of a year (1863)”: Whitman in
eventually found George, he was only slightly injured,
but Whitman was shocked by the conditions of the field
hospitals. He felt lost, helpless, in the face of such
suffering. On this particular day, however, an opportunity
presented itself. At the end of the rail line, as passengers
transferred to a government steamer continuing north up
the time Whitman arrived in the capitol in the evening,
he was determined to stay in
The next afternoon, Whitman wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson to ask his assistance in securing a government position. He informed Emerson that he would “apply on literary grounds, not political” and even suggested text for Emerson’s letters of introduction to Secretary of State William Henry Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase:
he waited for a response from Emerson, Whitman enlisted
the help of his former publisher Charles W. Eldridge.
By then a clerk in the office of Paymaster General Lyman
S. Hapgood, Eldridge found temporary work for Whitman
as a copyist. But Whitman also quickly recognized that
his best prospect for supplementing his income was writing
for the many
While a great deal of attention has been given to Whitman’s
time in the nation’s capitol during 1863 and early 1864,
his writings of that era have tended to be used as a source
for biographical information, rather than studied as important
war-time productions created to meet Whitman’s material
demands but also to further his goals of raising public
awareness of conditions in the military hospitals. Moreover,
more attention needs to be given to Whitman’s ideal of
providing aid to the soldiers outside of the conventional
institutions of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and the
U. S. Christian Commission. His efforts—often resulting
in bitter failures—highlight the strained and rocky relationships
Whitman nurtured with abolitionist donors in Boston, with
newspaper editors in New York and Brooklyn, and with officials
of the government and military in Washington, D. C. No
picture of Whitman’s time in
* * *
When Whitman finally heard from Emerson on January 16, he found that Emerson had not followed his short, formal letter of introduction, but rather had written long, flattering notes to Secretaries Seward and Chase. He told both that he considered Whitman “a man of strong original genius” and, while admitting that some had criticized his poems, expressed his opinion that Whitman’s writings “show extraordinary power, & are more deeply American, democratic, & in the interest of political liberty, than those of any other poet” (Corr. 1: 65, 65-66). Whitman was exhilarated. He immediately wrote his brother Jeff to report that “this morning’s mail brings me from Buffalo, two splendid letters from [Emerson], one letter to Seward, and one to Chase, which I hope, (and though I have well learnt not to count my chickens, &c. I believe and calculate) will, by the way we shall manage it, put me through, to get something” (Corr. 7: 18).
Yet, Whitman was mindful of Emerson’s caution in his cover letter that, when it came to fundraising, he believed Whitman might fare “better in the journalism than in the Departments” (Corr. 1: 66). Jeff, too, had suggested that his efforts to solicit donations on Walt’s behalf would be made easier if he would keep accounts of how the money was spent and detailed descriptions of the good it had done (Corr. 1: 66n9). Whitman assured Jeff that the donors enlisted by him and Moses Lane, Jeff’s boss and chief engineer at the Brooklyn Water Works, would receive a “letter giving specific names, hospitals, No. of the particular beds, and dates, or more likely a letter in print in newspaper, for I am going to print a sort of hospital journal in some paper” (Corr. 1: 67).
He had already embarked on this plan by publishing a dispatch
In a notebook from this period, Whitman noted that “The Herald, Times, Cincinnati Gazette, &c. have little offices here” (NUPM 2: 551). Undoubtedly articles by Whitman from this period remain unidentified, because within a month he told Jeff that he had given up actively seeking an office position, because he could make enough to cover his expenses “by hacking on the press here” (Corr. 1: 73). This sort of formulaic writing was adequate for paying his room and board, but for the articles Whitman put his name to, he had loftier ambitions.
