Cases from Armory Square Hospital

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John Hartwell

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Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C..jpg

[Library of Congress photo]

Walt Whitman, during his years bringing help and comfort to the sufferers in Washington hospitals, kept a series of notebooks, with brief remarks on his daily activities. He also identifies (often just by initials) individual patients, with brief comments on their cases. Careful examination of the surviving notebooks show Whitman’s records to be quite accurate, though with the occasional error (incorrect regiment assignment is most common error). But, even men identified only by initials can usually be verified. Here are a few of the surviving ones from Armory Square Hospital, Washington, 1863-4:

"The soldiers are nearly all young men, and far more American than is generally supposed—I should say nine-tenths are native-born. Among the arrivals from Chancellorsville I find a large proportion of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois men. As usual, there are all sorts of wounds. Some of the men fearfully burnt from the explosion of artillery caissons. One Ward has a long row of officers, some with ugly hurts. Yesterday was perhaps worse than usual. Amputations are going on—the attendants are dressing wounds. As you pass by, you must be on your guard where you look. I saw the other day a gentleman, a visitor apparently from curiosity, in one of the Wards, stop and turn a moment to look at an awful wound they were probing, &c. He turn'd pale, and in a moment more he had fainted away and fallen on the floor.​
"June 18.—In one of the Hospitals I find Thomas Haley, Co. M, Fourth New York Cavalry—a regular Irish boy, a fine specimen of youth—shot through the lungs—inevitably dying—came over to this country from Ireland to enlist—has not a single friend or acquaintance here—is sleeping soundly at this moment, (but it is the sleep of death)—has a bullet-hole straight through the lung.......I saw Tom when first brought here, three days since, and didn't suppose he could live twelve hours—(yet he looks well enough in the face to a casual observer.) He lies there with his frame exposed above the waist, all naked, for coolness, a fine built man, the tan not yet bleach'd from his cheeks and neck. It is useless to talk to him, as with his sad hurt, and the stimulants they give him, and the utter strangeness of every object, face, furniture, &c., the poor fellow, even when awake, is like a frighten'd, shy animal. Much of the time he sleeps, or half sleeps. (Sometimes I thought he knew more than he show'd.) I often come and sit by him in perfect silence; he will breathe for ten minutes as softly and evenly as a young babe asleep. One time as I sat looking at him while he lay asleep, he suddenly, without the least start, awaken'd, open'd his eyes, gave me a long, long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear silent look—a slight sigh—then turn'd back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover'd near." [GSW, Snicker’s Gap; died Armory Square Hospital]​
"W. H. E., Co. F., Second N. J.—His disease is pneumonia. He lay sick at the wretched hospital below Aquia Creek, for seven or eight days before brought here. He was detail'd from his regiment to go there and help as nurse; but was soon taken down himself. Is an elderly, sallow-faced, rather gaunt, gray-hair'd man; a widower, with children. He express'd a great desire for good, strong, green tea. An excellent lady, Mrs. W., of Washington, soon sent him a package; also a small sum of money. The doctor said give him the tea at pleasure; it lay on the table by his side, and he used it every day. He slept a great deal; could not talk much, as he grew deaf. Occupied bed 15, Ward I, Armory. (The same lady above, Mrs. W., sent the men a large package of tobacco.)" [William H. Earle, actually 27th N.J.. A short time later, Whitman noted the death of "Mrs. W's tea-man."]​
"J. G. lies in bed 52, Ward I; is of Co. B, Seventh Pennsylvania. I gave him a small sum of money, some tobacco and envelopes. To a man adjoining, also gave 25 cents; he flush'd in the face, when I offer'd it—refused at first, but as I found he had not a cent, and was very fond of having the daily papers, to read, I prest it on him. He was evidently very grateful, but said little.​

