Weekly Whitman: Not Such a Merry Christmas

Leuitenant Colonel George Washington Whitman

Walt Whitman’s mother raised a couple of very unusual sons. One was Walt, of course—the other was George Washington Whitman, Walt’s little brother. As soon as the war began and he could get his effects in order, George volunteered for the Union Army. He originally joined the 13th New York Militia, then transferred to the 51st New York Volunteers, where he served to the end of the war. After shell particles injured George to the jaw during the Battle of Fredericksburg, his older brother rushed to his side to nurse him back to health. George returned to duty after his recovery.

On September 30, 1864, George and most of his regiment were taken prisoner at Poplar Grove Church. He spent time in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison and was later transferred to Danville’s military prison hospital. The Whitman family was not sure exactly where George was on December 26, 1864, and their uncertainty put a pall on any holiday celebrations, as did the New York weather. Whitman’s personal effects had been sent northward, but no information about George. Walt’s journal at the time reflects both melancholy and uncertainty:

Brooklyn, N.Y. December 26, 1864

I am writing this in the front basement in Portland Avenue, Brooklyn, at home. It is after 9 o’clock at night. We have had a wet day with fog, mud, slush, and the yet unmelted hard-polished ice liberally left in the streets. All sluggish and damp, with a prevailing leaden vapor. Yesterday, Christmas, about the same.

George’s trunk came up express early in forenoon today from City Point, Virginia (Walt’s brother Capt. George Whitman, 51st New York). Lieutenant Babcock, of the 51st, was kind enough to search it out and send it home. It stood some hours before we felt inclined to open it. Towards evening, Mother and Eddy looked over the things. One could not help feeling depressed. There were his uniform coat, pants, sash, etc. There were many things reminded us of him. Papers, memoranda, books, knick-knacks, a revolver, a small diary, roll of his company, a case of photographs of his comrades (several of them I knew as killed in battle), with other stuff such as a soldier accumulates.

Mother looked everything over, laid out the shirts to be washed, the coats and pants to hang up, and all the rest were carefully put back. It made me feel pretty solemn. We have not heard from him since October 3rd, either living or dead we know not.

Looking over George’s diary, merely a skeleton of dates, voyages, and places camped in or marched through, battles fought, etc…. I can realize clearly that by calling upon even half, even a tithe, of the myriads of living and actual facts which go along with and fill up this dry list of times and places, it would outvie all the romances in the world and most of the famous histories and biographies, to boot.

It does not need calling in play the imagination to see that in such a record as this lies folded a perfect poem of the war, comprehending all its phases, its passions, the fierce tug of the Secessionists, the interminable fibre of the National Union, and all the special hues and characteristic forms and pictures of the actual battles – rifles snapping, cannon thundering, grape whirling, armies struggling, ships at sea or bombarding shore batteries, skirmishes in woods, great pitched battles – all the profound scenes of individual death, courage, endurance, and superbest hardihood, and splendid muscular wrestle of a newer, larger race of human giants – with all furious passions aroused on one side and unalterable determination on the other…

            Walt Whitman’s Civil War, edited by Walter Lowenfels


A holiday thank-you to Civil War Talk, who turned me on to this source.


4 Responses to Weekly Whitman: Not Such a Merry Christmas

  1. Just did my own research and learned that George Whitman did indeed survived the war and moved to Camden,New Jersey where he died in 1901

  2. As an FYI, “The Petersburg Campaign” Vol. 2 (Edwin C. Bearss with Bryce A. Suderrow) calls the action the Battle of Peebles’ Farm, and describes the situation thusly:

    “Hampton told Lee to attack. Placing himself at the head of the 9th and 10th Virginia, Rooney Lee rode off. The dismounted troopers advanced out of the earthworks covering the Boydton Plank Road and through the pines in line of battle, holding their fire until the last moment. Striking the left and rear of Curtin’s first line, the troopers quickly effected a junction with MacRae’s right flank units — the 11th and 52nd North Carolina. Three of Curtin’s regiments (the 45th Pennsylvania, 58th Massachusetts, and 51st New York) found themselves encircled. Unable to fight their way out of the trap, the men grounded their arms.”

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