Walt Whitman: A Civil War NurseF. Amos Bailey, MD Jul 2, 2019
For more than twenty years I had in late winter or early spring read and re-read a collection of Walt Whitman poems. A few years ago, we moved to Colorado, and I couldn’t find my copy. I thought it had been lost on our way and hoped that whoever might find it would read and be moved by the words of this great lyric poet.
I found the book Leaves of Grass this month when cleaning out an old box. Did you know that Walt Whitman was a nurse? In 1862 he traveled to Washington to see and care for his brother who had been wounded. After his brother recovered, Mr. Whitman continued to work as a nurse caring for both Union and Confederate soldiers in makeshift hospitals set up around Washington DC. Whitman himself reports that he worked over 600 shifts which would mean that this was his daily work through the end of the Civil War.
Whitman was empathic to all he met. The strength of his poetry is how often Whitman’s experience is from the point of view of the person he is engaged with. When he says…
“I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,..”
he is clearly believable.
This year I am reading familiar words that seem fresher, perhaps because of their unintended absence, but also with the reminder of his work as a nurse, and all the sadness, death and destruction he must have seen. Still he kept coming back as long as the war went on.
Whitman wrote and re-wrote his poems throughout his life. So, while his most famous poem “Song of Myself: A Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” was originally written before the Civil War he continued to refine and edit it his entire life.
Stanza 6 starts
A child said, What is grass? Fetching it to me
with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it
is any more than he.
Who among us has not had a toddler bring us handfuls of fresh grass? Presenting this with joy, amazement and gratitude. The end of this stanza reflects his work as a nurse, caring for many that would die in a time before antibiotics and modern medicine.
All goes onward and outward—and nothing
And to die is different from what any one supposed,
Learn more about Walt Whitman and nursing at the American Association for the History of Nursing https://www.aahn.org/whitman