearts; and the last news of all, when the sad procession had carried son, husband or lover to his soldier’s grave, and had fired over him the last salute. He would enter, armed with newspapers and magazines which he distributed; and often he would read to the men, or recite some suitable verses, never, I think, his own.[392] He played games with them, too; and though he was one of the few men in Washington who never smoked,[393] he was the only one of all the visitors who brought them tobacco; and the ward-surgeons, though at first they protested, could not refuse him; it really seemed as though Walt knew best. On the glorious Fourth, he would provide a feast of ice-cream for some ward;[394] and on other hot days—and there were too many in the capital—would distribute the contents of crates full of oranges,[395] or lemons and sugar for the making of lemonade.

[Pg 198]

It was for such gifts as these, and many others of a similar kind, that he needed money; and through the influence of Emerson, James Redpath and other friends in New York and Boston, he was able to distribute perhaps £1,200 among the soldiers in these infinitesimal quantities.[396] Thus he became the almoner of many in the North.

Much of the service, however, was entirely his own—if one can ever call love one’s own, which all things seem to offer to the soul that has learnt to receive from all. In cases of heart sickness, and the despondency and despair that come to the lonely man lying helpless among callous or unimaginative and therefore indifferent persons, Walt’s quick divination of the real trouble made him the best of nurses; and he took care to remember all the cases that came under his notice, innumerable as they must have seemed.

He kept a strict record of his patients and their individual needs in little blood and tear-stained notebooks, many of which are still extant.[397] This is an additional proof of that concrete definiteness of observation which distinguishes his habit of mind from the love of merely nebulous generalisation of which he is sometimes accused. One is bound to respect the intuitions of a mind which has so large a grasp of detail.

Beginning characteristically with the Brooklyn lads whom he found scattered about the several hospitals, and who claimed his attention by the natural right of old acquaintanceship, his work grew like a rolling snowball, as he made his way from bed to bed; for he was always quick to feel the needs of a stranger. Before long he realised that there was not one among the thousand tents and wards in which he might not profitably have expended his whole vital energy. As it was, however, he tramped from hospital to hospital, faithfully going his rounds as far afield as the Fairfax Seminary. And in those days the Washington streets were heavy walking in the wet weather; for Pennsyl[Pg 199]vania Avenue was the only one that was yet paved,[398] and then boasted nothing but the cobble-stones, which still serve in the quaint streets across the Potomac.

He walked a great deal. The open air relieved the tension of the wards, which at times was almost unbearable. Though his presence and affection saved many a lad’s life, there must have been many more that died; and the tragedy of these deaths, and the terrible suffering that often preceded them, bit into his soul.

Fascinated though he was by his employment, and delighting in it while he was strong and well,[399] the strength of his great heart was often as helpless as a little child’s; and his whole nature staggered under the blows, which he felt even in his physical frame. He was literally an “amateur”; he could never take a detached or “professional” attitude towards his patients, for he knew that what they needed from him was love; their suffering became his suffering, and something died in him when they died.

The following passage, written when the war itself was drawing to a close, indicates the character of much of his work, and the spirit in which it was done:—

“The large ward I am in is used for secession soldiers exclusively. One man, about forty years of age, emaciated with diarrh?a, I was attracted to, as he lay with his eyes turned up, looking like death. His weakness was so extreme that it took a minute or so every time for him to talk with anything like consecutive meaning; yet he was evidently a man of good intelligence and education. As I said anything, he would lie a moment perfectly still, then, with closed eyes, answer in a low, very slow voice, quite correct and sensible, but in a way and tone that wrung my heart. He had a mother, wife and child, living (or probably living) in his home in Mississippi. It was long, long since he had seen them. Had he caused a letter to be sent them[Pg 200] since he got here in Washington? No answer. I repeated the question very slowly and soothingly. He could not tell whether he had or not—things of late seemed to him like a dream. After waiting a moment, I said: ‘Well, I am going to walk down the ward a moment, and when I come back you can tell me. If you have not written, I will sit down and write.’ A few minutes after I returned; he said he remembered now that some one had written for him two or three days before. The presence of this man impressed me profoundly. The flesh was all sunken on face and arms; the eyes low in their sockets and glassy, and with purple rings around them. Two or three great tears silently flowed out from the eyes, and rolled down his temples (he was doubtless unused to be spoken to as I was speaking to him). Sickness, imprisonment, exhaustion, etc., had conquered the body, yet the mind held mastery still, and called even wandering remembrance back.”[400]

At times the tragedy unnerved him, so that even his native optimism was clouded. “I believe there is not much but trouble in this world,” we find him writing to his mother, and the page hardly reads like one of his; “if one hasn’t any for himself, he has it made up by having it brought close to him through others, and that is sometimes worse than to have it touch oneself.”[401] He had already learnt the primer of sorrow; now he was studying the lore in which he was to become so deeply read.

Even that first summer the malarial climate and excessive heat of Washington, with the close watching in the wards, and the continual draught upon his vital forces, affected him perceptibly. In his letters home he mentions heavy colds, with deafness and trouble in his head caused by the awful heat,[402] as giving him some anxiety. He seems to have had a slight sun-stroke in earlier years, which made him more susceptible to this[Pg 201] kind of weakness; and on hot days he went armed with a big umbrella and a fan.[403] But through all this time he seemed to his friends the very incarnation of his “robust soul”.
Picture of John Burroughs at sixty-three.

