In the aftermath of the Civil War, American poet Walt Whitman regularly visited wounded soldiers in hospitals in and around Washington, D.C. He handed out change, paper, and little snacks like figs and crackers to the wounded, as he described in an 1864 article for The New York Times. The poet also offered comfort in another way: He wrote letters.
A rare example of Whitman’s literary volunteerism has been discovered tucked away in the National Archives, The Washington Post reports. An archive volunteer working on a project on Civil War widows dug up the letter—one of only a handful that have survived—written by Whitman on behalf of a solider dying of tuberculosis in a Washington hospital.
“Many sick and wounded soldiers have not written home to parents, brothers, sisters, and even wives, for one reason or another, for a long, long time,” Whitman described in his report for the Times. “Some are poor writers, some cannot get paper and envelopes; many have an aversion to writing because they dread to worry the folks at home—the facts about them are so sad to tell. I always encourage the men to write, and promptly write for them.”
New Hampshire infantryman Robert N. Jabo was one of the men who Whitman took it upon himself to aid in contacting his family, according to The Guardian. The sick soldier had a wife and six children who had no idea where he was after the end of the war. In 1866, Whitman penned a letter to inform the family of Jabo’s condition, signing his own name after the soldier’s and describing himself as a friend. The letter ended up in a file with Jabo’s pension records, possibly evidence his wife used to prove that his illness was related to the war.
Kenneth M. Price, an expert from the Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska, authenticated Whitman’s handwriting. The letter will now be kept in a National Archives vault.
See the full letter below:
[h/t The Guardian]
All images courtesy the U.S. National Archives via The Guardian