On January 17, the day after receiving Emerson’s letters of introduction, Whitman responded by expounding on his plan of publishing the “hospital journal” that he had mentioned to Jeff the day before. He wrote Emerson that the idea had occurred to him:
He also confided that he had already begun to imagine turning that hospital journal into something more than a series of articles for newspaper circulation:
To gain unfettered access to this great mass of the suffering, Whitman applied and received status as an unremunerated delegate of the U. S. Christian Commission, on January 20. One of his notebooks from this time, now in the collection of the Library of Congress, is stamped “Christian Commission” in gold on its cover, and inside Whitman wrote: “Walt Whitman Soldier’s Missionary to Hospital, Camp, & Battle Ground (Young Men’s Christian Commission 343 Pennsylvania av. Washington D. C.)” (NUPM, 2: 602).
status gave Whitman ready access to the hospitals; now,
however, he needed an editor who would allow him to explore
a longer, more personal form than the standard dispatch
normally allowed. And soon Whitman found that editor.
Some time in mid to late January, he entered in his notebook:
“have seen Swinton &c” (NUPM 2: 551). Swinton, in this case, was
William Swinton, a war correspondent for the New York Times, and brother of Times
managing editor, John Swinton. Whitman had a long relationship
with both Swinton brothers—but especially John. In 1855,
John had purchased one of the earliest published copies
of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and four years later he mentioned Whitman’s rapid
composition of new poems to Richard Hinton—a conversation
which served as impetus for Hinton’s recommendation to
Thayer & Eldridge that they offer to publish a new
edition of Leaves
of Grass in 1860. Bumping into William Swinton on
But it was not decay but determination, as Whitman spent the better part of February jotting down descriptions of his hospital visits and obsessively reworking them for a long article he intended for the Times.
On February 23, Whitman finally completed “The Great Army of the Sick.” In a letter sent directly to John Swinton, Whitman wrote simply that he had sent his article “about the Military Hospitals here—as they are so generally and sadly interesting to the public” (Corr. 1: 75-76). If Whitman did little to sell the piece to Swinton, it may be because he knew he already had a sympathetic reader. By the time Swinton responded, at in the morning on February 26, the article was already on press. He wrote:
Indeed, “The Great Army of the Sick” establishes the mode
in which the majority of Whitman’s war journalism—and
later Memoranda During the War—was written. The
piece begins with a sketch of the hospitals (some facts
and figures to establish the scope of the need). In the
second section, he begins to focus more on the individual
suffering of the soldiers and the general aid her provided,
describing the Patent Office as “crowded close with row
of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers…. I went there
several times. It was a strange, solemn and, with all
its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating
sight.” The reader’s interest now peaked, Whitman selects
a single case to illustrate the difference his individual
efforts can make. In this case, he describes an unnamed
Ironically, the same morning mail that brought Swinton’s praising letter and copies of the New York Times also brought word that several of Whitman’s poems had been rejected curtly by Harper’s Weekly: “The Editor of Harpers Weekly begs to return the enclosed verses to Mr. Walt Whitman with his compliments and many thanks” (WWWC 1: 416). The “verses” are unidentified but may have been early versions of Whitman’s Fredericksburg poems—such as “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” and “A battle (sights, sounds, &c),” which eventually became “The Artilleryman’s Vision.” Whatever the poems may have been, the note is surprisingly short and formal; Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums” had appeared in Harper’s Weekly less than eighteen months earlier—and had been widely reprinted. The cool response only furthered Whitman’s resolve in his new prose direction. Though he continued to write poems throughout the war, no record exists that Whitman again attempted to publish poems in newspapers or magazines until October 1865. To reach the mass audience he needed, he would have to turn his efforts toward prose, and emblematic of this shift, Whitman kept Swinton’s acceptance and the rejection from Harper’s Weekly together in the same envelope for the rest of his life.
