Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was often called the Father of Free Verse. He was not only an American poet, journalist, and essayist, but he also served as a nurse.
Although Whitman was never formally educated as a nurse, he spent several months in the same role as many Union women who volunteered as nurses during the Civil War. After a visit with his brother, who suffered a superficial facial wound in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Whitman was inspired to help other young soldiers who were wounded and sick during the war.
Whitman began his hospital visits at the Lacy House in Falmouth, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. He remained with his brother for two weeks, recording camp life and visiting injured soldiers in the field hospitals. He then spearheaded the travel of a group of wounded men from Fredericksburg battlefield to Washington’s hospitals.
Once in Washington, Whitman visited with patients daily. As a hospital visitor, Whitman’s small tasks brought great joy to the soldiers. He would help soldiers write a letter home, feed a dessert craving or pass the time by playing “Twenty Questions.” Whitman estimated that he made more than 600 visits or tours over the course of the war.
The hospital scenes inspired the writer to compose poetry and prose, according to Walt Whitman Archive. His compelling articles about his nursing experiences were published in publications such as the New York Times and Brooklyn Daily Eagle and a book of war poems (Drum-Taps). He also wrote to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, about his nursing experiences and promised that the next letter wouldn’t be as depressing as the last one — “But I see so much.”
Whitman spoke highly of the medical staff in Washington. He was impressed with the doctors and nurses’ dedication to their patients. According to the Walt Whitman Archive, he was certain the staff was prepared to “to save a life from the very grip of the destroyer.”