Profiles in Nursing
Walt Whitman, American Writer and Civil War Nurse
You probably recognize Walt Whitman as a famous American poet. Most of us have heard of Leaves of Grass, and some even memorized lines from the mournful “O Captain! My Captain!”
Few know Whitman as a nurse, and yet his service to nursing was exemplary. He wasn’t, of course, registered or even formally trained. He lived long before either recognition existed, yet his years as a nurse included service harsher and more demanding than many modern nurses will ever see.
Initially, Whitman trained as a printer. He also taught for a while in one-room schoolhouses on Long Island, eventually becoming a journalist, editor and poet. First published in 1855, Leaves of Grass is still considered a timeless classic, available at your local bookstore.
Whitman found the human body captivating. He saw it as a part of a glorious nature and wrote often of healthy and vigorous men at work. Rail workers, barge operators, ferrymen, all whose occupations required physical strength, appealed to him the most. When they were injured, and their injuries could be serious, Whitman visited them at New York Hospital, writing letters, bringing gifts, offering comfort.
All things American interested him, especially the geography and politics. His travels took him everywhere, including New Orleans. The reality of the slave markets made a lasting impression on him. He couldn’t but contrast New Orleans with Boston — where ex-slaves shared equally in the city’s life.
Volunteering as a nurse
At the start of the Civil War, Whitman was already in his forties and too old to enlist. Like many others, he thought the war would last a few weeks. Several of his brothers (he was one of nine children) did join.
Initially he stayed in New York and began to visit soldiers convalescing in that city’s hospitals. Some of “the most agreeable evenings of my life” (Walt Whitman archives) were with these patients, and his work “City Photographs” came of this experience. Even though the nursing was light, what we now would consider volunteer work, in many ways it prepared him for the ordeal ahead.
The horror, the horror
In 1862 his brother George was injured and taken prisoner in Virginia. Whitman went to care for him and encountered, in a way few civilians do, the horrors of war: men dead, injured, and broken. Outside one mansion in use as a hospital, he encountered a “heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands” (Walt Whitman archives).
Through his work, he gained the trust of the battlefield doctors. Soon he was in charge of a trainload of wounded being transferred to boats for a trip up the Potomac. Whitman moved to Washington D.C. and volunteered his services for the rest of the war.
During this time he cared for thousands of injured men, usually in “hospitals” like the former Patent Office. And his compensation? With slim wages from the Indian Bureau and royalties from freelance journalism, he was able to buy items for the wounded and support their care. His time, well, that he donated free.
The extraordinary service he gave took a toll on his own health and changed his poetry forever. Several works like “Drum-Taps” (1865) are the direct result of his service during the bloodiest conflict our nation has endured.
Aroused and angry,
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign'd myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.
Whitman died in 1892 in Camden, New Jersey.
Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.