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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

V. November Boughs

19. Last of the War Cases

  • Memorandized at the time, Washington, 1865–’66.

  • [OF reminiscences of the Secession War, after the rest is said, I have thought it remains to give a few special words—in some respects at the time the typical words of all, and most definite—of the samples of the kill’d and wounded in action, and of soldiers who linger’d afterward, from these wounds, or were laid up by obstinate disease or prostration. The general statistics have been printed already, but can bear to be briefly stated again. There were over 3,000,000 men (for all periods of enlistment, large and small) furnish’d to the Union army during the war, New York State furnishing over 500,000, which was the greatest number of any one State. The losses by disease, wounds, kill’d in action, accidents, &c., were altogether about 600,000, or approximating to that number. Over 4,000,000 cases were treated in the main and adjudicatory army hospitals. The number sounds strange, but it is true. More than two-thirds of the deaths were from prostration or disease. To-day there lie buried over 300,000 soldiers in the various National army Cemeteries, more than half of them (and that is really the most significant and eloquent bequest of the War) mark’d “unknown.” In full mortuary statistics of the war, the greatest deficiency arises from our not having the rolls, even as far as they were kept, of most of the Southern military prisons—a gap which probably both adds to, and helps conceal, the indescribable horrors of those places; it is, however, (restricting gone vivid point only) certain that over 30,000 Union soldiers died, largely of actual starvation, in them. And now, leaving all figures and their “sum totals,” I feel sure a few genuine memoranda of such things—some cases jotted down ’64, ’65, and ’66—made at the time and on the spot, with all the associations of those scenes and places brought back, will not only go directest to the right spot, but give a clearer and more actual sight of that period, than anything else. Before I give the last cases I begin with verbatim extracts from letters home to my mother in Brooklyn, the second year of the war.—W. W.]

    Washington, Oct. 13, 1863.—There has been a new lot of wounded and sick arriving for the last three days. The first and second days, long strings of ambulances with the sick. Yesterday the worst, many with bad and bloody wounds, inevitably long neglected. I thought I was cooler and more used to it, but the sight of some cases brought tears into my eyes. I had the luck yesterday, however, to do lots of good. Had provided many nourishing articles for the men for another quarter, but, fortunately, had my stores where I could use them at once for these new-comers, as they arrived, faint, hungry, fagg’d out from their journey, with soil’d clothes, and all bloody. I distributed these articles, gave partly to the nurses I knew, or to those in charge. As many as possible I fed myself. Then I found a lot of oyster soup handy, and bought it all at once.

    It is the pitiful sight, this, when the men are first brought in, from some camp hospital broke up, or a part of the army moving. These who arrived yesterday are cavalry men. Our troops had fought like devils, but got the worst of it. They were Kilpatrick’s cavalry; were in the rear, part of Meade’s retreat, and the reb cavalry, knowing the ground the taking a favorable opportunity, dash’d in between, cut them off, and shell’d them terribly. But Kilpatrick turn’d and brought them out mostly. It was last Sunday. (One of the most terrible sights and tasks is of such receptions.)

    Oct. 27, 1863.—If any of the soldiers I know (or their parents or folks) should call upon you—as they are often anxious to have my address in Brooklyn—you just use them as you know how, and if you happen to have pot-luck, and feel to ask them to take a bite, don’t be afraid to do so. I have a friend, Thomas Neat, 2d N. Y. Cavalry, wounded in leg, now home in Jamaica, on furlough; he will probably call. Then possibly a Mr. Haskell, or some of his folks, from western New York: he had a son died here, and I was with the boy a good deal. The old man and his wife have written me and ask’d me my Brooklyn address; he said he had children in New York, and was occasionally down there. (When I come home I will show you some of the letters I get from mothers, sisters, fathers, &c. They will make you cry.)

    How the time passes away! To think it is over a year since I left home suddenly—and have mostly been down in front since. The year has vanish’d swiftly, and oh, what scenes I have witness’d during that time! And the war is not settled yet; and one does not see anything certain, or even promising, of a settlement. But I do not lose the solid feeling, in myself, that the Union triumph is assured, whether it be sooner or whether it be later, or whatever roundabout way we may be led there; and I find I don’t change that conviction from any reverses we meet, nor delays, nor blunders. One realizes here in Washington the great labors, even the negative ones, of Lincoln; that it is a big thing to have just kept the United States from being thrown down and having its throat cut. I have not waver’d or had any doubt of the issue, since Gettysburg.

