This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The Poet and His Family Were Active Correspondents
by hilary parkinson
Letters of Walt Whitman
Visitors to Washington, D.c., see the words of Walt Whitman engraved on the Dupont circle Metro station entrance. The quotation is from “The Dresser,” a poem in leaves of grass. in the poem, the speaker moves among the wounded, offering comfort, as Whitman himself did in the civil War hospitals of Washington: i sit by the restless all the dark night-some are so young; some suffer so much—i recall the experience sweet and sad although Whitman was a noncombatant, he saw and recorded the ravages of the civil War as he worked as a nurse in the hospitals. he was also a prolific letter writer who wrote to and received letters from his brother george, a union soldier and veteran of major battles. in his book, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War, Robert Roper looks at the correspondence and experience of the Whitman family during the civil War. Roper is the author of a number of novels as well as of Fatal Mountaineer, which won london’s Royal geographical society boardman-Tasker prize in 2002. his writing has been published in the New York Times, los Angeles Times, outside, and National geographic. he teaches at Johns hopkins university in baltimore and lives in Maryland and california.
What inspired you to look at the Whitman family experience through the lens of the Civil War? i was always moved by what i knew about Whitman’s service as a nurse in the civil War hospitals. The hospitals were often dreadful places, and Whitman worked hard, for long years, tending to thousands and thousands of men. Then i learned—i think from Roy Morris, Jr.’s interesting book, The Better Angel—that one of Walt’s younger brothers was a union soldier, and moreover, a soldier who served for the full extent of the war and who saw a tremendous amount of combat. i thought there was an interesting contrast in the styles of the two men: Walt a nurturing noncombatant, and brother george a militant warrior. Then i learned that they had written many letters to each other—Walt’s were unfortunately lost, but george’s were mostly preserved. Then i discovered . . . the mother! The family correspondence had almost all passed through her hands, and in fact, though she is known to literary history as an “illiterate,” she wrote scores of letters to her sons during the war. i sought out those letters (collected in the fine Walt Whitman archive at Duke university). some of them were brilliant, and all were rich with the flavor of lived life. i began to want to tell the story of that life, the life of the Whitman family before and during the civil War, in ancestral brooklyn, in Washington, and on the battlegrounds where george fought. There is a huge network of letters between Mrs. Whitman and her children, and Walt Whitman also carried on a copious
correspondence with friends and soldiers. Not all the letters survived. What missing letters do you wish you could read? There’s a simple answer to that: the letters that Walt, Mrs. Whitman, and a third brother, Jeff, wrote to george when he was soldiering. george read and then quickly threw away the letters that reached him at the front. soldiers were encouraged to do so, because letters that fell into enemy hands might contain important intelligence. The letters that Walt wrote would be fascinating to read, but i think as much and possibly even more, i would like to see Mrs. Whitman’s letters. she was a natural mimic and storyteller, she was psychologically very astute, and she loved and trusted george—i think her intimate letters to him would have been deeply revealing, both of her own state of mind and of how the brooklyn family was dealing with its many hardships. You used records from the National Archives to look at the 51st Regiment, in which Walt’s brother George served. You also looked for evidence of another brother, Jesse, as a sailor in the crew lists. What was your experience as researcher like? i was a newcomer to the national archives. My previous 30year career as a writer, mainly of novels, had never required me to access the archives, and i had only a general idea of the holdings from having read historians’ accounts of their research projects. i had a kind of “undeveloped” interest in the civil War—i grew up in Maryland, a short distance from many battlefields, and a neighbor who was a very knowledgeable amateur historian often talked to me about the war and showed me artifacts he collected.
