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One North, One South
By David H. Jones
Staghorn Press Copyright © 2008 David H. Jones
All rights reserved.
DEATH AND REMEMBRANCE
ARMORY SQUARE HOSPITAL WASHINGTON, D.C. MAY 28, 1865
Moonlight glimmered on the distant capitol dome and cast long shadows from the gothic towers and battlements of the Smithsonian Institute. To the west, the partially completed shaft of the Washington Monument appeared like a giant white chimney protruding from the dark landscape. Between these edifices were fields filled with temporary streets and wooden buildings. Bathed in the dim light was a city transforming itself from a military bastion consumed by the business of war to a city intent on governing the once-again United States.
Within a span of six weeks, Washington had celebrated the cessation of hostilities, suffered the assassination of a president, and witnessed a grand review of the victorious Army of the Potomac. The surrender of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House effectively ended the War of the Rebellion. While the carnage had ceased, thousands of soldiers from both sides languished in military hospitals situated not far from where the great battles were fought.
A large, middle-aged man with a full beard and kind face, wearing a wide-brimmed hat pushed back on his head walked along the deserted street with a purposeful stride. Better known for his poems and writings, Walt Whitman was now seeking to provide solace and comfort to the maimed and the dying within the forlorn wards of Armory Square Hospital. It was to be his small part in the distinguishing event of his time, a cruel war that almost irreversibly fragmented the United States of America. Neglecting his primary vocation, Whitman held a part-time job as a clerk in the Army Paymaster's Office and used his meager wages to buy candy and writing paper for soldiers whom he visited in Washington-area hospitals.
Arriving at his destination, Whitman mounted the steps of the hospital administration building, pulled open the heavy door, and entered the reception room. Near the entrance was a large table, behind which sat a U.S. Army hospital steward busily recording entries in medical ledgers that detailed the pain and suffering of those in his charge. The hospital steward looked up and greeted him with a friendly smile. Whitman shared the horror of this place and his contribution of time and heart made life more tolerable for the patients and the hospital staff that cared for them.
"Good evening, Mr. Whitman. It's always good to see you."
"Good evening, Simpson. I've missed seeing you for several weeks. Have you been on a leave of absence?"
Edwin Simpson smiled. "Yes, sir. Thank God I was able to get a furlough and be away from this place for a short while. I was visiting with my family in Philadelphia, and I enjoyed every blessed moment of it."
"It's always grand to return to home and hearth," Whitman replied.
Simpson leaned back in his chair. "You know, Mr. Whitman, I have to be here. I'm a soldier, and it's my duty. Why do you do it? Why do you give so much of yourself to these poor fellows?"
Whitman stared at the hospital steward for a moment, lost in his own thoughts, then re-focused and spoke softly. "It began when my brother George was wounded at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. I immediately traveled to the field hospital where he was being treated and found, to my great relief, that his wound was only superficial. As I looked around me, I was horrified. Seeing the amputation, agony, and suffering of those men who had the misfortune of being wounded in battle led me to help convey them from the front to hospitals around Washington." The flickering candlelight made the solemnity of Whitman's expression even more pronounced. He searched within himself for a more complete answer. "Since that time, I've been compelled to do this work as so many men are facing a painful, lonely death. Perhaps, in my own way, I too am a soldier in this war."
Simpson was an astute observer who stayed in the background and made it his business to know what everyone was thinking and saying about others. He knew that a few female nurses were unsettled by Whitman's almost motherly affection for the wounded men, but he chose not to comment on the minority view. "Mr. Whitman, I can tell you that most of the hospital medical staff considers you to be a godsend. We greatly appreciate the kindness and consideration that you give to these poor men. The truth of the matter is that we're consumed with administering to broken bodies. We hardly have time to spend tending to their loneliness and sorrow." He leaned forward and quickly flipped through several pages of his ledger before finding what he was seeking. "There's a young fellow in Ward D, bed seventeen, who will surely benefit from your kindness tonight. He had a leg amputated above the knee at a field hospital, but serious complications have set in and his condition is steadily worsening. He probably won't last but another week or two."
Entering the ward, Whitman waved a silent greeting to the ward master sitting at his desk. He also gave a cordial "good evening" to Helen Wright, one of his favorite nurses. He knew her to be among the most competent and compassionate at Armory Square, a hospital that treated only the most severely injured soldiers. Its location near the steamboat landing at the foot of Seventh Street, S.W., and the tracks of the Washington and Alexandria Railroad meant that arriving soldiers too ill to travel far would be assigned to this military hospital. He passed nurse Amanda Akin without an exchange of greetings. Whitman knew that she could barely tolerate him and he found it easy to ignore her vexation. He continued walking down the center of the long, high-ceilinged pavilion, counting the narrow iron-framed beds lining each side.
Standing beside bed seventeen, Whitman looked down at the patient, his vision aided by both lustrous moonlight flooding through the large windows and candlelight reflecting from the whitewashed board walls. What he saw was a young man with his right leg amputated above the knee, feeble, yet restless, and apparently unable to sleep. Whitman leaned forward to peer into his morphine-glazed eyes and watched as the young man slowly began to focus on his visitor.
