Whitman wrote many letters for sick and injured Civil War soldiers that he met in the various hospitals he visited in Washington, D.C.: some he wrote as if he were the soldier, speaking in the soldier’s voice and signing the soldier’s name, and others he wrote in his own name, reporting on the soldier’s condition to members of his family. This letter to the parents of a young soldier named Erastus Haskell—a carpenter from Elmira, New York, and a fife player for his infantry band—is remarkable both for its length and for the variety of relationships that the poet claims to have had with Erastus. “I am only a friend,” Whitman tells Mr. and Mrs. Haskell toward the beginning of his letter, but, as he recounts the intensity of his care for Erastus, we can feel his sense of the relationship deepen: “Somehow I took to him,” Whitman says, and, by the time he describes his continuing visits to the sick young man’s bedside (Erastus was suffering from typhoid fever), we sense something beyond friendship—“sometimes when I would come in, he woke up, & I would lean down & kiss him, he would reach out his hand & pat my hair & beard a little, very friendly, as I sat on the bed & leaned over him.” As the soldier’s mind begins to go, Whitman’s voice would take on a paternal tone: “Erastus, don’t you remember me, dear son?” And the more the young man sinks toward death, the more Whitman’s feelings intensify: “I felt he was one I should get very much attached to.” As Whitman describes Erastus’ death to his parents, he cannot help falling at one point into an apostrophe (as we saw him do in “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up”), turning away from addressing Mr. and Mrs. Haskell to directly addressing, now, the dead soldier who has somehow been transformed into his own departed son—“Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying here.” It is as if Erastus in fact had three parents, the two absent ones back in New York and the surrogate one who was fully present at his bedside, who was there to hold him as he died; it was Whitman, after all, “to whom you gave your dying kiss.”
The critic Peter Coviello has written movingly of how Whitman, through “his acts of surrogacy” in the hospital, queered and blurred the usual relational roles of “mother, father, nurse, lover, confidant, scribe,” and began to imagine a new kind of family emerging out of his “project of queer generation,” one that was realized when a couple of the soldiers he had nursed, held, kissed, mothered, fathered, loved, and even dreamed of buying a small house with and living together when the war ended, ended up naming their sons after Walt, as if to recognize and honor a double paternity—the queer offspring of a love born in the rank squalor of the Civil War hospitals.
When, late in his life, Whitman came across a draft of this letter, he offered it to his young friend Horace Traubel to read, telling him that Erastus “was a pitiful, though after all only a specimen, case: they died all about us there just about in the same way—noble, sturdy, loyal boys.” Whitman recalls to Traubel that, while in the hospitals, he “always kept an outward calm in going among them—I had to, it was necessary, I would have been useless if I hadn't—but no one could tell what I felt underneath it all—how hard it was for me to keep down the fierce flood that always seemed threatening to break loose.” We sense here the same necessary repression of emotion that we experienced in “The Wound-Dresser,” where the narrator contained and controlled—literally held in—his emotions in a series of parentheticals. When Traubel read the letter, Whitman was touched by his young friend’s strong emotional reaction and gently said, “I see that you understand it. Well, I understand it too. I know what you feel in reading it because I know what I felt in writing it. When such emotions are honest they are easily passed along.” Traubel asked: “Do you go back to those days?” And Whitman answered: “I do not need to. I have never left them. They are here, now, while we are talking together—real, terrible, beautiful days!”
Whitman’s “terrible, beautiful” oxymoron says it all: those intense days of the war, roaming the hospitals that were filled with the wounded and dying, that were filled with young men like Erastus Haskell in need of a mother, father, comrade, and lover, were as “terrible” as they were “beautiful”—a time when the intensity of passion was everything, when, among the dying, the poet most completely experienced love. Whitman wrote one more time to Mr. Haskell, a month after Erastus’ death, affirming that “death has not blotted out my love for him, the remembrance will be not sad only but sweet.” This heartbreaking tension defined the war for Whitman—a thing of sadness and sweetness, terror and beauty, in which the horror could never be extricated from the love. This was the very fabric—the warp and woof—of Whitman’s war.
