History, History Column

Walt Whitman and the Civil War

by ©2019 Sarah Becker

Walt Whitman and the Civil War

“In midnight sleep of many a face of anguish, Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, (of that indescribable look),” poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1867 in Old War Dreams.  “Of the dead on their backs, with arms extended wide, I dream, I dream, I dream….Long have they pass’d, faces and trenches and fields, Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure, or away from the fallen, Onward I sped at the time—but now of their forms at night, I dream, I dream, I dream.”

In 1861 the United States offered approximately 40 medical schools and six schools of pharmacy.  Despite the seeming sophistication, Civil War hospitals were mostly makeshift.  “The [Prince Street] house is commodious, and, for a confiscated dwelling, is very fine,” the Alexandria Gazette noted in 1864.

Alexandria’s Civil War hospitals included Prince Street Hospital, Lyceum Hall, Carlyle House, Lee-Fendall House and Episcopal Seminary.  Also Prince Street’s L’Ouverture Hospital for colored troops.  Medical and other supplies were secured, in part, from Fairfax Street’s Leadbeater & Co. including Lamp Oil, Charcoal, Castile Soap, Laudanum and Morphine Sulph.


Virginia seceded from the Union on May 24, 1861, only to find the Federal Army ready to stake an Alexandria claim.  Occupied Alexandria, a budding hospital town, served as an Army logistical supply center.  It operated alongside the city of Washington, Georgetown and Aquia Creek.   

“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,” Walt Whitman penned.  Whitman, a New Yorker, traveled to Washington in 1862 to search for his brother George, missing in the Battle of Fredericksburg.  He called infirmaries the “marrow of tragedy.”


Civil War hospitals were not equipped to deal with battlefield casualties.  Nor the nation’s deteriorating health.  “‘Camp Misery was the title at first bestowed on the Alexandria, Va. [convalescent] camp,” Holland Thompson wrote.  “The buildings were poorly ventilated and poorly drained and in wet weather stood in a sea of mud.  The death rate in the convalescent camp was higher than at most hospitals or prisons.  This was partly due to the fact that unoccupied soldiers are far more liable to disease than the soldier at work.”


About 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War.  Two-thirds of the soldiers died from disease.  Diarrhea, the Tennessee quickstep was a common malady.  It is associated with dysentery (intestinal worms), typhoid (enteric fever), and other infectious diseases.  Union outbreaks were usually related to poor sanitation practices including fecal-contaminated water supplies.


“This city of Alexandria as you know has not a single sewer,” a Union Captain noted.  “All filth is allowed to drain itself into the gutters and thence to the [Potomac] river.  It is quite sickly here.”  Whitman recalled a wounded New York soldier “low with chronic diarrhea.”

“Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion [Lacy House now Chatham Manor], on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital,” Walt Whitman wrote in 1862.  “Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load from a one-horse cart.  Several dead bodies lie near….”

In 1862 amputation was a popular surgery; the ambulance system was underdeveloped and triage was an untested concept.  There were no antibiotics and surgical procedures were performed only to save a life.  Whitman characterized a gangrenous New Hampshire soldier as a man “sure to lose three toes.”

Dental surgeon William T. Morton first demonstrated the anesthetic power of ether in 1846.  “When the rebellion broke out Morton made an arrangement with the Government that, when he was telegraphed to ‘bring that truck,’ he was to understand that his own body was meant, that an engagement was impending,” Harpers New Monthly magazine wrote in 1865.  “During the ten days fighting at the battle of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, there were, according to official reports, twenty thousand wounded men.”


“After a battle the ambulance wagons were rushed to the front and loaded with the wounded, who were brought to the rear and spread upon the ground,” Harpers continued.  “The experienced surgeons then passed among them, probing the wounds, and pinning upon each man, who required an operation, a ticket, designating the nature of the operation.  The wounded that needed immediate operations were removed to a secluded spot and laid in a row.  Then Dr. Morton passed from one to the other, administered ether or chloroform, at the rate of three minutes to the man, and without a single failure prepared them for the knife.  He was followed by the surgeon who performed the operation, leaving the dressing of the wound to the less experienced….”


Walt Whitman worked as a hospital volunteer in both Alexandria and Washington.  Cherry syrup, horehound candy and money were among his favorite bedside offerings.  In time Whitman, born May 31, 1819 learned how to treat bad throats, empty blood pails, and feed patients salt pork and hard tack.


“Where in Washington is the house in which Walt Whitman—printer’s devil, compositor, carpenter, country school teacher, editorial writer, publisher, tramp, hospital orderly, Federal employee, and immortal poet—resided?” The Washington Post asked.  “In 1863 he disclosed he was paying $7 a month for a ‘bright little third-story front room’ at 1407 L Street NW.”

“The hospital service, the lint, bandages and medicines,” Whitman wrote in Drum Taps.  “The women volunteering for nurses, the work begun for in earnest, no mere parade now; War! an arm’d race is advancing! the welcome for battle, no turning away….”

Clara Barton began her nursing career during the Civil War.  Whitman and Barton first met in Fredericksburg’s Lacy House [Chatham Manor].  He found so many human fragments there, “cut, bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening.”

Soldiers often arrived at the hospitals “at the rate of 1000 a day.”  They came in volume by modified rail car and government steamer.  Whitman did not need to be present to hear “the clank of crutches on the pavements.”

“Most of them are entirely without friends or acquaintances here,” Whitman noted, “hardly a judicious word of sympathy or cheer, through their sometimes long and tedious sickness, or the pangs of aggravated wounds.”

“All, all know grief, and, at the close, All lie earth’s spreading arms within…For there’s a calm to throbbing hearts, And rest down in the tomb,” Whitman reckoned in We All Shall Rest At Last.

Few medicines cured what ailed.  Most were alleviative.  Some were administered in the form of brewed teas.  A New Jersey soldier, stricken with pneumonia, told Whitman of his “desire for good, strong green tea.”  A remedy still suggested today.

“I never before so realized the majesty and reality of the American common people proper,” Whitman said in 1875.  “Over the whole land [there has been] an unending, universal mourning wail of women, parents, orphans.  Future years will never know the seething hell and black infernal background…of the Secession War; and it is best they should not.”

“That the hands of the sisters of Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world,” Whitman wrote in Reconciliation, “my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead.  I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near, Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.”

We celebrate Walt Whitman—“The poet of the body, And the poet of the soul”—in this his 200th year.

Columnist’s Notes: Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) tells me that the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R.7 the Paycheck Fairness Act on March 27, 2019.  (Equal Pay Day/OTC/April 2019).  The Act amends “the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to victims of discrimination in the payment of wages on the basis of sex, and for other purposes.”  The Act was given to the U.S. Senate and awaits a final vote.  To track the Act’s progress visit https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/7/text.

My thanks to those readers who continue to inquire regarding the benefits of CBD.  (Hemp’s Hectic History/OTC/Oct. 2018).  I refer you to the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports: From the President (p. 6) and CBD Goes Mainstream (p. 44).  “We are…taking a close look at…CBD, the widely used cannabis compound that is turning up in more and more products,” President and CEO Marta L. Tellado wrote.  “CBD may have the potential to deliver many benefits , but only if we have confidence in the products we buy…CR would like to undertake the most ambitious safety testing of CBD-infused products ever….”  For more information visit CRTestsCBD.com.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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