"Is there anything I can do for you, or get for you?" Whitman asked.
The reply was faint. "Please, some water."
Whitman picked up the pitcher from the bedside table and poured a cup. He carefully lifted the soldier's head and shoulders and gave him a drink.
"Thank you for your kindness, sir."
After lowering the soldier's head to the pillow, Whitman sat down in a chair beside the bed, lingering and not yet sure what he could do. Resorting to the simplest of human connections, he took the pale hand lying closest to him on the bed covers and held it.
The young man appeared to be about twenty years old, but Whitman knew that trauma often obscured age. Pondering over the patient's countenance, he sensed a greater maturity than he'd first perceived and confirmation of his belief that large doses of morphine retarded the healing process.
Whitman was startled when the young man began to speak. "I hardly think you know who I am. I don't wish to impose upon you. I'm a Rebel soldier. My name is William Prentiss. I was a private in the Confederate 2nd Maryland Infantry Battalion."
As he assured the young man that this made no difference to him, Whitman decided that he would stay with William through the final hours, whenever they occurred. He had witnessed hospital death many times, but knew that it would inflict great anguish and heartache upon him.
They settled into a dialogue that surged, and then waned, as William traversed from an alertness diminished by pain and medication to complete oblivion. In his conscious moments, he wanted to talk, and over the course of several hours, Whitman learned that William was a Baltimorean, very intelligent and well bred, from a good and well-regarded family. He also learned that William had a brother, a Union officer of rank, who was a patient in another ward of the hospital.
Whitman visited William every night over the next few weeks, and they talked for hours, sometimes regarding things of little consequence, but more often about his family and wartime experiences. William often held Whitman's hand, putting it to his face, comforted by the affection so sincerely given, not willing to let Whitman leave him alone with his pain and apprehension. An embrace accompanied each parting.
ARMORY SQUARE HOSPITAL WASHINGTON, D.C. JUNE 23, 1865
William's condition had steadily declined in the ensuing weeks. When Whitman arrived in the early evening, he could see that these would be the final hours of William's life. The medical staff had vacated the nearby beds and stopped by frequently to see that William was as comfortable as possible. The full extent of their healing powers had been reached and nothing more could be done to save the young man.
As the night progressed in the long, shadowy ward, William's lucid moments became farther and farther apart until he was barely conscious. Through it all, Whitman held the dying youth's hand, kissed him, and spoke gently to him, letting him know that he was not alone. As dawn's first light touched the windowpanes of the hospital ward, William Scollay Prentiss quietly took his last breath. His painful journey was over.
Whitman sat still at the bedside, gathering his strength and reflecting upon the loss of this young man who had revealed so much of himself to Whitman over the past few weeks. He thought of his own wartime journey and how his view of man and democracy was transformed and forever altered. At the beginning, he was a staunch pro-Union, anti-slavery journalist and poet, wildly enthusiastic about a war that most people believed would only last a few short months until the Union was gloriously restored. But it was not to be. The spectacle of the defeated Federal army pouring into Washington after the First Battle of Bull Run in late July of 1861 foretold a long and costly struggle.
Whitman's abhorrence of slavery and his belief in the Union had endured, but his exhilaration at the onset of war had been tempered by his firsthand observation of the courage and suffering without complaint of hospitalized soldiers of both the North and South. In his mind, the humanity, manliness, bravery, and devotion of the individual soldiers was what should be remembered about the war, not egotistical generals and grand battle strategies.
Hearing footsteps behind him, Whitman stood and turned to face an army doctor and a nurse on their rounds.
"Has the young man passed away, Mr. Whitman?" the doctor asked.
"Yes, Dr. Bliss, he has, about five minutes ago," Whitman replied, his voice disclosing a deeply felt weariness from the long night spent at William's bedside.
Dr. D. Willard Bliss, chief surgeon of Armory Square Hospital and a man who Whitman respected as one of the best military doctors, looked at his gold pocket watch and made a brief notation in his record book. The nurse, after listening for a heartbeat in William's chest, carefully placed a bed sheet over his body.
"Did you know that this young man was a Rebel?" Dr. Bliss asked.
"Yes, I'm aware of that fact, but it's of no consequence," Whitman replied with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
"Then you realize that we have an unusual circumstance to deal with," Dr. Bliss remarked. Whitman merely stared at him, but the doctor pressed on. "Private Prentiss has an older brother who happens to be a Union officer and is a patient in another ward of this hospital. His name is Major Clifton Prentiss."
"I learned from William that his brother was also here, but I've not had the opportunity to become acquainted with Major Prentiss," Whitman replied.
Dr. Bliss removed his spectacles, put them in his pocket, and adjusted his coat. He continued. "When I observed that William had taken a turn for the worst several days ago, telegraph messages were sent to the elder Prentiss brothers. One is a Union Army doctor now living in Baltimore and the other resides in New York. I received a reply last night advising that they will arrive in Washington early this morning."
