Walt Whitman, the world-renowned writer and poet, was also very active
in caring for soldiers during the Civil War. He has been described as
either a famous nurse or a dedicated visitor, but research shows that
no one was more concerned for the welfare of the sick and wounded
Biography of Walt Whitman - Early Life
Walter Whitman, Jr. was born in New York on May 31, 1819, the second of nine children.
The family was poor, and Whitman described his childhood as unhappy because of their
economic problems. His formal schooling was over at age 11, and Whitman was largely
self-educated. He was drawn to literature and studied the classics on his own. At the
age of 12, he was introduced to the printing trade and began to write. Over the years,
he held a variety of jobs as a printer, journalist, editor and teacher. For a time, he
was editor of the New Orleans Crescent, and while living in New Orleans, he saw the
tragedy of slave markets. This led him to write
I Sing the Body Electric.
In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of
Leaves of Grass
that he would
spend the rest of his life editing and revising. Leaves of Grass was a very
controversial publication. Although Ralph Waldo Emerson and others praised the book
of free verse, many thought it was obscene and too sensual.
The Civil War Years
When the Civil War started in 1861, Whitman became a freelance writer and visited
soldiers in New York hospitals. When his brother was wounded in 1862, Walt went to
Fredericksburg, Virginia, to care for him and was so affected by what he saw on the
battlefield that he volunteered to care for the soldiers. He traveled with the wounded
that were being transferred to Washington, planning to stay just a few days but stayed
for 11 years.
At that time, there was no formal training for nurses. Those who called themselves nurses
learned by doing and, for the most part, gave medicines, fed patients and kept the hospitals
clean. During the Civil War, male nurses outnumbered female nurses and, many times, were
recovering soldiers. However, the huge number of wounded and sick soon made it necessary
to allow women to be nurses as well.
Hospitals were set up all over Washington with only a few being in buildings that were
built specifically to be medical facilities. Because of poor sanitation and diet, a
larger percentage of soldiers died from chronic diarrhea and typhoid fever than from
Whitman was unable to find a well-paying job in Washington because of his reputation
as the author of Leaves of Grass and was forced to take a low-paying clerk's
job. He spent almost all of his free time at the military hospitals caring for the
wounded and ill soldiers. He tried to provide anything that the soldiers needed,
bringing them food, writing letters and attending to their physical needs. Often
spending his own money for supplies, he did all he could to bring them comfort. He
was with many soldiers as they drew their dying breaths.
Armory Square Hospital was one of Whitman's favorite hospitals, and he praised the
work of the doctors and nurses there. Many of them praised his work as well. However,
in spite of the care that Whitman provided for the soldiers as a volunteer nurse, some
nurses did not like him. One refused to speak to him and resented the time he spent
with patients. There could be several reasons for their dislike. He was the author
of a book that many people considered obscene, he advocated a "magnetic touch" that
disturbed them and some considered him effeminate and perhaps even gay.
After The Civil War
Whitman remained in Washington after the war, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs
and the Attorney General's Office. One of the surgeons from the Armory Hospital tried
to secure a pension for Whitman, saying that no one had done more for the soldiers and
the government than Walt Whitman. The pension was denied, but he did receive a commendation.
In 1883, a stroke forced Whitman to leave Washington and move to his brother's home.
He never recovered but did continue to write until his death in 1892.