Walt Whitman's soldiers of inspiration

By Paul Bello, National Museum of Health and Medicine

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Famed American poet and journalist Walter "Walt" Whitman's contributions during the Civil War go beyond the words he put on paper. And out of a near family tragedy came a more profound admiration for the American soldier.

In 1863, Whitman traveled from New York to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to locate his brother George, a soldier in the Union Army whose name appeared in a New York Tribune roster of casualties following the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Whitman would locate his brother, but not before visiting more than 40 Washington hospitals. Inspired by the hardship and plight of those wounded, Whitman continued to visit Washington area hospitals in an attempt to aid those who were sick and in need of care.

His book, Specimen Days, which was first published in 1882, mentions several individuals who received care from Whitman. Specimens from four of these soldiers, in addition to Whitman's record of their suffering, are part of an exhibit on Civil War medicine on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) in Silver Spring, Maryland.

For more information, visit www.medicalmuseum.mil


Caption: Whitman's "New York Soldier": Private Oscar F. Wilber

Private Oscar F. Wilber, Co. G, 154th New York Volunteer Infantry was injured by a shell that fractured his upper femur at the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. Left on the battlefield for 10 days, Wilber was carried to Aquia Hospital, at Aquia Creek Landing, Virginia, where he was treated for 42 days. On June 14, he was transferred to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. Wilber suffered from constant nausea and his condition failed to improve. He died on July 31, 1863. Through Whitman's words, we learn that Wilber was a deeply religious young soldier, unafraid to die. (AFIP 1000513)

(Disclosure: This image has been manipulated by using dodging and burning techniques. It has been cropped to emphasize the subject.) (National Museum of Health and Medicine photo illustration by Matthew Breitbart / Released)