Walt Whitman at Chatham

"The house is quite crowded, everything impromptu, no system, all bad enough, but I have no doubt the best that can be done; all the wounds pretty bad, some frightful, the men in their old clothes, unclean and bloody." Walt Whitman describing Chatham Manor

Photo of Walt Whitman and Pete Doyle
Walt Whitman and his Confederate soldier friend Pete Doyle in 1865

Library of Congress

Walt Whitman is best known today as a great American poet, yet many of his contemporaries viewed him differently. Whitman's collection of poems entitled Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, revealed both an unconventional style and themes. His use of free verse challenged traditional literary forms and his open references to the human body threatened the widely held moral beliefs of his time, prompting a literary scandal and public condemnation. However, literary artists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson did support certain aspects of Whitman's work, most notably his conception of his role as an American poet. Whitman fervently believed in the notion that he, as a poet, served as the symbolic representation of the nation, that he was both the celebrant and embodiment of the nation. This understanding of the poet's position stemmed from Whitman's intense Americanism and passion for the Union, and manifested itself in his work through images of nature and the common man.

The Civil War, which imperiled Whitman's beloved Union, also provided the poet with the opportunity to express his patriotic dedication in a different way. In 1862, the 43-year-old poet found his brother, Lieutenant George Whitman of the 51st New York Infantry, listed among the names of those wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. In search of George, Walt left home in Brooklyn to go to Fredericksburg. His search included a stop at Chatham Manor, which launched his service as a wartime nurse and rejuvenated his creative writing.

Perched on a hillside across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Chatham's ideal location and large size made it popular as a Union headquarters several times during the war. Known then as the Lacy House, Chatham had been converted into a field hospital in the bloody aftermath of the battle. Whitman did not find his brother at Chatham, who it turned out suffered only a slight facial wound, but he saw for the first time the horrors of war and was deeply moved. Wounded men were crowded into every available space inside the house and outside in tents. Amputated arms and legs were thrown out in a large pile under a tree. Whitman noted the horrible sanitary conditions and lack of medical help. He remained in the area through the month assisting doctors however he could. He dressed wounds, talked and read to injured soldiers, and wrote letters home for them. Whitman carefully recorded his thoughts and experiences on scraps of bloodstained paper that he folded over and stuck together with pins. He would eventually have dozens of these little notebooks and would publish many of them, leaving sensitive and touching reflections on the war and the men who fought in it.

At the end of December 1862, Whitman left Fredericksburg and went to Washington, D.C. There he spent the next three years working at various hospitals, where he "went among from 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as a sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need." Whitman was profoundly touched by his hospital visits and the men whom he encountered. Serving Union and Confederate soldiers alike, he symbolically saw himself as binding the wounds of the nation, of his beloved Union.

Last updated: February 4, 2015