Walt Whitman, perhaps the famous American poet of the 19th century, spent much of the Civil war visiting hospitals containing the wounded, talking with the soldiers and cheering them up as best he could. His notes were later published in the book Specimen Days (1882). Whitman does not flinch from describing the horrors of the war, but there are also many passages, a few of which we would like to share below, which shows the enduring human spirit even in the worst of times.
In my visits to the hospitals I found that it was in the simple matter of personal presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism, that I succeeded and help’d more than by medical nursing, or delicacies, or gifts of money, or anything else.
On seeing Abraham Lincoln: I see the President every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town…ee have got so we exchange bows, and very cordial ones…they pass’d me once very close, and I saw the President in his face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen’d to be directed steadily in my eye. Ho bow’d and smiled, but far beneath his smile I have noted the expression I have alluded to. None of the artist and pictures have fought the deep, though subtle and indirect expression on the man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.
On hospital visits: Each case has its peculiarities and needs some new adaptation. I have learnt to conform – learnt a good deal of hospital wisdom. Some of the poor young chaps, away from home for the first time in their lives, hunger and thirst for affection; this is sometimes the only thing that will reach their condition…I have come to adapt to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn, every one justified and made real under its circumstances – not only visits and cheering talk and little gifts – not only washing and dressing wounds (I have in some cases where the patient is unwilling anyone should do this but me) – but passages from the Bible, expounding them, prayer at the bedside, explanations of doctoring (I think I see my friends smiling at this confession, but I was never more earnest in my life1 )
This afternoon, July 22nd, I have spent a long time with Oscar F. Wilber, Company G, 154th New York..he asked me to read him a chapter in the New Testament..it pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, maybe, it is the same thing.”
Every now and then, in hospital or camp, there are beings I meet – specimens of unworldliness, disinterestness, and animal purity and heroism…on whose birth the calmness of heaven seems to have descended, and on whose gradual growing up…the power of a strange spiritual sweetness, fibre and inward health, have also attended. Something veil’d and abstracted is often a part of the manners of these beings. I have met them, I say, not seldom, in the army, in camp, and in hospitals. The Western regiments contain many of them. They are often young men, obeying the events and occasions about them…unaware of their own nature (as to that, who is aware of his own nature?) their companions only understanding that they are different from the rest, more silent, “something odd a bout them” and apt to of off and meditate and muse in solitude.
On the generosity of the American people: As a very large proportion of the wounded came up from the front without a cent of money in their pockets, I soon discover’d that it was about the best thing I could do to raise their spirits, and show them that somebody cared for them, and practically felt a fatherly or brotherly interest in them, to give them small sums in such cases, using tract and discretion about it. I am regularly supplied in this purpose by good women and men in Bostom, Salem, Providence, Brroklyn and New York…I learn’d one thing conclusively – that beneath all the ostensible greed and heartlessness of our times there is no end to the generous benevolence of the men and women in the United States , when they are sure of their object. Another thing became clear to me – while cash is not amiss to bring up the rear, tact and magnetic sympathy and unction are, and ever will be, sovereign still.
- Whitman was generally skeptical of churches and organised religion, but have a very strong personal spirituality and belief that all faiths were equally true [↩]