Not enough beds, enough sponges and clean rags, enough pillowcases. Not enough hospitals. Fifty thousand patients, in a city with a population only half again larger than that. Not enough shovels, neither time nor room to bury the dead. Not enough chaplains, orderlies, nurses, surgeons. No autoclave to sterilize the surgeons’ instruments until 1876, no proven germ theory of disease until 1881, no rubber gloves till 1889. This is 1863, the dome of the Capitol still incomplete. It’s strange how a city under construction can look very much like a city in ruins. In the commandeered larger spaces of new buildings, rows of cots occupied by young men who wore either color of uniform. Bandage and wound, scar and stub are their uniform now. A few will occupy these beds or others like them for months or years, and others for not long at all.
157 years later, in this moment’s medical emergency, it’s impossible to miss the echoes of those years when damaged soldiers arrived in the capital by the tens of thousands. How pushed to the very edge of their capacities those caregivers must have felt, their stamina and spirits exhausted by the vast rows of beds, the bodies stacked in hallways awaiting temporary burial until someone could figure out what to do with them. The awful sense of helplessness, of being ill-equipped, in the face of suffering so grave one could not bear to look at it or to look away.
Walt Whitman hadn’t expected to spend his days in these makeshift wards, but for a time his life came to revolve around them. At home in Brooklyn, he’d watch freshly uniformed young men parade boldly off to war, and in poems that now seem alarmingly naïve, work he’d later regret, he urged others to join the fray. For him the Union was more than a political entity, and passionately it to remain intact. It was the archetype of a democratic compact, 34 states both distinct and merged, a national version of what he sought at the local level, an egalitarian culture founded on our affections for each other, and on what we hold in common, each of us a spark “struck from the float forever held in suspension.” We were of a common substance. “Men and women crowding the streets,” he wrote, “what are they if not flashes and specks?”
When a variant of Whitman’s brother’s name appeared on a list of the wounded, the poet travelled south to try to find him. His pocket was picked on a Philadelphia train platform, and he arrived in D.C. penniless, but forged on toward the Union encampments on the edge of the battlefields. There he found his brother George with only minor wounds, and began his extended encounter with the human body’s terrible vulnerability. In “Song of Myself” he famously celebrated the body’s beauty and ardor, its fragrances, its openness to sensory delight. What then to make of the nearly incomprehensible sight that he described in his notebook: a heap of amputated human limbs discarded there, outside a hospital tent, arms and feet, legs, all in an intimate tangle. It must have seemed like what Emily Dickinson called “a pile of moan,” though of course it was utterly silent.
After his time in the fields of Virginia watching, offering here and there assistance, it was just a few steps to the two years he would spend volunteering in the capital’s wards. He kept men company, brought candies and slices of fruit, brought paper and stamps, read letters to men who could not read them themselves, took dictation, cooled foreheads, listened to their confidences, and held their hands.
He documented his work in notebooks, in news article, and in a troubling poem, “The Wound Dresser,” first published in 1865. He opens the poem with a weirdly decorous, sentimental scene, picturing himself as a beloved old man telling young people about the war, and ends it with an uncomfortable passage proclaiming how much the wounded soldiers loved him. I think he made this fusty, Victorian frame to try to protect himself, and his readers, from the brutal modernity of the poem’s center, an unstinting catalogue of the soldiers’ wounds, offered without figurative speech, distancing devices, or hope. He warns us to “follow without noise and be of strong heart.”
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
` Straight and swift to my wounded I go…
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.
The speaker has to force himself to remember what comes next:
… (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,
` 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.
There are moments of suffering in Whitman’s previous poems, but his habit has been to move briskly from such scenes to some other instance of the variety of human experience. Nowhere else is his gaze so dire and sustained. But “I am faithful,” he writes,
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.)
These passages fix on damage; they refuse to veil horror with abstractions. No nobility or sacrifice here, nor even courage, unless it’s that of the faithful wound dresser. It’s a little unsettling, knowing that the poet who wrote these lines was sending press releases to the Boston Globe, noting that “the poet Walt Whitman” was visiting the nation’s wounded boys. It helps to remember that his era invented marketing. He was perfectly happy, a few years later, posing for a photo with a cardboard butterfly he claimed was real perched on one finger. He was branding Walt Whitman.
But there’s nothing of that in these lines stripped of sonic or rhetorical flourishes. In them, Whitman comes face to face with the unredeemable. Wounds in the bodies of men and in the body of the nation, they represent the darkest and most difficult of challenges to Whitman’s vision. He longed for and prophesied union, a social compact founded upon our mutual affections. He got instead the brutal actuality of those bodies tearing one another apart.
Here, without explicitly saying so, he is making an argument for a difficult sort of poetry. His era was rife with art that seemed to rush toward consolation, finding meaning in moralizing interpretations of suffering, emphasizing sacrifice and the idea of experience as spiritual education. Misery might have value, and pain might elevate or refine the soul. Whitman’s poem suggests that such a reading of the suffering of these soldiers isn’t finally possible. To ennoble their suffering would be a lie; the pain is undeniable fact, and exists in a dimension in which conventional consolation is irrelevant. Whitman wants us to come face to face with the abject, simply because it is real, to look to directly at what is human and broken since we are also of that substance. It is awful to look, awful to turn away.
The secret of consolation is that you don’t have to say things will be all right. In the civil war hospitals, as in our nursing homes and the wards of this city, everything will not turn out all right. The horror of what he has known it plays on inside the speaker, who returns to this scene, “in dreams and silent projections.” He goes back “(open hospital doors)” and he ministers, with “deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.” That seemingly inexhaustible compassion kept an exhausted man going on his rounds. Later it allowed him, perhaps night after night, to revisit those wards. I understand that Whitman didn’t actually dress many wounds, a task probably best left to those trained for it. But in the continuing dream of his poem he does. And he is there in the national psyche as well, going on from one injured person to the next with his calm gaze, and his impassive hand, and his fearless commitment to look at the naked, desiring, damaged human body. Out of that gaze comes his faith in what a democracy might yet become.