Nursing Across the Ages

by Sean N. Bennett

Walt Whitman



Figure 1. A Portrait of Walt Whitman. Data retrieved from http://http://

Walter Whitman


Walter Whitman – more commonly known as Walt Whitman – was an American poet and journalist of the 18th century. He was born on May 31st, 1819 in America on Long Island. He was a brother to nine other siblings, being the second oldest. In America, he attended a school until the age of 11, where he left to begin working in a press shop. At the age of 23, he was an editor for the daily newspaper in New York, and he proceeded to continue his career in journalism and editing. He was a volunteer nurse for the American Civil War, and he wrote many pieces for the Civil War including Beat! Beat! Drums! for the North. He is often called the father of free verse and is generally known as one of the most important American poets of our time. Walt’s sexuality is still debated today, but many think he was homosexual or bisexual, and he was thought to have had a partner named Peter Doyle. Peter Doyle was a bus conductor whom Walt was inseparable from for almost two years. They wrote a lot about each other, and Peter is most likely to be Walt’s hidden partner. Being a humanist, Walt denied that any one religion was more important than another and accepted all ways of thinking and supported all people. In his work, Song of Myself, you can find his ways of thinking about different religions and how he supported them all. His most popular work was Leaves of Grass, which was very controversial at the time for the blatant sexuality found within. He paid for the first publication of the book, and it ended up being extremely successful. Ralph Waldo Emerson admired Walt’s Leaves of Grass and was a very big fan, writing Walt a letter of praises. Walt had also written a novel called Franklin Evans, and many other works in his lifetime.

Walt During his Childhood

Walt Whitman’s family owned a large piece of farmland that was sold off when Walt was born. His father was wealthy and did well for the family as a farmer, carpenter, and real estate speculator until the farm was sold. Walt’s parents were Democrats and loved America. They named their children after some favorite American historical figures such as George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman. Walt was named after his father Walter Whitman. Walt’s real name is Walter but was immediately nicknamed Walt to not be confused with his father. Walt’s childhood was unhappy and restless due to his father’s bad investments and financial difficulty. Walt was three years old when his father moved the family to Brooklyn to hopefully find new opportunities but they each failed. Due to financial burden, Walt was taken out of school at the age of 11 to help with financial needs. Walt found work at a Brooklyn-based printing business working as an office boy for two lawyers and later became an apprentice. Walt would later become the printer’s devil for the Long Island weekly newspaper the Patriot, which was edited by Samuel E. Clements. This is where he would learn printing press and typesetting. At the age of 16, Walt moved back to New York City. Due to not being able to find work in New York, he moved back with his family in 1836 to Hempstead, Long Island. This is where he began working as a teacher and did so for five years in different parts of Long Island. It was not until 1842 when Walt became interested in journalism. Walt decided to stay optimistic and he once stated, “I stand for the sunny point of view.” Another quote Walt is famous for is, "I am as bad as the worst, but, thank God, I am as good as the best."

Walt and the Civil War

As Walt grew older, he spent more and more time in writing poetry and other literature. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Biography”, Walt was an editor for several newspapers and contributed to many newspapers as well. He loved to write, as that is how he expressed himself. During the Civil War, his brother was reported wounded in action. As stated by the “Encyclopedia of World Biography”, Walt traveled to Virginia in search for his brother, and it is there where Walt had his first experience with war and with healthcare. “He devoted many long hours serving as a volunteer aide in the hospitals in Washington, ministering to the needs of the sick and wounded soldiers” (Encyclopedia of World Biography, p. 2). Walt only wanted to serve and help those in need. It did not matter to Walt who he cared for and he helped both Confederate and Federal soldiers who were wounded on the battlefield. Walt had so much love for everyone and gave them all such great and consistent care. Walt wrote many letters to family members, especially to his mother, while volunteering for the war. One of Walt’s letters states,

“I am continually moving around among the hospitals. One I go to oftenest the last three months is “Armory-square” as it is large, generally full of the worst wounds and sickness and is among the least visited… I spend my evenings at the hospitals, my days often. I give little gifts of money in small sums, which I am enabled to do – all sorts of things indeed, food, clothing, letter stamps (I write lots of letters), now and then a good pair of crutches, etc. Then I read to the boys. The whole ward that can walk gather around me and listen” (Lillie, 2008, p. 42).

Walt had such a yearning and will to help others in need – especially all the wounded soldiers he saw come into the wartime hospitals where he volunteered. These soldiers were fighting for his, and everyone else’s freedom. And Walt wanted to give them a little something in return as a thank you for all they had done.

Walt had been wounded, himself, a few times during the war, but those wounds did not stop him from serving and volunteering. He gave his all. Walt called the war a “national calamity” (Encyclopedia of World Biography, p. 2) and the literature he published after the war portrayed the horror, the anguish, and the loneliness he felt and saw during the time spent volunteering and nursing soldiers back to health during the Civil War.

