In December 1862 Whitman saw the name of his brother George (1829–1901), a member of the 51st New York Infantry, listed among the wounded at Fredericksburg. Whitman rushed from Brooklyn to the Washington area to search the hospitals and encampments for George. This was his indoctrination to the ghastly consequences of warfare. He began to make acquaintance of the soldiers and note accounts of those who had served in battle. George had fought earlier at Antietam, where in September 1862 more than 23,000 men were killed, wounded, or missing in action in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
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Alexander Gardner (1821–1882), photographer. “The Sunken Road” at Antietam [September 1862]. Hartford, Connecticut : The War Photograph and Exhibition Company. Stereograph. Digital ID# ppmsca-07751. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (24)
War for the Union. Photographic War History. Wounded soldiers from the battles in the “Wilderness” at Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864. Copyprint. Digital ID# ppmsca-cwpbh-03386. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (25)
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Hospital notebook “At Antietam.” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (24A)
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Whitman was pickpocketed on his journey to Washington, and arrived “without a dime.” With the help of friends, he secured a pass behind military lines. On December 29, 1862, a relieved Whitman wrote to his mother that he had “found George alive and well” in a camp at Falmouth, across the river from Fredricksburg, Virginia. He also reported that he had decided to stay in the area and find work. He soon accompanied wounded soldiers back to Washington. Whitman and his “dear, dear, mother” were extremely close. He wrote to her and other family members throughout the war.
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Whitman was forty-three years old in 1862–1863, when he began volunteering in Washington, D.C., war hospitals. He had several portraits taken in the 1860s at the studios of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. The latter had made his name as a photographer with his documentation of the dead at Antietam. Whitman became an unpaid “delegate” of the Christian Commission in early 1863 and was authorized to visit the sick and wounded in hospitals and camps to comfort and cheer them and provide for their needs. He found he had an “instinct and faculty” for easing suffering.
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Whitman developed close personal relationships with many of the men he tended to in army hospitals. He visited the wards regularly, referring to the soldiers as his “dear comrades.” He wrote letters home for those too ill or physically disabled to write. He kept watch over the dying. When he went away to visit family in Brooklyn, he wrote back to the young men about his adventures. He was to them father, mentor, brother, comforter, and friend. Among those with whom he grew close and kept in touch after discharge was Bethuel “Thuey” Smith, a handsome farm boy from eastern New York state.
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“Bethuel Smith, Glens Falls N.Y. one of my war hospital friends of 1863–4” (Written on verso in Whitman's hand). Carte de visite, ca. 1865. Digital ID# ppmsca-07370. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (26a)
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Whitman visited one or more of the many army hospitals daily: “Am much in Patent Office, Eighth street, H street, Armory Square and others,” he recorded. He raised money to be able to bring needed provisions to the men and carried a haversack filled with food and supplies—crackers, peaches, preserves, tea, oysters, tobacco, brandy, stamps, envelopes and note paper, fresh underwear and handkerchiefs, socks, and the morning papers. Whitman went frequently to the wards of Armory Square Hospital, where the most severely wounded were treated.
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