* * *
waiting for “The Great Army of the Sick” to appear in
the Times, Whitman
began sending letters to likely donors in hopes of arousing
sympathy and drumming up support for his cause. Though
no list of recipients survives, we do know that Whitman
sent a letter to James Redpath—another of Whitman’s fellow
authors at Thayer & Eldridge—probably at the suggestion
of Eldridge himself or William Douglas O’Connor. Redpath
responded warmly, calling Whitman an “Evangelist,” and
enclosing an article he had written for the
intimate of John Brown and several members of the Secret
Six who had helped finance the
While he waited eagerly for word from Emerson, Whitman set
to work on the second in his series of hospital journals,
submitting “The Great Washington Hospitals: Life Among
Fifty Thousand Sick Soldiers” to the Brooklyn Eagle on March 17. Whitman’s relationship
with the Eagle
had been complicated and strained since the days he had
served as its editor until his firing in January 1848.
Its successive editors had decidedly mixed feelings toward
Whitman, sometimes courting him as a contributor and publishing
positive reviews of his books, other times ridiculing
him personally and ruthlessly attacking his poems. This
stormy relationship is perhaps best typified by the appearance
of Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!” in the Eagle on
Still, after the publication of his article in the Eagle, genuine warmth seems to have crept briefly into the correspondence. Isaac Van Anden, the paper’s founder, even sent a contribution of ten dollars to Whitman’s hospital fund in early April. Nevertheless, Walt was unhappy with some of the editorial revisions to “The Great Washington Hospitals,” which he thought had been undertaken maliciously, and his anger boiled over when his next contribution, sent on April 27, went unacknowledged and unpublished. The possibility of its rejection had never occurred to Whitman; he even wrote Jeff on April 28 to let him know that his new article had been “sent yesterday to the Eagle—it ought to appear to-day or to-morrow” and enclosed ten cents for Jeff to purchase ten copies to send back to Washington (Corr. 1: 95). When nearly a month had passed with no response, Whitman declared, “I shall send them no more, as I think likely they hate to put in any thing which may celebrate me a little, even though it is just the thing they want for their paper & readers. They altered the other letter on that account, very meanly” (Corr. 1: 105).
The news from
would seem to hearken back to the controversy surrounding
the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass—is puzzling coming, as
it did, from Redpath’s circle of friends. The Commonwealth, the official publication of the group, was edited by
Franklin B. Sanborn and Moncure D. Conway. In 1860, when
a judge threatened to extradite Sanborn to
Were these editorial connections not enough, Whitman was
also familiar with many of the Commonwealth’s
contributors. Redpath worked as an occasional correspondent;
Emerson himself often contributed poetry. Most intriguingly,
John James Piatt, who worked in the Treasury Department
and had met Whitman through O’Connor, frequently contributed
poetry to the Commonwealth.
Piatt later dated a poetic reminiscence of Whitman to
this very period—“
Not only a slight girl, as poets dream,
With gentle footsteps stealing forth alone,
Veiling her hand from her soft timid eyes
Lest they should see her self-forgetful alms,
Or moving, lamp in hand, through glimmering wards
With her nun’s coif or nurse’s sacred garb:
Not only this,—but oft a sunburnt man,
Grey-garmented, grey-bearded, giantesque… 
Who exactly Piatt meant when he referred to the “poets” is unclear. However, it is worth remembering Franklin Sanborn’s claim that Emerson wanted to take Whitman to the Saturday Club in Boston in 1860, but Longfellow, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes declined to have dinner with him; when Emerson instead suggested inviting Whitman to Concord to dine with Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, Sanborn remembered that the women of their houses refused to allow it. Though Sanborn was irritated by these prejudices, he apparently was unwilling to go against them by publishing Whitman in the Commonwealth.
add insult to injury, Louisa May Alcott—daughter of Bronson
Alcott—began publishing her series “Hospital Sketches”
in the Commonwealth
on May 22. Appearing in four installments, Alcott’s account
presented a fictionalized version of her experiences as
a nurse at the
But the final blow for Whitman came when James Redpath, who had long harbored an interest in starting his own publisher, offered to launch his venture by publishing Alcott. She entered in her notebook for June: “a request from Redpath to be allowed to print the Sketches in a book. Roberts Bros also asked, but I preferred Redpath & said yes, so he fell to work with all his might” (Myerson and Shealy, 119). Redpath’s correspondence with Whitman stopped altogether during the summer, as he hurriedly made preparations for the publication of his first book.