Walt in search for his Brother

Whether Walt knew it or not, the Civil War would change him forever. His brother, George, served as a soldier in the war. “On Tuesday, December 16, the New York Herald printed a list of soldiers killed or wounded at Fredericksburg” (Genoways, 2012). It was not until later that morning when Walt saw this posting and noticed his brother’s name printed there. He immediately notified his family and made arrangements to travel to the place where the wounded would be taken care of. Walt travelled from New York to Washington D.C. and “pick-pocketed on the ferry along the way” (Genoways, 2012, p. 6). Walt was very poor once he arrived in Washington D.C., but that did not discourage him, he went through all the hospitals, day and night, desperate for any information about his brother. Walt found out, through his brother Jeff, back home, that their brother George’s injuries may not have been serious enough to be taken back to the hospitals in the big city with the other wounded soldiers. After quite the search, Walt finally found George, in Falmouth in Ferrero’s brigade, alive and well. George’s face was injured as he “had sustained a deep gash from a shell fragment”, but he would be just fine (Genoways, 2012, p. 6). Walt sent a letter home, notifying his family of the good news. Walt spent a few days where his brother was being cared for and visited two of the makeshift hospitals that were set up from commandeered manor homes. The sites were horrific and gruesome. Walt stated that “out the doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands,... [and] a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket” (Genoways, 2012, p. 6). This scene had such an impact on Walt, and from it came the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Grey and Dim”, which reads:

A sight in camp in the day-break grey and dim.

As from my tent I emerge so early, sleepless.

As slow I walk in the cool fresh air, the path near by the hospital-tent.

Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there, untended lying.

Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket.

Grey and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious, I halt, and silent stand; Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest, the first, just lift the blanket: Who are you, elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey'd hair, and Oesh all sunken about the eyes? Who are you, my dear comrade? Then to the second I step—And who are you, my child and darling? Who are you, sweet boy, with cheeks yet blooming? Then to the third—a face nor child, nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory: Young man, I think I know you—I think this face of yours is the face of the Christ himself; Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies.

It was this experience that helped Walt decide that he wanted to stay in the hospitals of Washington to help the wounded soldiers there. He felt such a connection with all the soldiers and he had such a desire to be around them and nurse them back to health as best he knew how.

Walt, the Civil War, and Nursing

Whitman was 42 when the Civil War began. According to (Nursing Theory, 2018) Walter was opposed to slavery and supported the free-soil platform, he wanted to give his time to the war, but was often said to have too kind of a heart to be a soldier – no one could imagine Walter hurting a fly. He first started his nursing expeditions at Lacy House, in Falmouth Virginia. He had a low paying clerk job, so he loved to spend a lot of his free time volunteering at the hospitals. You can find that Walt still loved literature throughout his whole life. He spent time writing and creating. There was a piece he wrote specifically for the war and it became quite popular.

The Dresser The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night — some are so young; Some suffer so much — I recall the experience sweet and sad; (Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested, Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.) — Walt Whitman, "The Dresser" (1867, later titled "The Wound-Dresser") (American Express)

Walter was so liked during his time as a nurse, and he was able to make friends wherever he went. An influential friend of Walt’s was named William Hugh McFarland. Walt was able to care for McFarland, and after they parted ways, they still wrote each other and had an unbreakable bond. According to (Murray, M., 1998) Oscar Cunningham was another soldier Walt befriended, being struck by his manliness. He was a young farmer from Delaware who was ready to serve his country. Oscar was heavily wounded, and Walt cared for him while he was ill. Oscar eventually passed away, but Walt wrote to his family all the wonderful things about their brother and son because of how much Whitman cared for others.

Whitman was known for all the greatness he brought wherever he went. Walt praised the nurses and surgeons he worked with, and they praised him in return. The chief surgeon of Armory Square Hospital was awfully fond of Walt and had said, "From my personal knowledge of Mr. Whitman's labors in Armory Square and other hospitals, I am of [the] opinion that no one person who assisted in the hospitals during the war accomplished so much good to the soldier and for the Government as Mr. Whitman." (Murray, M., 1998) Walt was a great example of compassion and care in these difficult times, always bringing light and happiness with him.