"J. T. L., of Co. F., Ninth New Hampshire, lies in bed 37, Ward I. Is very fond of tobacco. I furnish him some; also with a little money. Has gangrene of the feet, a pretty bad case; will surely have to lose three toes. Is a regular specimen of an old-fashion'd, rude, hearty, New England country man, impressing me with his likeness to that celebrated singed cat, who was better than she look'd." [John T. Lund returned to Suncook, N.H., after the war; Unable to work because of his disability, he attempted to obtain a pension, but was unsuccessful. In 1869, Lund was arrested and placed in a cell in the Suncook police station. He was burned to death in a fire set by himself and two other prisoners.]​
"Bed 3, Ward E, Armory, has a great hankering for pickles, something pungent. After consulting the doctor, I gave him a small bottle of horse-radish; also some apples; also a book.........Some of the nurses are excellent. The woman nurse in this Ward I like very much. (Mrs. Wright—a year afterwards I found her in Mansion House Hospital, Alexandria—she is a perfect nurse.)​
"In one bed a young man, Marcus Small, Co. K, Seventh Maine—sick with dysentery and typhoid fever—pretty critical, too—I talk with him often—he thinks he will die—looks like it indeed. I write a letter for him home to East Livermore, Maine—I let him talk to me a little, but not much, advise him to keep very quiet—do most of the talking myself—stay quite a while with him,—talk to him in a cheering, but slow, low, and measured manner—talk about his furlough, and going home as soon as he is able to travel.​
"Thomas Lindly, First Pennsylvania Cavalry, shot very badly through the foot—poor young man, suffers horribly, has to be constantly dosed with morphine, his face ashy and glazed, bright young eyes—give him a large handsome apple, tell him to have it roasted in the morning, as he generally feels easier then, and can eat a little breakfast. I write two letters for him.​
"Opposite, an old Quaker lady is sitting by the side of her son, Amer Moore, Second U.S. Artillery—shot in the head two weeks since, very low, quite rational—from hips down, paralyzed—he will surely die. I speak a very few words to him every day and evening—he answers pleasantly—is a handsome fellow—wants nothing—(he told me soon after he came about his home affairs, his mother had been an invalid, and he fear'd to let her know his condition.) He died soon after she came."​
 
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John Hartwell

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Some cases attracted Whitman's particular interest, and he mentions them several times in the notebooks and in his letters. They are often terribly hard reading.
"One young New York man, with a bright, handsome face, had been lying several months from a most disagreeable wound, receiv'd at Bull Run. A bullet had shot him right through the bladder, hitting him front, low in the belly, and coming out back. He had suffer'd much -- the water came out of the wound, by slow but steady quantities, for many weeks -- so that he lay almost constantly in a sort of puddle -- and there were other disagreeable circumstances. He was of good heart, however. At present comparatively comfortable; had a bad throat, was delighted with a stick of horehound candy I gave him, with one or two other trifles."
Elsewhere, Whitman writes of this man:
"Spent a large part of the day in Armory Sq. Hospital--saw Johnny Mahay, Ward E, in one of his spasms of pain."
"Ward E. bed 30 John Mahay, co A 101st N.Y. Vol scene at his side, Saturday aft. 14th Feb--excruciating agony for about half an hour--the water ran out of his eyes--the muscles of his face distorted, but he bore it all groanless, and --hot cloths were applied, and relieved him in a little while--poor fellow--so young--a mere boy, yet so old in suffering--he never knew the comfort of parents--was put in one of the city institutions in N Y at nine years old--was bound out to a tyrannical master in Sullivan county--(the marks are on J.Ms his back where the villain beat him with a club, named Gurkin"
In a letter to soldier Thomas P. Sawyer, dated Washington, D.C., April 21, 1863, Whitman writes,
"Johnny Mahay does not get any better, in Ward E. He is going to have an operation performed on him by Dr. Bliss."
In a letter to soldier Lewis K. Brown, dated Washington, D.C., August 1, 1863, Whitman writes,
"I saw Johnny Mahay in ward E--poor fellow, he is very poorly, he is very thin, & his face is like wax".
In a letter to Lewis Brown, dated Washington, D.C., August 15, 1863, Whitman writes,
"Poor Johnny Mahay is not in very good spirits--he was to have an operation performed before Bliss went, but he went off & did not do it--Johnny is pretty low some days."
Private John Mahay, of Andes, N.Y., had received a gunshot wound to the bladder at 2nd Manassas on August 29, 1862. He arrived at Armory Square Hospital on September 9th, and remained there until his death on October 24, 1863.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Respect for Whitman grows daily. He didn't just document his experiences, these are those of everyone who nursed wounded. I don't know how he did it- you've seen as many accounts as me, nurses unable to speak of it decades later.

So valuable, thanks very much.
 
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