Army Hospitals and Cases

Memoranda at the Time, 1863—66.

by Walt Whitman.

            Hospitals Ensemble, August, September, and October, 1863.— I am in the habit of going to all, and to Fairfax Seminary, Alexandria, and over Long Bridge to the great Convalescent Camp. The journals publish a regular directory of them—a long list. As a specimen of almost any one of the larger of these hospitals, fancy to yourself a space of three to twenty acres of ground, on which are grouped ten or twelve very large wooden barracks, with, perhaps, a dozen or twenty, and sometimes more than that number, small buildings, capable altogether of accommodating from 500 to 1000 or 1500 persons. Sometimes these wooden barracks, or wards, each of them perhaps from 100 to 150 feet long, are ranged in a straight row, evenly fronting the street; others are planned so as to form an immense V; and others again are ranged around a hollow square. They make altogether a huge cluster, with the additional tents, extra wards for contagious diseases, guardhouses, sutler’s stores, chaplain’s house; in the middle will probably be an edifice devoted to the offices of the surgeon in charge and the ward surgeons, principal attachés, clerks, etc. The wards are either lettered alphabetically, Ward G, Ward K, or else numerically, 1, 2, 3, etc. Each has its ward surgeon and corps of nurses. Of course, there is, in the aggregate, quite a muster of employees, and over all the surgeon in charge. Here in Washington, when these army hospitals are all filled (as they have been already several times), they contain a population more numerous in itself than the whole of the Washington of ten or fifteen years ago. Within sight of the Capitol, as I write, are some thirty or forty such collections, at times holding from 50,000 to 70,000 men. Looking from any eminence and studying the topography in my rambles, I use them as landmarks. Through the rich August verdure of the trees, see that white group of buildings off yonder in the outskirts; then another cluster half a mile to the left of the first; then another a mile to the right, and another a mile beyond, and still another between us and the first. Indeed, we can hardly look in any direction but these clusters are dotting the landscape and environs. That little town, as you might suppose it, off there on the brow of a hill, is indeed a town, but of wounds, sickness, and death. It is Finley Hospital, north-east of the city, on Kendall Green, as it used to be called. That other is Campbell Hospital. Both are large establishments. I have known these two alone to have from 2000 to 2500 inmates. Then there is Carver Hospital, larger still, a walled and military city regularly laid out, and guarded by squads of sentries. Again, off east, Lincoln Hospital, a still larger one; and, half a mile farther, Emory Hospital. Still sweeping the eye around down the river towards Alexandria, we see, to the right, the locality where the Convalescent Camp stands, with its 5,000, 8,000, or sometimes 10,000 inmates. Even all these are but a portion. The Harewood, Mount Pleasant, Armory Square, Judiciary Hospitals, are some of the rest, and all large collections.

            Summer of 1864.— I am back again in Washington, on my regular daily and nightly rounds. Of course there are many specialties. Dotting a ward here and there are always cases of poor fellows, long suffering under obstinate wounds, or weak and disheartened from typhoid fever, or the like; marked cases, needing special and sympathetic nourishment. These I sit down and either talk to or silently cheer them up. They always like it hugely (and so do I). Each case has its peculiarities, and needs some new adaptation. I have learnt to thus conform—learnt a good deal of hospital wisdom. Some of the poor young chaps, away from home for the first time in their lives, hunger and thirst for affection; this is sometimes the only thing that will reach their condition. The men like to have a pencil, and something to write in. I have given them cheap pocket-diaries, and almanacs for 1864, interleaved with blank paper. For reading I generally have some old pictorial magazines or story-papers — they are always acceptable. Also the morning or evening papers of the day. The best books I do not give, but lend to read through the wards, and then take them to others, and so on; they are very punctual about returning the books. In these wards, or on the field, as I thus continue to go round, I have come to adapt myself to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn, every one justified and made real under its circumstances; not only visits and cheering talk and little gifts, not only washing and dressing wounds (I have some cases where the patient is unwilling any one should do this but me), but passages from the Bible, expounding them, prayer at the bedside, explanations of doctrine, etc. (I think I see my friends smiling at this confession, but I was never more in earnest in my life.) In camp and everywhere, I was in the habit of reading or giving recitations to the men. They were very fond of it, and liked declamatory poetical pieces. We would gather in a large group by ourselves, after supper, and spend the time in such readings, or in talking, and occasionally by an amusing game called the game of twenty questions.

Whitman, Walt; “Army Hospitals and Cases. Memoranda at the Time, 1863-66,” The Century Magazine, Volume 36, Issue 6, October, 1888, pp. 825 – 830, New York: The Century Company

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