Figure 2. Union field hospital in Savage Station, Virginia. Data retrieved from

Life After the Civil War

After the Civil War ended, Walt continued to visit the wounded veterans. This is where he met Peter Doyle who was a Confederate Soldier and a train car conductor. Walt started to have some health issues in the 1860’s and Peter helped to nurse him back to health. The two had a romantic relationship for some time and they went through a lot of hardships together but eventually decided to keep their relationship only as a friendship and nothing more. In the mid 1860’s, Walt found work as a clerk with the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. Walt continued to write and in the 1870’s wrote Democratic Vistas, Passage to India, and the fifth edition to Leaves of Grass. Unfortunately, in 1873, Walt’s health took a dramatic turn and he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed. A few months later, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey to visit his mother who passed away just three days after Walt came to see her. Due to Walt’s health, he could not travel back to Washington, so he stayed in Camden to live with his brother George and his sister-in-law, Lou. In 1882, Walt was able to purchase his own home due to the increasing sales of Leaves of Grass. In March 1892, Walt passed away. Right up to his death, Walt continued to work on Leaves of Grass, which has many editions and over 300 poems. Walt is one of America’s most well-known poets and his work still inspires many individuals today. Washington D.C. has a clinic in memory of Walt called, "Whitman-Walker Clinic."

Suffering from PTSD

The Civil War was very defining for Walt’s life. The Civil War shaped the way Walt thought about and perceived situations, it helped him see humanity in a different light - to him, all people were considered to be his brothers and sisters. During and after the war, Walt’s writing was affected, and most of all, his mental health was compromised. The war was a very emotional time for Walt. During which he was involved in caring for soldiers who had gangrenous limbs, amputations, and even illnesses with diarrhea. Walt saw a lot of death throughout the war and experienced many traumas. According to Hsu, “Whitman began to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with associated psychosomatic illness” (Hsu, 2010). Although PTSD was not an actual mental disorder during Walt Whitman’s time, researchers who have read his works can “strongly suggest that if he were alive today, he would meet the diagnostic criteria for this disorder” (Hus, 2010). Walt would experience horrors, triggers, and nightmares of all kinds. It is stated that “Whitman frequently re-experienced the traumatic event in his mind, as evidenced by his vivid memories, distressing dreams, and seeing of ghosts” (Hsu, 2010). Even the simple touch of a page from one of his notebooks would trigger harsh, emotional pain for Walt. Because these feelings, thoughts, and memories were so difficult for Walt’s mind to handle, “he avoided thoughts, feelings, activities, and even symbolic representations of his experiences” (Hsu, 2010) from the war. It was not easy for Walt to be alone as he would get sick and actually tremble. Walt was also hypervigilant and hardly slept as he had much difficulty falling asleep. Walt’s writing did help some and provided somewhat of an outlet for him to release his high stress levels. His writing also helped him to not harbor so many detrimental and lonely feelings inside. Writing kept Walt busy, and that is what he needed. But still, those notebook pages were sort of like a trigger to Walt. Walt stated, “even these days, at the lapse of so many years, I can never turn their tiny little leaves, or even take one in my hand, without the actual army sights and hot emotions of the time rushing like a river in full tide through me” (Hsu, 2010). Walt would never recover or be able to fully control his PTSD and he suffered with this disorder for the rest of his life.

Walter and Literature

Walter was a great nurse and was known for having a big heart and for caring for those around him. However, Whitman’s true love was literature, and he was much more popular for his revolutionary writing and creations. His love for literature started when he learned the printers trade at the age of 12 years old. Despite having limited education, he was very smart and frequently read Shakespeare and other difficult literature. He later went on to be a teacher, which he wasn’t fond of. He had to work in poor conditions and wasn’t a fan of the work. After, he founded his own paper called the Long Islander and went on to become an editor in 1848. Walters life revolved around writing and creating what his heart desired. As mentioned earlier, his most popular creation was Leaves of Grass. This work celebrated democracy, nature, love and friendship. Walter was definitely ahead of his time, which made Leaves of Grass quite controversial at the time. However, he received endless amounts of praise for the creation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson had an immense amount of admiration for it. Leaves of Grass underwent eight publications, with Walt always trying to make it better than the last. It was very open regarding sex, which made it so controversial. Whitman felt very deeply and wasn’t afraid to express his emotions. Walter is known as one of America’s most influential poets still to this day. He was so much more than just a man with a big heart who cared for wounded soldiers or a poet that loved to write. He was both and these parts played a big role in Walt’s life.

Works of Walt Part One

Walt Whitman was an amazing poet. Although he is most famous for Leaves of Grass, he also wrote many poems about his time during the Civil War. Walt helped many soldiers during this time and wrote a poem called, The Wound Dresser. In this poem, he talks about sitting with the wounded soldiers while trying to help soothe them while silently watching the dead. He goes on to talk about what he sees and what he does for the soldiers. He talks about the bloody bandages, the suffering of the wounded soldiers, the infections, the bullet holes, the fractured bones, and then he goes on to talk about how he will not give up. This poem that he wrote from his experience as a nurse during the Civil War, draws a good picture of what his experiences were like taking care of the wounded and dead soldiers. When he talks about not giving up, he is talking about being exhausted emotionally, physically, and mentally from trying to care for these men but continues anyway. Walt goes on to talk about the blood-stained grass and row after row of wounded soldiers lined up on cots waiting to be cared for and how he does not miss a single soldier. This is the end of the poem by Walt Whitman's, The Wound Dresser:

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad, (Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.) -Walt Whitman

Works of Walt Part Two

One of Walt’s most famous poems was entitled, A Song of Myself, and was basically a biography of Whitman.