"That's most appropriate. I'm only sorry that they didn't arrive in time," Whitman replied.
"Would you be so kind as to accompany them when they tell Major Prentiss that his younger brother has died. Whilst I know that this request is an imposition upon you, Mr. Whitman ..."
Whitman put up his hand to silence Dr. Bliss.
"Thank you, Mr. Whitman." Dr. Bliss began to move along with the nurse in making their rounds. "Please come to my office in an hour or so, which should be about the time of arrival for John and Melville Prentiss."
Whitman walked over to a nearby window and stared out at the narrow strip of grass between Ward D and the identical pavilion next to it. Golden early-morning sunlight reflected brightly from the upper portion of the whitewashed exterior wall, leaving the ground cloaked in dark shadows. He turned to stare at William's sheet-covered body, remembering the courage of the young man and the noble manner in which he had conducted his short life. Whitman, suddenly overwhelmed with a profound sense of loss, was unable to remain in the same ward where he spent the long night beside William's deathbed. He quickly walked out the door to visit soldiers in nearby wards, unconsciously choosing to spend time with several who were clearly not suffering from mortal wounds.
* * *
An hour later, Dr. Bliss was seated in his office in the hospital administration building. On the other side of his desk were Dr. John H. Prentiss, Jr. and T. Melville Prentiss. Well-practiced at expressions of sympathy, Dr. Bliss began this conversation as he had done so many times before. "I wish to convey my most sincere personal condolences to you both over the passing of William, your youngest brother. In the time that he was a patient here, I had the opportunity to become well-acquainted with him. He was a very good man and endured his medical difficulties with great fortitude and forbearance."
Dr. Prentiss replied with the same banal tone he had often used himself. "Thank you very much, Dr. Bliss. Melville and I greatly appreciate your kind words. We know that you and your staff provided the best possible medical care for William. I'm aware from your periodic reports and my brief visits to Armory Square Hospital that his physical deterioration and death were due to the severity of the original wound and the surgery thereafter."
"Sadly, the dire complications that developed from his leg amputation were impossible to overcome," Dr. Bliss acknowledged. "Prior to this post, I was Surgeon of the 3rd Michigan Infantry and know the difficulties involved with amputation in field hospitals, particularly when deluged by soldiers with horrific wounds." Noting the well-styled civilian clothing worn by Dr. Prentiss and sensing a good opportunity to change the subject, Dr. Bliss asked Dr. Prentiss if he had completed his army service.
"Yes," replied Dr. Prentiss, "I mustered out several weeks ago and am in the process of establishing my private practice in Baltimore. I'm quickly learning that there is much involved...."
Melville was disinclined to allow the conversation to become medical shoptalk. "What can you tell us, Dr. Bliss, about the circumstances of William's passing?"
"Ah, pardon me, Mr. Prentiss," Dr. Bliss replied, floundering for an instant. "I can address that at best with secondhand information. Walt Whitman, the noted poet and writer, was the only person at William's bedside when he passed away."
"I'm pleased to know that William was not alone when he died," Melville replied, a trace of repugnance in his voice. "Being from Brooklyn, I know who Walt Whitman is. He lived nearby for a number of years. I'm not personally acquainted with him, but I know people who are."
Dr. Bliss was taken back by Melville's disdainful tone. "You should be aware from newspaper accounts that Walt Whitman has comforted thousands of wounded, sick, and dying soldiers in a number of hospitals over the past few years. In my opinion, no other person has accomplished as much good as Mr. Whitman has for these patients with his compassionate care."
Melville responded as a man who took his religion quite seriously. "We are eternally grateful to you and to your staff, and of course to Mr. Whitman, for the splendid treatment and consideration bestowed upon our poor brother William. God bless you for all you have done to help these broken and mutilated men."
"You're welcome, Mr. Prentiss," Dr. Bliss replied. "I'm quite fortunate to have an excellent medical staff. I'll be sure to convey your appreciation."
Footsteps in the hall caused the Prentiss brothers to glance over their shoulders. Whitman appeared on the threshold of the doorway and paused for a moment, unsure of whether he was interrupting a private conversation.
"You can personally thank Mr. Whitman for his part as he is just now joining us," Dr. Bliss said as he stood up behind his desk. John and Melville Prentiss rose to greet him.
Melville was aware from comments by his associates in New York that Whitman's poetry book Leaves of Grass was a base and sensual work, most disagreeable to good Christian people. He had never read the book, so, to get some sense of the man, he looked closely at Whitman. He saw a large but gentle man who clearly possessed the kind spirit necessary to console dying men. Not knowing what else to do, Melville assumed a cordial face.
Following introductions, Whitman provided the Prentiss brothers with a brief description of William's last moments. The small group then made their way to the bedside of Major Clifton Kennedy Prentiss, 6th Regiment of Maryland Infantry, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac.
Excerpted from Two Brothers by David H. Jones. Copyright © 2008 David H. Jones. Excerpted by permission of Staghorn Press.
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