Walt Whitman at Chatham

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is most 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 manifest itself in his work through images of nature and the common man.

The American Civil War, which imperiled Whitman's beloved Union, also provided the poet with the opportunity to express his dedication to the nation in a different way. In 1862, the 43-year-year-old poet found his brother, Lieutenant George Whitman of the 51st New York, listed among the names of those who had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. In search of George, Walt left home in Brooklyn to come to Fredericksburg. His search included a stop at Chatham Manor which launched his Civil War service as a 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 at numerous times during the war. Known as the Lacy House during the war, 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 rest of the month assisting doctors anyway he could. He dressed wounds, talked and read to the injured solider's, 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 established that 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 that he encountered. Serving Union and Confederate soliders alike, he symbolically saw himself as binding the wounds of the nation, of his beloved Union, as he bound the wounds of the men.

Excerpts from Whitman's book The Wound Dresser

"Began my visits (December 21, 1862) among the camp hospitals in the Army of the Potomac, under General Burnside. Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion [Chatham] on the banks of the Rappahannock, immediately opposite Fredericksburg. It is used as a hospital since the battle, and seems to have received only the worst cases. Outdoors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house [probably the still standing Catalpa tree], I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc. -- about a load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel staves or broken board, stuck in the dirt.

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. Some of the wounded are rebel officers, prisoners. One, a Mississippian--a captain-- hit badly in the leg, I talked with him some time; he asked for papers, which I gave him. (I saw him three months afterward in Washington, with leg amputated, doing well.)

I went through the rooms, down stairs and up. Some of the men were dying. I had nothing to give at that night, but wrote a few letters to folks home, mothers, etc. Also talked to three or four who seemed most susceptible to it, and needing it."

Walt Whitman taken by Mathew Brady. (Library of Congress)
The poet Walt Whitman. Whitman came to Chatham looking for his wounded brother. While at Chatham, Whitman served as a nurse for Union soldiers.

Mathew Brady (Library of Congress)

Last updated: September 7, 2021

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