Sunday, May 29, 2022

Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier

Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Photograph of a ward in Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C., c. 1862–65. Frank H. Irvin was admitted to this hospital after being wounded in Virginia. (Library of Congress)
The following introduction is adapted from headnotes that appear in The Civil War: The Second Year (edited by Stephen W. Sears) and The Civil War: The Final Year (edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean).

Walt Whitman was living in Brooklyn and working as a freelance journalist when he learned that his brother George, a captain with the 51st New York Infantry, had been wounded at Fredericksburg. Whitman traveled to Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from the battlefield, and discovered that his brother’s wound was slight. After visiting army hospitals and camps around Falmouth, he accompanied a group of wounded soldiers as they were evacuated to Washington by train and steamboat. Whitman would remain in the capital for the next eighteen months, visiting military hospitals while working as a government clerk. He described his time with the Army of the Potomac in Specimen Days (1882), drawing on accounts he had previously published in The New York Times in 1864; in “’Tis But Ten Years Since,” a series of six articles that appeared in the New York Weekly Graphic in 1874; and in Memoranda During the War (1875).

In one passage from Specimen Days, Whitman wrote about the fatally wounded soldiers who never reached hospitals and were never buried in marked graves:
No history ever—no poem sings, no music sounds, those bravest men of all—those deeds. No formal general’s report, nor book in the library, nor column in the paper, embalms the bravest, north or south, east or west. Unnamed, unknown, remain, and still remain, the bravest soldiers. Our manliest—our boys—our hardy darlings; no picture gives them. Likely, the typic one of them (standing, no doubt, for hundreds, thousands,) crawls aside to some bush-clump, or ferny tuft, on receiving his death-shot—there sheltering a little while, soaking roots, grass and soil, with red blood—the battle advances, retreats, flits from the scene, sweeps by—and there, haply with pain and suffering (yet less, far less, than is supposed,) the last lethargy winds like a serpent round him—the eyes glaze in death—none recks—perhaps the burial-squads, in truce, a week afterwards, search not the secluded spot—and there, at last, the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown.
Whitman also included in his book a letter he sent to the mother of a 22-year-old Union soldier who had been wounded near Petersburg in the last weeks of the war, and we reprint that letter below as our Story of the Week selection for Memorial Day.

Notes: Frank H. Irvin (spelled Irwin by Whitman), of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania, enlisted on September 26, 1864, was wounded on March 25, 1865, and died on May 2 (rather than May 1, as Whitman has it); his mother, Margaret Tweedy, a widow, received a military pension of $8 a month. See the Whitman's Memory website, which has additional details of soldiers memorialized by the poet.

Fort Fisher was a large Union earthwork south of Petersburg, Virginia, built after the battle of Peebles Farm, September 30–October 2, 1864. D. Willard Bliss was the chief surgeon of Armory Square Hospital, 1862–65.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce Whitman’s letter, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs.

Death of a Pennsylvania Soldier

Frank H. Irwin, company E, 93d Pennsylvania — died May 1, ’65 — My letter to his mother. —Dear madam: No doubt you and Frank’s friends have heard the sad fact of his death in hospital here, through his uncle, or the lady from Baltimore, who took his things. (I have not seen them, only heard of them visiting Frank.) I will write you a few lines—as a casual friend that sat by his death-bed. Your son, corporal Frank H. Irwin, was wounded near fort Fisher, Virginia, March 25th, 1865—the wound was in the left knee, pretty bad. He was sent up to Washington, was receiv’d in ward C, Armory-square hospital, March 28th—the wound became worse, and on the 4th of April the leg was amputated a little above the knee—the operation was perform’d by Dr. Bliss, one of the best surgeons in the army—he did the whole operation himself—there was a good deal of bad matter gather’d—the bullet was found in the knee. For a couple of weeks afterwards he was doing pretty well. I visited and sat by him frequently, as he was fond of having me. The last ten or twelve days of April I saw that his case was critical. He previously had some fever, with cold spells. The last week in April he was much of the time flighty—but always mild and gentle. He died first of May. The actual cause of death was pyƦmia, (the absorption of the matter in the system instead of its discharge.) Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing, &c. He had watches much of the time. He was so good and well-behaved and affectionate, I myself liked him very much. I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him, and soothing him, and he liked to have me—liked to put his arm out and lay his hand on my knee—would keep it so a long while. Toward the last he was more restless and flighty at night—often fancied himself with his regiment—by his talk sometimes seem’d as if his feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for something he was entirely innocent of—said, “I never in my life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.” At other times he would fancy himself talking as it seem’d to children or such like, his relatives I suppose, and giving them good advice; would talk to them a long while. All the time he was out of his head not one single bad word or idea escaped him. It was remark’d that many a man’s conversation in his senses was not half as good as Frank’s delirium. He seem’d quite willing to die—he had become very weak and had suffer’d a good deal, and was perfectly resign’d, poor boy. I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good. At any rate what I saw of him here, under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpass’d. And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service. Such things are gloomy—yet there is a text, “God doeth all things well”—the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul.

I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while—for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him. I am merely a friend visiting the hospitals occasionally to cheer the wounded and sick.
W. W.

From Specimen Days & Collect (1882–83).