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Walt Whitman Writes about a Soldier's Love

Walt Whitman was one of America’s most influential poets in the 19th century, as well as an essayist and journalist. Whitman served as a nurse during the Civil War, where he developed close relationships with several of the men he tended. During this time, he frequently wrote about the curative power of “adhesiveness,” or deep love between men, which he considered a vital part of caring for the wounded and the sick. These excerpts are from his Civil War reporting and were published in the New York Times, one of several newspapers he wrote for during the war.

AUGUST, SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, &c.—
I continued among the hospitals in the same manner, getting still more experience, and daily and nightly meeting with most interesting cases. Through the winter of 1863–4, the same. The work of the Army Hospital Visitor is indeed a trade, an art, requiring both experience and natural gifts, and the greatest judgment. A large number of the visitors to the hospitals do no good at all, while many do harm. The surgeons have great trouble from them. Some visitors go from curiosity—as to a show of animals. Others give the men improper things. Then there are always some poor fellows in the crises of sickness or wounds, that imperatively need perfect quiet—not to be talked to by strangers. Few realize that it is not the mere giving of gifts that does good: it is the proper adaptation. Nothing is of any avail among the soldiers except conscientious personal investigation of cases, each one for itself; with sharp, critical faculties, but in the fullest spirit of human sympathy and boundless love. The men feel such love, always, more than anything else. I have met very few persons who realize the importance of humoring the yearnings for love and friendship of these American young men, prostrated by sickness and wounds.

HUMAN MAGNETISM AS A MEDICAL AGENT.
To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world. I have spoken of my regular gifts of delicacies, money, tobacco, special articles of food, nick-nacks, &c., &c. But I steadily found more and more, that I could help and turn the balance in favor of cure, by the means here alluded to, in a curiously large proportion of cases. The American soldier is full of affection, and the yearning for affection. And it comes wonderfully grateful to him to have this yearning gratified when he is laid up with painful wounds or illness, far away from home, among strangers. Many will think this merely sentimentalism, but I know it is the most solid of facts. I believe that even the moving around among the men, or through the ward, of a hearty, healthy, clean, strong, generous-souled person, man or woman, full of humanity and love, sending out invisible, constant currents thereof, does immense good to the sick and wounded.

Source | Whitman, Walt. “Our Wounded and Sick Soldiers.” New York Times, December 11 1864, https://whitmanarchive.org/published/periodical/journalism/tei/per.00200.html
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | “Walt Whitman Writes about a Soldier's Love,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 23, 2021, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2682.

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