Without ever having read much civil War history, i had grown up with a great emotional investment in it, and the story of the Whitmans awoke it in me with a great intensity. The military records at the national archives are superb, and i was quickly able to answer many of the questions i had about the war careers of the junior officers who were close to george Whitman and whom Walt came to know when he visited george at the front. i read widely in Record group 94 (Office of the adjutant general, Volunteer Organizations) and in the “Record of events” for the 51st new York. in the packet of documents pertaining to george’s service, i came upon a handsome sheet of paper inscribed in a bold, familiar hand—it was a letter that Walt himself had written, to try to get an extension of leave for george in april 1865. (The extension was granted.) Walt was writing in the persona of Dr. edward Ruggles, the Whitman family physician back in brooklyn. This wonderful letter was simply there, waiting for a citizen researcher to stumble upon it. i like what that says about our archival system and our historic commitment to free access. The hunt for Jesse Whitman was great fun. The story in the family was that he had been a sailor on oceangoing vessels for some years; that he took a fall out of the rigging of a ship and suffered a brain injury; that he recovered, but that some years down the line he started to go mad. he ended his life in an insane asylum. no previous researchers had found any naval or other maritime records of his service, however. My research assistants and i spent some hours at the national archives regional archives in downtown Manhattan, going over ships’ crew lists from the late 1830s into the 1850s, and eventually one of my assistants found mention of Jesse on two ships, one that sailed in 1839 and one in 1841. With these and other records (of Jesse’s later employment in a naval shipyard in brooklyn; of his life at home with his mother in the early 1860s; of his final hospitalization, Walt being the one who committed him), i was able to start putting together a picture of this little-known Whitman son, who in his youth was said to have had “the best mind of any of the children.” Did looking at the records of the 51st Regiment help clarify any questions you had from reading the accounts of battles in George’s letters, especially at the Wilderness? The archives records were essential in that i inevitably found myself writing a kind of book within a book—a book that Walt, himself, was supposed to have written. This was a regimental history of the 51st, one of the most battle-hardened and longsuffering of union infantry regiments. as i told george Whitman’s story, i found myself sketching in the stories of his brother officers and enlisted men. The 51st fought in both the east and the west; they were in the thick of things at new bern, chantilly, south Mountain,
The Letters of Walt Whitman
antietam, Fredericksburg, Jackson, the Wilderness, spotsylvania courthouse, cold harbor, and the crater, among other battles. Walt knew that his brother was fighting with an unusual outfit, one whose story was essentially the story of the whole war, and early on he began collecting documents that would help him to write a regimental history. but somehow he never got around to doing it—too much poetry to write, i guess (as well as his superb Memoranda During the War, about his hospital service, published in 1876). Walt spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C. Were you able to visit the city and see any of his old haunts? Yes, i was able to visit Washington, and i sought out some of Walt’s haunts, or his old addresses, anyway, now much transformed. The most important visits i made were to battlefields, especially Fredericksburg and antietam. by studying the terrain and walking it, i was able to understand better george’s descriptions of certain famous passages of battle—for instance, at burnside’s bridge, antietam, and before Marye’s heights, Fredericksburg. george was an accurate and skilled describer of battles, but without these visits some aspects of the maneuvers on both sides of the fight would have remained opaque to me. Walt crossed paths with several important figures. He nodded at Lincoln on the street, worked on the hospital wards with Clara Barton, and met with Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. Yet it seems that these encounters are on the periphery of Walt’s Civil War experience in his letters home—were you surprised by this? i wasn’t surprised once i came to understand the tenor of Walt’s communications with his mother. it was very intimate, and Walt was often writing to her seeking a deep kind of understanding, counting on her ability to shore him up and heal him psychologically. as the years passed, his harrowing work in the hospitals exhausted and depressed him to a dangerous extent. he had more urgent things to discuss with his mother than his sightings of clara barton (whom Mrs. Whitman had probably never heard of in 1862, when Walt saw her in a field hospital at Fredericksburg). Walt did share news of president lincoln with his mother— they were both deeply enamored of lincoln. Walt was at home in brooklyn when news reached new York of lincoln’s assassination. he spent that day with Mrs. Whitman in her kitchen, neither of them speaking much, neither of them able to eat. They gathered the local newspaper accounts and read them in silence, passing them to each other. both of them felt that a great soul had passed with lincoln’s death, and out of this grief, which he shared with his mother (and the nation), Walt some months later wrote the greatest elegy in our literature, “When lilacs last in the Dooryard bloom’d.”
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.