WASHINGTON — American Poet Walt Whitman is renowned for his classic poetry and for his constant attention to the maimed warriors of the Civil War.
With so much attention focused on his literary prowess and on the many hours he spent in the war's hospital wards, little is known about how he made a living in the nation's capital for nearly a decade during and after the Civil War.
On Tuesday, a cache of nearly 3,000 documents in Whitman's handwriting were unveiled by Whitman scholar and co-editor of the whitmanarchive.org website, Kenneth M. Price, at the National Archives. They were part of Whitman's work as a clerk for the U.S. attorney general.
Price, a professor of American literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, came to the National Archives expecting to find a few samples of Whitman's government work. Instead, he discovered a whole string of documents entirely in Whitman's handwriting.
"It was electrifying," Price said. "It's sort of your dream to find a trove of documents by a major writer."
The Whitman documents were in the letter books of the attorney general, which contained office copies of outgoing correspondence. They date from 1865 to 1872.
Whitman came south from New York to find his brother George, who'd enlisted in the Union Army and was wounded near Fredericksburg, Va. George had been only slightly injured, but Whitman was stunned at the sights at the military hospital — the amputated limbs, the wounded, the dead.
He stayed in Washington to help in the hospitals but his day job was working for the government, first in the Department of the Army, then in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and finally in the attorney general's office.
The documents Price discovered date from the latter period.
Some of the letters Whitman transcribed dealt with "all manner of things," Price said. "The trial of Jefferson Davis; there's stuff about railroads and the land to the west, concern about Mormons in Utah, polygamy and issues surrounding that. ... A whole lot of the immediate post-Civil War deal with voting rights" of the Confederate soldiers and the "enfranchisement of African Americans."
Price notes that some scholars thought Whitman was casual in his government work. The documents "paint a different picture." Whitman was complimented on the clarity of his handwriting and his intellect by his employers. The poet later said some of the fellow clerks "work like beavers."
Price noted that Whitman's personal documents tended "to be very messy," but his government documents "are remarkably clean. So what you have is identical letter forms but there are some characteristic letters... he has a 'd' that wraps back and he makes an 'x' in an unusual way. The first few times you see it you don't even think it's an 'x'."
Over the years, Whitman "visited tens of thousands of wounded and sick soldiers in Washington," Price said. He helped "soldiers from both North and South whom he dispensed oranges, stationery, small amounts of cash, candy, bread pudding and love." Several later claimed he'd saved their lives. He wrote "Drum Taps", a collection of poetry, that he later folded into his important collection, "Leaves of Grass."
Price said people think of either Whitman the poet or Whitman visiting the soldiers.
"People don't think of that third life he had going on," his government job. "It's the life that funded the other two lives," Price said.
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