    8th September, ’63.—Here, now, is a specimen army hospital case: Lorenzo Strong, Co. A, 9th United States Cavalry, shot by a shell last Monday night, 14th. Seem’d to be doing pretty well till Wednesday noon, 16th, when he took a turn for the worse, and a strangely rapid and fatal termination ensued. Though I had much to do, I staid and saw all. It was a death-picture characteristic of these soldiers’ hospitals—the perfect specimen of physique, one of the most magnificent I ever saw—the convulsive spasms and working of muscles, mouth, and throat. There are two good women nurses, one on each side. The doctor comes in and gives him a little chloroform. One of the nurses constantly fans him, for it is fearfully hot. He asks to be rais’d up, and they put him in a half-sitting posture. He call’d for “Mark” repeatedly, half-deliriously, all day. Life ebbs, runs now with the speed of a mill race; his splendid neck, as it lays all open, works still, slightly; his eyes turn back. A religious person coming in offers a prayer, in subdued tones, bent at the foot of the bed; and in the space of the aisle, a crowd, including two or three doctors, several students, and many soldiers, has silently gather’d. It is very still and warm, as the struggle goes on, and dwindles, a little more, and a little more—and then welcome oblivion, painlessness, death. A pause, the crowd drops away, a white bandage is bound around and under the jaw, the propping pillows are removed, the limpsy head falls down, the arms are softly placed by the side, all composed, all still,—and the broad white sheet is thrown over everything.

    April 10, 1864.—Unusual agitation all around concentrated here. Exciting times in Congress. The Copperheads are getting furious, and want to recognize the Southern Confederacy. “This is a pretty time to talk of recognizing such—,” said a Pennsylvania officer in hospital to me to-day, “after what has transpired the last three years.” After first Fredericksburg I felt discouraged myself, and doubted whether our rulers could carry on the war. But that had pass’d away. The war must be carried on. I would willingly go in the ranks myself if I thought it would profit more than as at present, and I don’t know sometimes but I shall, as it is. Then there is certainly a strange, deep, fervid feeling form’d or arous’d in the land, hard to describe or name; it is not a majority feeling, but it will make itself felt. M., you don’t know what a nature a fellow gets, not only after being a soldier a while, but after living in the sights and influences of the camps, the wounded, &c.—a nature he never experienced before. The stars and stripes, the tune of Yankee Doodle, and similar things, produce such an effect on a fellow as never before. I have seen them bring tears on some men’s cheeks, and others turn pale with emotion. I have a little flag (it belong’d to one of our cavalry regiments,) presented to me by one of the wounded; it was taken by the secesh in a fight, and rescued by our men in a bloody skirmish following. It cost three men’s lives to get back that four-by-three flag—to tear it from the breast of a dead rebel—for the name of getting their little “rag” back again. The man that secured it was very badly wounded, and they let him keep it. I was with him a good deal; he wanted to give me some keepsake, he said,—he didn’t expect to live,—so he gave me that flag. The best of it all is, dear M., there isn’t a regiment, cavalry or infantry, that wouldn’t do the like, on the like occasion.

    April 12.—I will finish my letter this morning; it is a beautiful day. I was up in Congress very late last night. The House had a very excited night session about expelling the men that proposed recognizing the Southern Confederacy. You ought to hear (as I do) the soldiers talk; they are excited to madness. We shall probably have hot times here, not in the military fields alone. The body of the army is true and firm as the North Star.

    May 6, ’64.—M., the poor soldier with diarrhœa, is still living, but, oh, what a looking object! Death would be a relief to him—he cannot last many hours. Cunningham, the Ohio soldier, with leg amputated at thigh, has pick’d up beyond expectation; now looks indeed like getting well. (He died a few weeks afterward.) The hospitals are very full. I am very well indeed. Hot here to-day.

    May 23, ’64.—Sometimes I think that should it come when it must, to fall in battle, one’s anguish over a son or brother kill’d might be temper’d with much to take the edge off. Lingering and extreme suffering from wounds or sickness seem to me far worse than death in battle. I can honestly say the latter has no terrors for me, as far as I myself am concern’d. Then I should say, too, about death in war, that our feelings and imaginations make a thousand times too much of the whole matter. Of the many I have seen die, or known of, the past year, I have not seen or known one who met death with terror. In most cases I should say it was a welcome relief and release.

    Yesterday I spent a good part of the afternoon with a young soldier of seventeen, Charles Cutter, of Lawrence City, Massachusetts, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, Battery M. He was brought to one of the hospitals mortally wounded in abdomen. Well, I thought to myself, as I sat looking at him, it ought to be a relief to his folks if they could see how little he really suffer’d. He lay very placid, in a half lethargy, with his eyes closed. As it was extremely hot, and I sat a good while silently fanning him, and wiping the sweat, at length he open’d his eyes quite wide and clear, and look’d inquiringly around. I said, “What is it, my boy? Do you want anything?” He answer’d quietly, with a good-natured smile, “Oh, nothing; I was only looking around to see who was with me.” His mind was somewhat wandering, yet he lay in an evident peacefulness that sanity and health might have envied. I had to leave for other engagements. He died, I heard afterward, without any special agitation, in the course of the night.