Presented with these sizable reverses, Whitman responded in typical fashion: He fell back to his familiar plan of supporting himself as a lecturer. He told his mother on June 9:
scribbling hasty notes and outlines for his rhetorical
approach in his notebooks: “Lectures—pieces must not be dry opinions
& prosy doctrines, &c.,” he wrote in one such
entry, “must be animated life-blood, descriptions, full
of movement—with questions—apostrophes—declamatory passages,
&c” (NUPM 2: 571). Jeff discussed the matter with
Whitman, however, objected to the idea of connecting up with an established organization. “I have quite made up my mind about the lecturing &c project,” he wrote his mother:
Appropriately, just as Whitman was voicing his ardent dislike for members of the Sanitary Commission, one of its new nurses arrived at Armory Square and—in the months to come—would prove a foil and sometime nemesis to Whitman.
* * *
she arrived at
The “fever boy” mentioned by Akin was Erastus B. Haskell, whom Whitman, in a letter to Haskell’s parents now famous for it heartbreak and eloquence, had worried was improperly cared for by the hospital staff. “From the first I felt that Erastus was in danger,” he wrote, “or at least was much worse than they in the hospital supposed. As he made no complaint, they perhaps [thought him] not very bad” (Corr. 1: 127).
As the summer wore on, Whitman’s ambitions to begin a lecture series quickly faded. On July 15, he wrote: “Mother, I have no doubt I shall make a few hundred dollars by the lectures I shall certainly commence soon,” (Corr. 1: 117-118), but little more than two weeks later, he confessed to Lewis K. Brown that he had been sick for the previous two or three weeks from the oppressive heat in the hospital. On August 4, Jeff wrote that “[a] ‘Mr Fulton, of the New York Times’ came some time since and got your address and again a few days since and wanted me when I wrote you to ask you if you had received a letter from him. He said that he had written you but had not received a reply and [was] afraid you had not received it.”  Jeff was evidently encouraged by this and had spoken to Dr. Edward P. Ruggles, the Whitmans family physician, about it. In closing his letter, Jeff added that “Ruggles thinks that you could make a good thing by writing letters to the Times, better than the lectures” (Berthold and Price, 69).
response, Whitman set about aggressively publishing his
prose. In the span of a month and a half, he published
Unable to raise the money himself, Whitman again turned to charity. Redpath had announced in all the newspapers the forthcoming publication of Hospital Sketches. Perhaps it was their appearance that prompted Whitman to send a long, heartfelt letter to Redpath, reminding him of his own hospital efforts and emphasizing the good done by even the smallest donations. Given its style, it is seems apparent that it was intended to be distributed among Redpath’s friends in Boston. Indeed, the letter concludes:
At some point, Whitman must have mentioned to Redpath that he remained hopeful of publishing this literary journal as a book. Shortly after the third of these articles appeared, Redpath returned to the subject, signing off one of his letters transmitting donations by asking, “By the Bye—how about your Hospital Sketches? Are they ready yet for press?” (Corr. 1: 164n86). The comparison to Alcott’s successful book was no doubt intended as a compliment—especially coming, as it was, from her publisher—but Whitman bristled at Redpath’s associating his journal with Alcott’s book, responding, “My idea is a book of the time, worthy the time—something considerably beyond mere hospital sketches—” (Corr. 1: 171). The scale of Whitman’s ambition is revealed by an exuberant proposal for a publisher’s announcement that he enclosed with his letter:
His plans for his book were not only grand in literary scope but also typically specific in terms of his notions of the physical appearance of the volume:
Whitman could not have known, but the sales of Alcott’s Hospital Sketches in paperback were, by now, far outpacing the sales of the cloth edition. The difference was so distinct that Redpath had given up the idea of publishing any future titles in hardback. Instead, he hoped to reach the untapped audience of the common soldier by publishing his books as thin, paperback editions with a small trim-size capable of slipping into the breast pocket of a Union uniform. Alcott’s collection of short stories, On Picket Duty, and Other Tales, eventually became the first book in this series, dubbed by Redpath “Books for the Camp Fires.” However, manuscript correspondence reveals that he originally intended to begin with a slightly shortened version of Hospital Sketches. The challenge of publishing so cheaply was that everything had to be done at great volume—and that volume often meant steep upfront expenses. Redpath wrote Alcott:
In addition to skimping on copyright and author payments, Redpath planned to print the books in uniform editions—with covers featuring the same engraving of soldiers sitting around a campfire reading—and on the cheapest available, pulp paperstock. All of Whitman’s demands—applying for copyright, printing on high-quality paper, trimmed to a standard size and elegantly bound, selling it for a dollar, and targeting women buyers—ran exactly counter to Redpath’s new business plan.
