Civil War Medicine: So . . . Just What is a Wound Dresser? 

Poet & Wound Dresser Walt Whitman in about 1864

Walt Whitman, American poet extraordinaire, is also well known for working in the hospitals around the Washington area during the Civil War. Initially a huge proponent of the conflict, he wrote poetry and newspaper columns that almost literally beat the drum of war. Disunion was anathema to any “true American,” according to the good gray poet. Then reality hit home.

Whitman’s family had several children named for founding fathers, and one–George Washington Whitman– was ten years younger than Walt and of an age to enroll in the Union army. After the attack on Fort Sumter, George joined his local militia, the 13th New York, in 1861. However, he immediately joined the 51st New York Volunteers when the shorter militia enlistment ran out. When his unit served at the Battle of Fredericksburg, George’s cheek and jaw were wounded by shell particles. Although his wound was not life-threatening, brother Walt, with the support and reassurance of Mother Whitman, rushed to Washington, then on to Fredericksburg, to nurse his younger brother. Walt Whitman was never the same man after he saw the real war, though his support of the North was unwavering.

George Washington Whitman

The experience at his brother’s camp in the Fredericksburg area moved Whitman to continue to aid “… this vast army of the wounded and the sick,” lodged at the hospitals in the Washington area. (29) Walt began his hospital visits on December 21, 1862, among the camp hospitals in the Army of the Potomac under General Burnside. The term “camp hospital” is a bit ambiguous. Generally speaking, there were two types of hospitals during the Civil War: field hospitals and general hospitals. Field hospitals were located near the front lines and served as an initial treatment center for soldiers evacuated from the battlefield. General hospitals were military hospitals either explicitly erected for the purpose or by the taking over of private homes, clubs, churches, school buildings, government offices such as the Patent Office, and hotels. These latter were where soldiers spent weeks or months attempting to recover. Camp hospitals were a type of field hospital built temporarily where the army had fought a battle and would be staying for a longer time than just a few days.

Walt Whitman had no health care training, but this did not stop him from showing up most mornings at hospital tents and mansions. Near Fredericksburg, he wrote, “I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc.–about a load for a one-horse cart.” (30) He noticed every gruesome detail surrounding the hospital but entered and proceeded to distribute newspapers, converse with the sick and wounded, and write a few letters to “folks home.” (30)

Whitman returned to the capitol in January 1863, accompanying a large group of casualties that traveled by train and boat to Washington and points north. After settling in Washington, Whitman began creating a new career. He visited several hospitals daily, including the one occupying the Patent Office. He noted a curious scene. “. . .crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded, and dying soldiers.” lying between “high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine, or invention.” (Specimen Days) In Washington, Whitman’s friend Charley Eldridge helped him obtain part-time work in the army paymaster’s office, leaving time for Whitman to volunteer as a nurse in the army hospitals. Once Whitman got some money from the charitable donations of friends in New York and a small salary, he could refine his offerings to the patients. Many needed small sums of money to buy a beverage from a rolling cart, which was allowed to enter the hospitals and charge the men for items like a glass of milk or a piece of pie. He also brought them stationary and pre-paid envelopes, oranges, apples, sweet crackers, figs, jams and jellies, and one day a “four-pound bag of gingersnaps I bought at the baker’s in Seventh street.” (33) Whitman’s presence was not always welcome. Doctors cautioned him, for his own good, “to beware of continuing too steady and long in the air and influences of the hospitals.” Nevertheless, they became used to seeing him on the wards and asked him regularly if he could help by dressing wounds. Whitman’s poem “Wound Dresser” is included below, published posthumously in his book of the same name.

Lincoln Hospital, Washington

Battle after battle loaded the hospitals of Washington up with patients just as soon as they had begun to clear. Walt Whitman was there to perform many services for “his” boys: he read to them, wrote for them, and got them better, cleaner clothing. He treated them often to a “splendid dish of ice-cream” on Sunday nights. (72) Very little was cheerful, however. Whitman was significantly affected by his surroundings. In a letter to his mother, he writes:

I have seen so much horrors that befall men (so bad and such suffering and mutilations, etc.,) that I sometimes think I have grown callous–but no, I don’t think it is that, but nothing of ordinary misfortune seems as it used to, and death itself has lost all its terrors–I have seen so many cases in which it was welcome and such a relief. (92-93)

For three years, Walt Whitman tended hospital patients in Washington. He fought minor illnesses and depression and moved from one salaried government to another. He continued to live in Washington, working for the Department of the Interior until June 30, 1865. Then, the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, fired Whitman from his job, perhaps on moral grounds, after a copy of Leaves of Grass was left on Harlan’s desk. Then, in January 1873, Whitman suffered a paralyzing stroke. He returned to New York, where he died in 1892.

Whitman wrote, “Such was the war… Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutia; of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested.” Luckily for today’s historians, he was wrong. We learn more about the American Civil War almost daily. And if not for Walt Whitman, “The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp. . . ” might still be hidden from view.

  *    *    *

The Wound-Dresser

1

An old man bending I come among new faces,

Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,

Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,

(Arous’d and angry, I’d 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;)

Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,

Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)

Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,

Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

2

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,

What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,

Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,

In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,

Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,

Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,

(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,

While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,

So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,

With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,

Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,

Straight and swift to my wounded I go,

Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,

Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,

Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,

To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,

To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,

An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,

Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,

With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,

I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,

One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,

Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

3

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)

The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)

The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,

Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,

(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!

In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,

I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,

Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,

His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,

And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,

But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,

And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,

Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,

While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,

The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,

These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

4

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,

Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,

The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,

I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,

Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,

(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,

Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

__________________________________

All quotes from Whitman’s posthumously published Walt Whitman, The Wound Dresser or Male Nurse, edited by Richard Maurice Bucke, M.D.; Squid Ink Classics, Boston, MA 2017.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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4 Responses to Civil War Medicine: So . . . Just What is a Wound Dresser? 

  1. Douglas Miller says:

    Walt Whitman certainly wasn’t the only one to change his mind about war after he had actually experienced what it meant.

    My own Great Grandfather, Andrew Tow, was a teenage Norwegian immigrant when he witnessed a slave auction before the war. This turned him into an abolitionist and he enlisted in the Union Army. We know he was at Vicksburg, but not any details.

    However, after seeing war first hand, he became a Quaker Pacifist and raised his family accordingly.

    Later he became a successful farmer in Norway, Iowa, lived a long life, and is buried next to his twin brother Lars in their cemetery.

    He never let his kids say they were “starving”.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Douglas Miller
      Just to see what information was out there, I went to Google and had a look at “NPS Soldier and Sailor” database; entered “Private Andrew Tow, Infantry Regiment” in search box and found a likely “hit” with “Andrew Tow, 35th Regiment, Iowa Infantry.” Next tried iagenweb.org “Special Projects” and clicked on “Iowa in the Civil War” and followed the link to “BGen Guy Logan’s History of Iowa Soldiers in the War of the Rebellion” and opened Volume 5 to view the record and roster of the 35th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Andrew Tow (spelled Towe) is recorded in Company I, and enlisted from Cedar Rapids aged 25 on 15 AUG 1862. Nativity indicated as Norway.
      http://iagenweb.org/civilwar/books/logan/mil704.htm
      All the best
      Mike Maxwell

  2. mark harnitchek says:

    thanks … had no idea Whitman was a hospital volunteer/wound dresser … another reason to like this great American.

  3. grandadpookers says:

    I just returned from a week of walking some trails @ Antietam and Gettysburg. Thanks for publishing this story and moving poem to help my continuing reflection on what I saw.

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