    Washington, May 26, ’63.—M., I think something of commencing a series of lectures, readings, talks, &c., through the cities of the North, to supply myself with funds for hospital ministrations. I do not like to be so beholden to others; I need a pretty free supply of money, and the work grows upon me, and fascinates me. It is the most magnetic as well as terrible sight: the lots of poor wounded and helpless men depending so much, in one ward or another, upon my soothing or talking to them, or rousing them up a little, or perhaps petting, or feeding them their dinner or supper (here is a patient, for instance, wounded in both arms,) or giving some trifle for a novelty or change—anything, however trivial, to break the monotony of those hospital hours.

    It is curious: when I am present at the most appalling scenes, deaths, operations, sickening wounds (perhaps full of maggots,) I keep cool and do not give out or budge, although my sympathies are very much excited; but often, hours afterward, perhaps when I am home, or out walking alone, I feel sick, and actually tremble, when I recall the case again before me.

    Sunday afternoon, opening of 1865.—Pass’d this afternoon among a collection of unusually bad cases, wounded and sick Secession soldiers, left upon our hands. I spent the previous Sunday afternoon there also. At that time two were dying. Two others have died during the week. Several of them are partly deranged. I went around among them elaborately. Poor boys, they all needed to be cheer’d up. As I sat down by any particular one, the eyes of all the rest in the neighboring cots would fix upon me, and remain steadily riveted as long as I sat within their sight. Nobody seem’d to wish anything special to eat or drink. The main thing ask’d for was postage stamps, and paper for writing. I distributed all the stamps I had. Tobacco was wanted by some.

    One call’d me over to him and ask’d me in a low tone what denomination I belong’d to. He said he was a Catholic—wish’d to find some one of the same faith—wanted some good reading. I gave him something to read, and sat down by him a few minutes. Moved around with a word for each. They were hardly any of them personally attractive cases, and no visitors come here. Of course they were all destitute of money. I gave small sums to two or three, apparently the most needy. The men are from quite all the Southern States, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, &c.

    Wrote several letters. One for a young fellow named Thomas J. Byrd, with a bad wound and diarrhœa. Was from Russell county, Alabama; been out four years. Wrote to his mother; had neither heard from her nor written to her in nine months. Was taken prisoner last Christmas, in Tennessee; sent to Nashville, then to Camp Chase, Ohio, and kept there a long time; all the while not money enough to get paper and postage stamps. Was paroled, but on his way home the wound took gangrene; had diarrhœa also; had evidently been very low. Demeanor cool, and patient. A dark-skinn’d, quaint young fellow, with strong Southern idiom; no education.

    Another letter for John W. Morgan, aged 18, from Shellot, Brunswick county, North Carolina; been out nine months; gunshot wound in right leg, above knee; also diarrhœa; wound getting along well; quite a gentle, affectionate boy; wish’d me to put in the letter for his mother to kiss his little brother and sister for him. [I put strong envelopes on these, and two or three other letters, directed them plainly and fully, and dropt them in the Washington post-office the next morning myself.]

    The large ward I am in is used for Secession soldiers exclusively. One man, about forty years of age, emaciated with diarrhœa, I was attracted to, as he lay with his eyes turn’d up, looking like death. His weakness was so extreme that it took a minute or so, every time, for him to talk with anything like consecutive meaning; yet he was evidently a man of good intelligence and education. As I said anything, he would lie a moment perfectly still, then, with closed eyes, answer in a low, very slow voice, quite correct and sensible, but in a way and tone that wrung my heart. He had a mother, wife, and child living (or probably living) in his home in Mississippi. It was long, long since he had seen them. Had he caus’d a letter to be sent them since he got here in Washington? No answer. I repeated the question, very slowly and soothingly. He could not tell whether he had or not—things of late seem’d to him like a dream. After waiting a moment, I said: “Well, I am going to walk down the ward a moment, and when I come back you can tell me. If you have not written, I will sit down and write.” A few minutes after I return’d; he said he remember’d now that some one had written for him two or three days before. The presence of this man impress’d me profoundly. The flesh was all sunken on face and arms; the eyes low in their sockets and glassy, and with purple rings around them. Two or three great tears silently flow’d out from the eyes, and roll’d down his temples (he was doubtless unused to be spoken to as I was speaking to him.) Sickness, imprisonment, exhaustion, &c., had conquer’d the body, yet the mind held mastery still, and call’d even wandering remembrance back.