August 10 1863
Mr and Mrs Haskell,
Dear friends, I thought it would be soothing to you to have a few lines about the last days of your son Erastus Haskell of Company K, 141st New York Volunteers. I write in haste, & nothing of importance—only I thought any thing about Erastus would be welcome. From the time he came to Armory Square Hospital till he died, there was hardly a day but I was with him a portion of the time—if not during the day, then at night. I had no opportunity to do much, or any thing for him, as nothing was needed, only to wait the progress of his malady. I am only a friend, visiting the wounded & sick soldiers, (not connected with any society—or State.) From the first I felt that Erastus was in danger, or at least was much worse than they in the hospital supposed. As he made no complaint, they perhaps [thought him] not very bad—I told the [doctor of the ward] to look him over again—he was a much [sicker boy?] than he supposed, but he took it lightly, said, I know more about these fever cases than you do—the young man looks very sick, but I shall certainly bring him out of it all right. I have no doubt the doctor meant well & did his best—at any rate, about a week or so before Erastus died he got really alarmed & after that he & all the doctors tried to help him, but without avail—Maybe it would not have made any difference any how—I think Erastus was broken down, poor boy, before he came to the hospital here—I believe he came here about July 11th—Somehow I took to him, he was a quiet young man, behaved always correct & decent, said little—I used to sit on the side of his bed—I said once, You don't talk any, Erastus, you leave me to do all the talking—he only answered quietly, I was never much of a talker. The doctor wished every one to cheer him up very lively—I was always pleasant & cheerful with him, but did not feel to be very lively—Only once I tried to tell him some amusing narratives, but after a few moments I stopt, I saw that the effect was not good, & after that I never tried it again—I used to sit by the side of his bed, pretty silent, as that seemed most agreeable to him, & I felt it so too—he was generally opprest for breath, & with the heat, & I would fan him—occasionally he would want a drink—some days he dozed a good deal—sometimes when I would come in, he woke up, & I would lean down & kiss him, he would reach out his hand & pat my hair & beard a little, very friendly, as I sat on the bed & leaned over him.
Much of the time his breathing was hard, his throat worked—they tried to keep him up by giving him stimulants, milk-punch, wine &c—these perhaps affected him, for often his mind wandered somewhat—I would say, Erastus, don't you remember me, dear son?—can't you call me by name?—once he looked at me quite a while when I asked him, & he mentioned over in[audibly?] a name or two (one sounded like [Mr. Setchell]) & then, as his eyes closed, he said quite slow, as if to himself, I don't remember, I dont remember, I dont remember—it was quite pitiful—one thing was he could not talk very comfortably at any time, his throat & chest seemed stopped—I have no doubt at all he had some complaint besides the typhoid—In my limited talks with him, he told me about his brothers & sisters by name, & his parents, wished me to write to his parents & send them & all his love—I think he told me about his brothers living in different places, one in New York City, if I recollect right—From what he told me, he must have been poorly enough for several months before he came to Armory Sq[uare] Hosp[ital]—the first week in July I think he told me he was at the regimental hospital at a place called Baltimore Corners not many miles from White House, on the peninsula—previous to that, for quite a long time, although he kept around, he was not at all well—couldn't do much—was in the band as a fifer I believe—While he lay sick here he had his fife laying on the little stand by his side—he once told me that if he got well he would play me a tune on it—but, he says, I am not much of a player yet.
