Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walt Whitman's Washington Part 1

Finding his brother’s name on a casualty report after the Union’s blunder at Fredericksburg in 1862, poet Walt Whitman left his home in Brooklyn, and set out to confirm his brother’s death. He arrived on the battlefield to find his brother alive, though wounded in the cheek from a shell fragment. It was in Virginia that Walt Whitman witnessed the horrors of the war with the blood, the amputations, the disease, and the filth. Vowing that his New York days were over, Whitman moved to the Capital of the Union to volunteer at the army hospitals. Below, is a rundown of his Washington haunts.

Various Homes: The Federal City Whitman arrived in ran the gamut from office-seekers, profiteers, religious zealots, prostitutes, and deserters.
· It was a wild town, and it’s no wonder that Whitman’s landlord kept 7 locks and a bulldog to guard the front door at his L Street apartment.
· In 1863, Whitman moved to a third story backroom at 456 6th Street between E and D Streets, coincidently located diagonally across his nemesis’s Salmon Chase’s stately mansion.
· Later he lived at 502 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was “a miserable place, very bad air.”
· In 1865, he was renting a room at 468 M Street.

Work: Whitman initially secured a position as a part-time copyist in the Army Paymaster’s fifth floor office at 15th and F Street.
· Seeking a higher Clerkship, Whitman used Ralph Waldo Emerson as a reference when applying for a Treasury position under Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase, who refused him the position because he considered Leaves of Grass to be a disreputable book. Whitman called Chase “the meanest and biggest kind of shyster.”
· Becoming sick in 1864, Whitman left his copyist position for a time while returning home to Camden, NJ.
· Moving back to DC, he took a position in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in the dusty basement of the northeast corner of the Patent Office at 7th and G Streets (now the National Portrait Gallery). His annual salary was $1,200. Whitman lasted only months before he was fired, perhaps again because of his controversial writings.
· Fortunately, friends found him a position in the Attorney General’s office in the Treasury Building, and there he stayed until 1873.

The Hospitals: During the Civil War, Washington had between 40-50 military hospitals.
· Many were little more than canvas tents set up on wooden planks, such as the Lincoln Hospital located in a swamp just east of the Capitol.
· Two newer “state of the art” hospitals included those at Amory Square (seen at right), adjacent to the Smithsonian castle, and the Carver Hospital at Judiciary Square, built on the “Pavilion Plan” that allowed for wards with ample ventilation.
· About 70,000 wounded or sick soldiers were treated in the Washington hospitals at a given time, a number equal to Washington’s peacetime population. Running out of space, the city used churches, the US Patent Office, the Capitol, and the prison in Georgetown for overflows.
Surrounded by suffering, Whitman became consumed with his volunteer work at the hospitals. With the soldiers he played games of Twenty Questions, read Shakespeare, and wrote letters to their families. On one visit he secured ten gallons of ice cream to offer at the Carver Hospital (no meager feat during wartime rationing). Many of his patients would die, but Whitman held their hands, knowing well the look of death upon their faces. According to Whitman, war was “nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory.”

Eventually the horrors of war got to Whitman, who became feverishly ill in June of 1864. The diagnosis for his illness is still contested, but at the time the doctors referred to it as “hospital fatigue.” Health and family issues brought him home to Brooklyn, to spend a few months recovering. The War progressed, the Union began winning, and by the end of 1864 only 17 hospitals in Washington remained, treating 9,265 patients. Returning to the Capitol after his illness, Whitman assured his brother that he was not visiting the hospitals as much as before. Still, he volunteered at least two or three times a week, particularly frequenting Amory Square Hospital until after the war had ended.

The nice thing about writers is that they leave a paper trail...stay tuned for part two.

Sources: Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life.

Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel.

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