    There are some fifty Southern soldiers here; all sad, sad cases. There is a good deal of scurvy. I distributed some paper, envelopes, and postage stamps, and wrote addresses full and plain on many of the envelopes.

    I return’d again Tuesday, August 1, and moved around in the same manner a couple of hours.

    September 22, ’65.—Afternoon and evening at Douglas Hospital to see a friend belonging to 2d New York Artillery (Hiram W. Frazee, Serg’t,) down with an obstinate compound fracture of left leg receiv’d in one of the last battles near Petersburg. After sitting a while with him, went through several neighboring wards. In one of them found an old acquaintance transferr’d here lately, a rebel prisoner, in a dying condition. Poor fellow, the look was already on his face. He gazed long at me. I ask’d him if he knew me. After a moment he utter’d something, but inarticulately. I have seen him off and on for the last five months. He has suffer’d very much; a bad wound in left leg, severely fractured, several operations, cuttings, extractions of bone, splinters, &c. I remember he seem’d to me, as I used to talk with him, a fair specimen of the main strata of the Southerners, those without property or education, but still with the stamp which comes from freedom and equality. I liked him; Jonathan Wallace, of Hurd Co., Georgia, age 30 (wife, Susan F. Wallace, Houston, Hurd Co., Georgia.) [If any good soul of that county should see this, I hope he will send her this word.] Had a family; had not heard from them since taken prisoner, now six months. I had written for him, and done trifles for him, before he came here. He made no outward show, was mild in his talk and behavior, but I knew he worried much inwardly. But now all would be over very soon. I half sat upon the little stand near the head of the bed. Wallace was somewhat restless. I placed my hand lightly on his forehead and face, just sliding it over the surface. In a moment or so he fell into a calm, regular-breathing lethargy or sleep, and remain’d so while I sat there. It was dark, and the lights were lit. I hardly know why (death seem’d hovering near,) but I stay’d nearly an hour. A Sister of Charity, dress’d in black, with a broad white linen bandage around her head and under her chin, and a black crape over all and flowing down from her head in long wide pieces, came to him, and moved around the bed. She bow’d low and solemn to me. For some time she moved around there noiseless as a ghost, doing little things for the dying man.

    December, ’65.—The only remaining hospital is now “Harewood,” out in the woods, northwest of the city. I have been visiting there regularly every Sunday, during these two months.

    January 24, ’66.—Went out to Harewood early to-day, and remain’d all day.

    Sunday, February 4, 1866.—Harewood Hospital again. Walk’d out this afternoon (bright, dry, ground frozen hard) through the woods. Ward 6 is fill’d with blacks, some with wounds, some ill, two or three with limbs frozen. The boys made quite a picture sitting round the stove. Hardly any can read or write. I write for three or four, direct envelopes, give some tobacco, &c.

    Joseph Winder, a likely boy, aged twenty-three, belongs to 10th Color’d Infantry (now in Texas;) is from Eastville, Virginia. Was a slave; belong’d to Lafayette Homeston. The master was quite willing he should leave. Join’d the army two years ago; has been in one or two battles. Was sent to hospital with rheumatism. Has since been employ’d as cook. His parents at Eastville; he gets letters from them, and has letters written to them by a friend. Many black boys left that part of Virginia and join’d the army; the 10th, in fact, was made up of Virginia blacks from thereabouts. As soon as discharged is going back to Eastville to his parents and home, and intends to stay there.

    Thomas King, formerly 2d District Color’d Regiment, discharged soldier, Company E, lay in a dying condition; his disease was consumption. A Catholic priest was administering extreme unction to him. (I have seen this kind of sight several times in the hospitals; it is very impressive.)

    Harewood, April 29, 1866. Sunday afternoon.—Poor Joseph Swiers, Company H, 155th Pennsylvania, a mere lad (only eighteen years of age;) his folks living in Reedsburgh, Pennsylvania. I have known him now for nearly a year, transferr’d from hospital to hospital. He was badly wounded in the thigh at Hatcher’s Run, February 6, ’65.

    James E. Ragan, Atlanta, Georgia; 2d United States Infantry. Union folks. Brother impress’d, deserted, died; now no folks, left alone in the world, is in a singularly nervous state; came in hospital with intermittent fever.

    Walk slowly around the ward, observing, and to see if I can do anything. Two or three are lying very low with consumption, cannot recover; some with old wounds; one with both feet frozen off, so that on one only the heel remains. The supper is being given out: the liquid call’d tea, a thick slice of bread, and some stew’d apples.

    That was about the last I saw of the regular army hospitals.