I was very anxious he should be saved, & so were they all—he was well used by the attendants—poor boy, I can see him as I write—he was tanned & had a fine head of hair, & looked good in the face when he first came, & was in pretty good flesh too—(had his hair cut close about ten or twelve days before he died)—He never complained—but it looked pitiful to see him lying there, with such a look out of his eyes. He had large clear eyes, they seemed to talk better than words—I assure you I was attracted to him much—Many nights I sat in the hospital by his bedside till far in the night—The lights would be put out—yet I would sit there silently, hours, late, perhaps fanning him—he always liked to have me sit there, but never cared to talk—I shall never forget those nights, it was a curious & solemn scene, the sick & wounded lying around in their cots, just visible in the darkness, & this dear young man close at hand lying on what proved to be his death bed—I do not know his past life, but what I do know, & what I saw of him, he was a noble boy—I felt he was one I should get very much attached to. I think you have reason to be proud of such a son, & all his relatives have cause to treasure his memory.
I write to you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country's cause—Poor dear son, though you were not my son, I felt to love you as a son, what short time I saw you sick & dying here—it is as well as it is, perhaps better—for who knows whether he is not better off, that patient & sweet young soul, to go, than we are to stay? So farewell, dear boy—it was my opportunity to be with you in your last rapid days of death—no chance as I have said to do any thing particular, for nothing [could be done—only you did not lay] here & die among strangers without having one at hand who loved you dearly, & to whom you gave your dying kiss—
Mr and Mrs Haskell, I have thus written rapidly whatever came up about Erastus, & must now close. Though we are strangers & shall probably never see each other, I send you & all Erastus' brothers & sisters my love—
I live when home, in Brooklyn, N Y. (in Portland avenue, 4th door north of Myrtle, my mother's residence.) My address here is care of Major Hapgood, paymaster U S A, cor 15th & F st, Washington D C.
Imagine what the parents of Erastus Haskell must have felt upon receiving this letter detailing his final days. Grief, certainly. Then surprise, and bewilderment, and perhaps anger as questions rose inevitably in their minds. Who is this Walt Whitman? What was his relationship to Erastus? Who or what granted him the license to speak at such length, in such a familiar tone? Why did the doctor refuse to heed his warnings about their son’s deteriorating health? What more could have been done to save his life? How will we live without him?
It was not uncommon during the Civil War for a soldier to write to a fallen comrade’s loved ones, assuring them that at the time of his death he remained faithful to God and thus was destined to be rewarded in the afterlife. While Whitman affirms in his letter to the Haskells that they have every reason to be proud of their son, his description of Erastus’s state of mind contains no hint of religiosity; for he had another aim in mind: “I write to you this letter, because I would do something at least in his memory—his fate was a hard one, to die so—He is one of the thousands of our unknown American young men in the ranks about whom there is no record or fame, no fuss made about their dying so unknown, but I find in them the real precious & royal ones of this land, giving themselves up, aye even their young & precious lives, in their country’s cause.” Royalty for this advocate of democracy resides in the blood of the soldiers who gave their lives to the radical cause of freedom, the cornerstone of the American experiment—and of Whitman’s poetics.
His condolences take a strange turn with his declaration of love, first in a familial sort of way, as he assumes the role of doting father, and then as the recipient of Erastus’s dying kiss. If for this poet freedom flourished in a union of comrades and kindred spirits, which was at the same time a microcosm of the Union shattered by the Confederate secession, then it is easy to understand why he pinned all his hopes on young men like Erastus, whose suffering and death permanently marked him. No wonder the momentum of his writing carried him beyond the occasion, and beyond decorum, impelling him to directly address the dead: “So farewell, dear boy.” The Haskells must have read these lines in shock—and then inconsolable grief. How could they know when they set the letter down that their lives would be inextricably intertwined with someone they would never meet—a grey-bearded poet who took the time to tell them something true?
A letter of condolence can take many forms, and though the writer is generally cautioned to keep it short, out of respect for the grieving, there are occasions when more is more. Think back over your attempts to offer solace to someone who has suffered a great loss: is there anything in Whitman's letter to the Haskells that might have helped you find the words to express what he or she meant to you?
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