Whitman Describes Union Hospitals in Washington and a Typical Wounded Soldier’s Story
“He told me I had saved his life. He was in the deepest earnest about it. It was one of those things that repay a soldiers’ hospital missionary a thousand-fold — one of the hours he never forgets.”
On February 22, 1863, Walt Whitman wrote the following article about the military hospitals in Washington, DC. It appeared in The New York Times on February 26. It gives one a vivid sense of how the tens of thousands of sick and wounded were treated and how Whitman offered them moral support and assistance that was sometimes life-saving.
THE GREAT ARMY OF THE SICK.
Military Hospitals in Washington.
The military hospitals, convalescent camps, & c. in Washington and its neighborhood sometimes contain over fifty thousand sick and wounded men. Every form of wound, (the mere sight of some of them having been known to make a tolerably hardy visitor faint away,) every kind of malady, like a long procession, with typhoid fever and diarrhea at the head as leaders, are here in steady motion. . . .
Upon a few of these hospitals I have been almost daily calling as a missionary, on my own account, for the sustenance and consolation of some of the most needy cases of sick and dying men, for the last two months. . . . There are . . . some fifty of them, of different degrees of capacity. Some have a thousand and more patients. The newspapers here find it necessary to print every day a directory of the hospitals; a long list, something like what a directory of the churches would be in New-York, Philadelphia or Boston.
. . . On recurring to my note-book, I am puzzled which cases to select to illustrate the average of these young men and their experiences.
Take this case in Ward 6, Campbell Hospital — [J.A.H. , Twenty-ninth Massachusetts] a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts; a farmer’s son, aged about 20 or 21, a soldierly American young fellow, but with sensitive and tender feelings. Most of December and January last, he lay very low, and for quite a while I never expected he would recover. He had become prostrated with an obstinate diarrhea; his stomach would hardly keep the least thing down, he was vomiting half the time. But that was hardly the worst of it. Let me tell his story — it is but one of thousands.
He had been some time sick with his regiment in the field, in front, but did his duty as long as he could — was in the battle of Fredericksburgh — soon after was put in the regimental hospital. He kept getting worse — could not eat anything they had there — the doctor told him nothing could be done for him there. . . received (perhaps it could not be helped) little or no attention — lay on the ground getting worse. Toward the latter part of December, very much enfeebled, he was sent up from the front, . . ., in an open platform car; (such as hogs are transported upon north,) and dumped with a crowd of others on the boat at Aquia Creek, falling down like a rag where they deposited him, too weak and sick to sit up or help himself at all. No one spoke to him, or assisted him — he had nothing to eat or drink — was used (amid the great crowds of sick) either with perfect indifference, or, as in two or three instances, with heartless brutality.
On the boat, when night came and the air grew chilly, he tried a long time to undo the blankets he had in his knapsack, but was too feeble. He asked one of the employes, who was moving around deck, for a moment’s assistance, to get the blankets. The man asked him back if he could not get them himself. He answered no, he had been trying for more than half an hour, and found himself too weak. The man rejoined, he might then go without them, and walked off. So H. lay, chilled and damp, on deck all night, without anything under or over him, while two good blankets were within reach. It caused him a great injury — nearly cost him his life.
Arrived at Washington, he was brought ashore and again left on the wharf . . . as before, without any nourishment — not a drink for his parched mouth — no kind hand offered to cover his face from the forenoon sun. Conveyed at last some two miles by ambulance to the hospital, and assigned a bed. . . , he fell down exhausted upon the bed; but the Ward-master (he has since been changed) came to him with a growling order to get up — the rules, he said, permitted no man to lie down in that way with his old clothes on — he must sit up — must first go to the bath-room, be washed, and have his clothes completely changed. (A very good rule, properly applied.) He was taken to the bath-room and scrubbed well with cold water. The attendants, callous for a while, were soon alarmed, for suddenly the half-frozen and lifeless body fell limpsy in their hands, and they hurried it back to the cot, plainly insensible, perhaps dying.
Poor boy! the long train of exhaustion, deprivation, rudeness, no food, no friendly word or deed, but all kinds of upstart airs, and impudent, unfeeling speeches and deeds, from all kinds of small officials, (and some big ones,) . . . had at last done the job. He now lay, at times out of his head, but quite silent, asking nothing of anyone, for some days, with death getting a closer and surer grip upon him — he cared not, or rather he welcomed death. His heart was broken. He felt the struggle to keep up any longer to be useless. God, the world, humanity — all had abandoned him. It would feel so good to shut his eyes forever on the cruel things around him and toward him.
. . . I found him. I was passing down Ward No. 6 one day, about dusk . . . and noticed his glassy eyes with a look of despair and hopelessness, sunk low in his thin pallid-brown young face. . . . I saw as I looked that it was a case for ministering to the affections first, and other nourishment and medicine afterward. I sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself — got him somewhat interested — wrote a letter for him to his folks in Massachusetts, . . . — soothed him down as I saw he was getting a little too much agitated, and tears in his eyes — gave him some small gifts, and told him I should come again soon. . . .
. . . He remained very sick — vomiting much every day, frequent diarrhea, and also something like bronchitis, the doctor said. For a while I visited him almost every day. . . For a couple of weeks his conditions was uncertain — sometimes I thought there was no chance for him at all. But of late he is doing better — is up and dressed, and goes around more and more . . . every day. He will not die, but will recover.
The other evening, passing through the ward, he called me . . . I sat down by his side on the cot. . . . He told me I had saved his life. He was in the deepest earnest about it. It was one of those things that repay a soldiers’ hospital missionary a thousand-fold — one of the hours he never forgets. . . .
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director
“The Great Army of the Sick,” The New York Times, February 26, 1863