Visited Armory-square hospital, went pretty thoroughly through wards E and D. Supplied paper and envelopes to all who wish’d – as usual found plenty of men who needed those articles. Wrote letters.
Saw and talk’d with two or three members of the Brooklyn 14th regt. A poor fellow in ward D, with a fearful wound in a fearful condition, was having some loose splinters of bone taken from the neighborhood of the wound. The operations was long, and one of great pain – yet after it was well commenced, the soldier bore it in silence. He sat up, propp’d – was much wasted – had lain a long time quiet in one position (not for days only but weeks,) a bloodless, brown-skinn’d face, with eyes full of determination – belong’d to a New York regiment. There was an usual cluster of surgeons, medical cadets, nurses, &c., around his bed – I thought the whole thing was done with tenderness, and done well.
In one case, the wife sat by the side of her husband, his sickness typhoid fever, pretty bad. In another, by the side of her son, a mother – she had told me she had seven children, and this was the youngest. (A fine, kind, healthy, gentle mother, good-looking, not very old, with a cap on her head, and dress’d like home – what a charm it gave to the whole ward.) I liked the woman nurse in ward E – I noticed how she sat a long time by a poor fellow who just had, that morning, in addition to his other sickness, bad hemorrhage – she gently assisted him…he was so weak he could only just turn his head over on the pillow.
Walt Whitman; February 4, 1863
One of the largest hospitals in Washington D.C. during the Civil War, Armory Hospital was located along the Capitol Mall – basically on the modern location of the National Air & Space Museum. Built in 1862 in the new pavilion hospital style, the facility included twelve wards and additional tents, housing 1,000 beds.
Well-organized, this hospital is a good example of a base hospital in the Letterman system. Sick or wounded soldiers from the Virginia battlefields could be evacuated from the field hospitals to this large hospital. Close the Potomac River, the Armory Hospital offered a relative evacuation route for soldiers needing medical care.
Walt Whitman – Volunteering during the Civil War
In 1862, Walt Whitman traveled to Virginia, searching for one of his brothers who was wounded. Seeing the need for civilian nurses in the hospitals, Whitman volunteered and was present at some of the field hospitals after the Battle of Fredericksburg. By early 1863, he lived in Washington D.C., working part-time at the army paymaster’s office, and continue to work in the hospitals. Later in the year, some of his hospital observations and experiences were published in a New York paper.
Whitman’s prose about Civil War medicine has helpful details for researchers – like today’s excerpt – giving clues about common scenes in the hospital facilities. They also serve as a reminder that many of the assistants and volunteers in Civil War hospitals were men. Female nurses tend to receive a lot of attention, but it’s also important to note the service of civilian men who also volunteered to work among the sick, wounded, and dying.
Whitman’s writings about Civil War hospitals helps to fill in the details about those hospital wards. What happened? Who was there? What did they look like? What did they do? As a writer, he was trained to observe and record, but he didn’t neglect to write the emotional responses and little details that add “color” to accounts.
In today’s excerpt, we glimpse a surgery scene with the patient’s grim determination and the bevy of medical personnel, assistants, and on-lookers. We see the pathos of family members sitting with sick loved ones and the tenderness of a kind nurse, unwilling to leave an ailing patient. Certainly, Whitman wasn’t the only writer to record such scenes, but his give the details and even his own opinions about circumstances or characters, helping us draw a better image of Civil War medical experiences in a Washington Hospital early in 1863.