JOHN BURROUGHS AT SIXTY-THREE

Though he shuddered sometimes as he recalled the sights of the wards, the life outside was a pleasant one.[404] He loved to take long midnight rambles about the city and over the surrounding hills, with his friends. In spring, he delighted in the bird-song, the colour and fragrance of the flowers which lined the banks of Rock Creek,[405] a stream which, entering the broad Potomac a mile above the Treasury building, separated Washington from the narrow ivy-clad streets of suburban Georgetown.

And the stir and life of the capital always interested him. He loved to watch the marching of the troops; and the martial music and flying colours always delighted him as though he were a boy. He frequently met the President,[406] blanched and worn with anxiety and sorrow, riding in from his breezier lodging at the Soldiers’ Home on the north side of the city, to his official residence. They would exchange the salutations of street acquaintances, each man admiring the patent manliness of the other.

In Washington, as in New York, Whitman was speedily making himself at home with everybody; eating melons in the street with a countryman,[407] or chatting at the Capitol with a member of Congress; for men or women, black or white, he always had his own friendly word. He had besides, as we have seen, his inner circle at O’Connor’s.

He was often at the Capitol, that noble, but somewhat uninteresting building which overlooks the city; and if he deplored the low level of the Congressional debates, he found some compensation among the trees without; for fine trees were already a feature of Washington,[408] which now appears, as one looks down upon it,[Pg 202] like a city builded in a wood. About sundown, too, he liked to stand where he could see the level light blazing like a star upon the bronze figure of Liberty, newly mounted above the dome.

It was in the summer of 1864, when Whitman was forty-five years of age, that he had his first serious illness. He had never been really out of health before. The preceding autumn he had paid a short visit to his home, and in February had gone down to the front at Culpepper, thinking that his services might be needed nearer to the actual scene of battle. But he found that he could do better work in Washington. The cases there seemed to grow more desperate as the long strain of the war made itself felt upon the men in the ranks.

It was immediately after this that Grant was given the supreme command; and at the close of March, Whitman, who foresaw the real meaning of the task of crushing Lee, wrote of it thus: “O mother, to think that we are to have here soon what I have seen so many times; the awful loads and trains and boat-loads of poor, bloody and pale, and wounded young men again.... I see all the little signs—getting ready in the hospitals, etc. It is dreadful when one thinks about it. I sometimes think over the sights I have myself seen: the arrival of the wounded after a battle; and the scenes on the field too; and I can hardly believe my own recollections. What an awful thing war is! Mother, it seems not men, but a lot of devils and butchers, butchering one another.”[409]

A week later, describing the frightful sufferings of the soldiers, and the callous selfishness of their attendants, he says: “I get almost frightened at the world”.[410] Again, two days after: “I have been in the midst of suffering and death for two months, worse than ever. The only comfort is that I have been the cause of some beams of sunshine upon their suffering and gloomy souls and bodies too.”[411] And he adds: “Oh, it is terrible, and getting worse, worse, worse”.[412]

[Pg 203]

Rumours spread in the city of the probable character of Grant’s campaign; and as he realised more and more fully what would be its inevitable cost, a sort of terror took hold of him. Yet he believed in Grant, as well as in Lincoln.[413] And hating war as he did, he could not see any other course possible now than to complete its work. He was solemnly ready to take his part in those ranks of men converted, as it were, into “devils and butchers,” if need be, if he could feel assured that he was more use to America upon the field than in the wards among the sick and dying.

Meanwhile, he shared the old mother’s anxiety about George, who was always in the thick of the fighting. News, both true and false, was arriving; and his letters are always seeking to support the old woman’s faith, and to give her the plain truth with all the hope that might be.

He was kept very closely occupied now in the hospitals; and especially at Armory Square, where some 200 desperate cases were collected;[414] men who had lain on the field, or otherwise unattended, until their wounds and amputations had mortified. He had always made a rule of going where he was most needed. But now he began to suffer severely from what he describes as fulness in the head, to have fits of faintness, and to be troubled with sore throat.

To add to the horrors of those days, a number of the wounded lads went crazy; and at last the strain became so manifestly too much for his failing vitality, that his friends and the doctors bade him go North for a time. But he hung on still; hoping, like Grant, for the war to end with the summer, and writing to his mother that he cannot bear to leave and be absent if George should be hit and brought into Washington.[415] However, with midsummer upon him and its deadly heat, he became really ill, and had to relinquish his post. For nearly six months he remained restlessly at home.

[Pg 204]

Whitman never fully recovered. We may perhaps be surprised at this, and wonder that he should have broken down, even under the circumstances. Was he not in such relations with the Universal Life that he should daily have been able to replenish the storehouse of his physical and emotional forces?

He was no spendthrift, and husbanded them as well as he might, knowing their value; and doubtless he asked himself this very question many a time. Doubtless, too, he was confident, at least during the earlier months, that after the strain was over his resilient nature would regain its normal tone. But on the other hand, he had volunteered for a service to whose claims he was ready to respond to the uttermost farthing.[416] Where others gave their lives, who was he to hold back anything of his?

The soul, one may say, never gives more than it can afford; for the soul is divinely prudent, and knows the worthlessness of such a gift. And giving with that prudence, it never seeks repayment; what it gives, it gives. But the body, even at its best, is not as the soul. And when the soul gives the vital and emotional forces of its body to invigorate other bodies, it may give more of these, and more continuously, than the body can replace. And so it was with Whitman. He gave, and I think he gave deliberately, for he was an extraordinarily deliberate man, that for which he cared far more than life; he gave his health to the friends, the strangers, whom he loved; and thus his “spiritualised body” found its use.


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