Figure 3. Cover: A Song of Myself. Data retrieved from

A Song of Myself

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

Song of Myself gives a great insight into Walt and his views. He was an incredible storyteller and had no trouble expressing his thoughts exactly. Whitman is not only celebrating himself in this poem, but also the rest of mankind. He emphasizes the divinity of the human body, as well as the spiritual self. Something we can learn from this poem about Walt was his love for the universe and those around him. Walter was a very organic being and was appreciative of the world around him. He was very proud to be American and was quite forward about that in more than just this poem.

Song of Myself was just one of the pivotal pieces of literature that Walt produced. As you can see from his writings, he was controversial in his views. You can learn a lot about Walt in his poems. In this particular poem, he indicated that he is a spiritual individual and that he also has a big heart for those around him. Most of Walt’s other pieces followed this same suit.

Works of Walt Part Three

Drum Taps is a sequence of 43 poems about the Civil War. The poems range from talking about getting ready to go to war, witnessing the war, tending to soldiers of the war, and of those he loved during the war. One of the poems is called, A March In The Ranks, Hard Prest. This poem is about Walt's time during the Civil War and what he witnessed in the "hospitals" as a nurse. Walt talks about coming to an opening in the woods to a building full of wounded and dying men. Walking through with a candle, he sees a man bleeding to death, some soldiers are dead and some alive, the smell of blood, surgeons yelling out orders, and some men of the floor while others on stretchers. In the poem he also mentions that it was not just the building that was full of men that needed help but there were also many men outside the building. Bodies were piling up. Walt mentions the screaming of surgeons calling out orders for dying men and dying men yelling out for help. Walt marches through building tending to wounded soldiers, as he stops to help a young dying man who smiles at Walt with open eyes. Just reading through this poem, you can imagine yourself walking through this building and witnessing what Walt witnessed by the way he describes it. One can create a vivid image of the sights, sounds, and smells Walt experienced there.

Figure 4. "Reveille in Camp"-Harper's Weekly, 11 July 1863. Data retrieved from

A March In The Ranks, Hard-Prest

A march in the ranks hard-prest, and the road unknown;
A route through a heavy wood, with muffled steps in the darkness;
Our army foil'd with loss severe, and the sullen remnant retreating;
Till after midnight glimmer upon us, the lights of a dim-lighted building;
We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building;
'Tis a large old church at the crossing roads--'tis now an impromptu hospital;
--Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:
Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,
And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;
By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down; 10
At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)
I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster's face is white as a lily;)
Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o'er the scene, fain to absorb it all;
Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;
Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;
The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers--the yard outside also fill'd;
Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;
An occasional scream or cry, the doctor's shouted orders or calls; The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches;
These I resume as I chant--I see again the forms, I smell the odor; 20
Then hear outside the orders given, Fall in, my men, Fall in; But first I bend to the dying lad--his eyes open--a half-smile gives he me;
Then the eyes close, calmly close, and I speed forth to the darkness, Resuming, marching, ever in darkness marching, on in the ranks,
The unknown road still marching.


Walter Whitman is one of the very few male nurses we have the honor to learn from in history during the time of the Civil War. Walter’s love for literature and writing became very apparent during his childhood and blossomed early on in his life. Walt probably thought that literature and writing would be the main hobbies and works he would have the pleasure of doing for the rest of his life. Becoming a nurse was more than likely the last thing Walt had on his mind, but oh how nursing had such a large impact on his life. Walt did not go looking to become a nurse, but instead, nursing came to him. He was such an amazing nurse and had great compassion for those he cared for; whether they fought for the North or the South, he treated everyone equally. Walt was kind, respectful, loving, and offered care to anyone.

It is so wonderful that we have so many of Walt’s poems that he wrote about all the different aspects of his life; all the thoughts, worries, and wonders that went through his mind. Because of Walt’s poems, we can catch a vivid glimpse of what it was like to be a nurse during the Civil War – the sights, sounds, feelings, etc. Walt expressed everything through his poems and other literature he wrote. Through Walt’s careful and thoughtful words, we can know what it takes to be a compassionate nurse, a loving nurse, a thoughtful nurse, and a selfless nurse.

Walt is a great example to everyone, not only nurses; he treated everyone equally. He wanted to make sure those who were wounded physically or emotionally, received the care they needed. Walt left a lasting impression on those he encountered and always left his patients better than he found them.


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