He responded kindly but with understandable reluctance to entertain Whitman’s proposal:
I have taken your proposition under consideration.
There is a lion in the way—$
I could easily publish a small Book, but the one you propose—to stereotype, advertise and push it—implies an expenditure that may be beyond my means…
Suppose you finish it and send it on: if I can’t publish it, I will see if some other person won’t.
This is the best I can safely promise. If I can get one or two jobbers to read and like it, and they will make an advance order, or give a favorable trade opinion, the way is clear.
What say? (WWWC, 418)
Without a firm commitment, Whitman was unwilling (and too unwell) to make the concerted effort to construct a finished narrative from the pinned-together scraps and scattered notebooks he carried in his satchel. Instead, on November 1, Whitman returned to New York to check on his mother and see his brother Andrew, who was in precipitously failing health. The time away from Washington also allowed Whitman a much needed break and fresh perspective on his goals as a writer. He wrote Charley Eldridge late one night after returning from the opera, full of pointed thoughts and renewed urgency. “I feel to devote myself more to the work of my life, which is making poems,” he wrote. “I must bring out Drum Taps. I must be continually bringing out poems—now is the hey day” (Corr. 1: 185).
 Stovall, Floyd, ed. Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892 (New York: NYU Press, 1963), p. 32.
 Whitman’s friend and former publisher Charles W. Eldridge, by then working in the office of the paymaster general, joked that “any pickpocket who failed to avail himself of such an opportunity as Walt offered, with his loose baggy trousers, and no suspenders, would have been a disgrace to his profession” (Ellen M. Calder, “Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman” in Whitman in His Own Time [Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000], p. 196). Hereafter Calder.
 Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, Edwin Haviland Miller, ed. (New York: NYU Press, 1963), 7: 15. Hereafter Corr.
 Grier, Edward F., ed. Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. New York: New York University Press, 1984, 2: 545. Hereafter NUPM.
 Special thanks to Kim Roberts for calling this to my attention.
 Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. New York: Small, Maynard, 1906, 1: 416. Hereafter WWWC.
 Commonwealth, April 10, 1863, p. 2.
 Donald, Thomas. Walt Whitman, The Man. New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896, p. 144.
 Original held at Historical Society of Pennsylvania. When Donaldson reprinted this letter (Donaldson, 144), he omitted the final two sentences of this passage.
 “Literary Review.” Commonwealth, February 24, 1866, p. 1.
 Dial , August 1860, pp. 517-19.
Bain, Robert. Whitman’s
& Dickinson’s Contemporaries: An Anthology of Their
Clark, Beverly Lyon. Louisa May Alcott: The Contemporary Reviews.
Myerson, Joel and Daniel Shealy. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott.
Stearns, Amanda Akin, The Lady Nurse of Ward E.
Berthold, Dennis and Kenneth Price. Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson
Original held at the