Most people think of Walt Whitman as a poet and author of “Leaves of Grass” and the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” But Whitman was more — he also served soldiers in the U.S. Civil War and was a delegate of the United States Christian Commission, the organization that would become the Armed Services YMCA.During the Civil War, a group of YMCA members voluntarily provided relief services to U.S. armed forces in nearby encampments. Within seven months, the movement spread across the nation and the first large-scale civilian volunteer service corps in the United States — the United States Christian Commission — was born. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the commission for its efforts during the war.
On Jan. 20, 1863, Whitman was appointed as a delegate of the Christian Commission. His path to the Commission started in December 1862 when he saw his brother George’s name printed in a newspaper’s list of wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia.
Whitman, then 43, left his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., to search hospitals and encampments. According to the Whitman Archive, Whitman received a military pass and found his brother at a Union army camp at Falmouth in Virginia. His brother’s injury was minor — an exploding shell scraped his jaw. Whitman spent about two weeks in Virginia, then traveled by an U.S. Army steamer transporting wounded soldiers to Washington, D.C. He went from man to man on the ship, gathering details to send home to their families.
As a result of this experience, Whitman volunteered to serve in Washington’s war hospitals in early 1863. He became a delegate of the Christian Commission — an unpaid role — and continued visiting hospitals and camps, comforting sick and wounded soldiers.
According to the English Department at the University of Illinois, Whitman brought small gifts for the wounded soldiers, including candy and books. Many soldiers referred to Whitman as Old Man.
Whitman said he benefited more from the soldiers than they did from him, stating they provided “the greatest privilege and satisfaction… and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life.” Warfarehistorynetwork.com elaborates that besides gifts, Whitman kept paper and pens on hand for soldiers wanting to write home — or to write a letter for the soldier who could not.
Whitman estimated that during the war, he had made more than “... 600 visits or tours and went ... among ... 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need.”
The Civil War affected Whitman’s later works, including the famous “Drum-Taps,” published in 1865.
ABOUT Armed Services YMCA:
The Armed Services YMCA is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves currently serving military members and their families. In 2017, we registered more than 250,000 participants and delivered more than 1.3 million points of services to junior enlisted Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen and family members at 200 service centers in 18 states. Whether providing respite child care for parents in need, summer camps for kids, or assisting with emergency needs, Armed Services YMCA is a nonprofit with a mission: Strengthening Our Military Family. Visit our website to see how you can join us in supporting military families.