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Whitman’s Hospital Visits

In the Winter 1981 interview with Leadership, Eugene Peterson said, “Every pastor involved in hospital visitation should read Specimen Days, by Walt Whitman” (Boston: David R. Godine).

The book tells how Whitman was sent out by the YMCA's Christian Commission to minister to the Civil War's sick and wounded. On January 20, 1863, Whitman left with the following charge from the commission: “His work will be that of … circulating good reading matter; visiting the sick and wounded to instruct, comfort, and cheer them; helping chaplains in the ministrations and influence for the good of the men under their care; and addressing patients individually and collectively in explanation of the work of the Christian Commission and its delegates, and for their personal instruction and benefit, temporal and eternal.”

Whitman soon began to see the simple but profound value of his visits. He wrote: “I found it was in the simple matter of personal presence, and emanating ordinary cheer and magnetism, that I succeeded and helped more than by medical nursing, or delicacies, or gifts of money, or anything else.”

His habit was to get plenty of rest, walk around in the woods, and wear clean clothes, so he could maintain as cheerful an attitude and appearance as possible. With child-like enthusiasm he distributed candy and ice cream, wrote letters for those who could not write, or read aloud to those who wanted to listen. One man, terminally wounded, asked for homemade rice pudding. Whitman went out, found a woman who would cook the food, and came back with the pudding.

The poet held up remarkably well amid the pain and suffering he witnessed. The least of the maladies included typhoid fever, bronchitis, rheumatism, pneumonia, and diarrhea. The worst was recorded in Whitman's journal: “How well it is that their mothers and sisters cannot see them. One man is shot both in the arm and the leg … some have their legs blown off … some bullets through the chest … some indescribably horrid wounds in the face or head, all mutilated, sickening, torn, gouged out … such is the camp of the wounded.”

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Each time the hospital scenes became too depressing, Whitman would withdraw to the woods to renew himself. But it wasn't long before he would, with dedication, continue his mission to the

— Daniel W. Pawley, Leadership, Vol. 2, no. 3.