Skip to main content


July 2024
5min read

Washington, March 19, 1863.

Dear Nat, and Fred Gray:

Since I left New York, I was down in the Army of the Potomac in front with my brother a good part of the winter, commencing time of the battle of Fredericksburgh—have seen war-life, the real article—folded myself in a blanket, lying down in the mud with composure—relished salt pork & hard tack—have been on the battle field among the wounded the faint and the bleeding, to give them nourishment—have gone over with a flag of truce the next day to help direct the burial of the dead—have struck up a tremendous friendship with a young Mississippi Captain, (about 19) that we took prisoner badly wounded at Fredericksburgh—(he has followed me here, is in Emory hospital here, minus a leg—he wears his Confederate uniform, proud as the devil—1 met him first at Falmouth, in the Lacy house, middle of December last, his leg just cut off, and cheered him up—poor boy. he has suffered a great deal, and still suffers—has eyes bright as a hawk, but face pale—sometimes when I lean over to say I am going, he puts his arm round my neck, draws my lace down, etc. quite a scene for the New Bowery.) I spent Christmas holidays on the Rappahannock.

During January came up hither, took a lodging room here, did the 37th Congress, especially the night sessions the last three weeks, explored the Capitol then, meandering the gorgeous painted interminable senate corridors, getting lost in them, (a new sensation, rich & strong, that endless painted interior at night,) got very much interested in some particular cases in Hospitals here, go now steadily to more or less of said Hospitals by day or night. …

These Hospitals, so different from all others, these thousands, and tens and twenties of thousands of American young men, badly wounded, all sorts of wounds, operated on, pallid with diarrhea, languishing, dying with fever, pneumonia. Sec. open a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet, showing our humanity, (1 sometimes put myself in fancy in the cot, with typhoid, or under the knife) tried by terrible, fearfulest tests, probed deepest, the living soul’s, the body’s tragedies, bursting the petty bonds of art. To these, what are your dramas and poems, even the oldest and iearfulest? Not old Greek mighty ones, where man contends with fate, (and always yields) not Virgil showing Dante on and on among the agonized Xc damned, approach what here I see and take a part in. For here I see, not at intervals, but quite always, how certain man. our American man, how he holds himself cool and unquestioned master above all pains and bloody mutilations. It is the best thing of all. nourishes me of all men. This (hen, what frightened us all so long! Why it is put to flight with ignominy, a mere stuffed scarecrow of the fields.

O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? etc. In the Patent Office, as I stood (here one night, jusl off the cot-side of a dying soldier, in a large ward thai had received the worst cases of 2d Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh, the surgeon, Dr. Stone, (Horatio Stone, the sculptor.) told me. of all who had died in that crowded ward the past six months, he had still to find the first man or boy who had met the approach of death with a single tremor, or unmanly fear.

But let me (hange the subject. … Washington and its points I find bear a second and a third perusal, and doubtless indeed many. My first impressions, architectural, &c. were not favorable; but upon the whole, the city, the spates, buildings, &c. make no unfit emblem of our country, so far, so broadly planned, every thing in plenty, money & materials staggering with plenty, but the fruit of the plans, the knit, the combination yet wanting. Determined to express ourselves greatly in a Capital but 110 fit Capital yet here, (time, associations wanting. I suppose) many a hiatus yet, many a thing to be taken down and done over again yet, perhaps an entire change of base, may-be a succession of changes. Congress does not seize very hard upon me, I studied it and ils members with curiosity … much gab, great fear of public opinion, plenty of low business talenl. bin no masterful man in Congress, (probably best so).

I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosiei Michael Angelo. so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut. criss-cross lines, and ils doughnut complexion. My notion is too, that underneath his outside smutched mannerism, and stories Irom third-class county bar-rooms, (it is his humor.) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on (he supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet captain, never ruler, had such a perplexing dangerous task as his, the past two years. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums.

I am living here without much definite aim (except going to (he hospitals,) yet I have quite a good time. I make some money by .scribbling lor the papers, and as copyist. J have had, (and have.) thoughts of trying to get a clerkship or something, but I only try in a listless sort of way, and of course do not succeed. I have strong letters of introduction from AIr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson to Mr. Seward and Mr. Chase, but I have not presented them. I have seen Mr. Sunnier several times aneiu of my office-hunting, he promised fair once, but he does not seem to be finally fascinated. I hire a bright little 3d story front room, with service, &c. for $7 a month, dine in the same house. (394 L St. a private house,) and remain yet much of the old vagabond that so gracefully becomes me. … My health, strength, personal beauty, etc. are I am happy Io inform you, without diminution, but on the contrary quite the reverse. I weigh full 220 pounds avoirdupois, yet still retain my usual perfect shape, a regular model. My beard, neck. &c. are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever. …

Friday Morning. 20th. I finish my letter in the office of Major Hapgood, a paymaster and a friend ol mine. This is a large building, filled with paymaster’s offices some thirty or forty or more. This room is up on the fifth floor (a most noble and broad view from my window.) Curious scenes around here, a continual stream of soldiers, officers, cripples, etc. etc. some climbing wearily up the stairs. They seek their pay, and every hour, almost every minute, has its incident, its hitch, its romance, farce or tragedy. There are two paymasters in this room. A sentry at the street door, another half way up the stairs, another at the chief clerk’s door, all with muskets & bayonets, sometimes a great swarm, hundreds, around the ,sidewalk in front waiting. (Everybody is waiting for something here.) I lake a pause, look up, a couple of minutes from my pen and paper, see spread, off there, the Potomac. very fine, nothing petty about it, the Washington monument, not half finished, the public grounds around it filled with ten thousand beeves on the hoof, to the left the Smithsonian with its brown turrets, to the right, far across, Arlington heights, the forts, eight or ten of them, then the long bridge, and down a ways, but quite plain, the shipping of Alexandria, opposite me. and in stone throw, is the Treasury building, and below the bustle and life of Pennsylvania Avenue. I shall hasten with my letter, and then go forth and take a stroll down “the avenue’ as they call it here.

Now you boys, don’t you think I have done the handsome thing by writing this astounding, magnificent letter, certainly the longest 1 ever wrote in my life? …


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.