This post was written by Jonah Estess, Digital Project Intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.
In the N-YHS collections are three letters addressed from Walt Whitman to the parents of Erastus E. Haskell, Samuel and Rosalinda Haskell. He writes to them about their son’s condition at a military hospital in Washington D.C. Walt had been a volunteer nurse at area hospitals, and had grown fond of caring for the sick and wounded soldiers. He took a particular interest in Erastus, who had contracted typhoid fever while stationed at a nearby Union encampment. The content of his letters, in addition to that in a fourth one co-authored by Joel M. Jansen (born Janson) and Erastus himself, conveys brotherly spirit in more ways than one. Walt’s voyage to find his supposedly wounded brother, his care of Erastus, and the bond between Erastus and Joel, both musicians, serve as examples of the endurance of togetherness at a time when such sentiment faced nearly insurmountable battles in warfare and illness.
Like others, Walt likely would have skimmed the casualty lists published in the newspapers, hoping that he wouldn’t run across a familiar name. In December of 1862, Walt left Brooklyn for Washington D.C. on a search for his brother George, a Union Army soldier who may have been wounded. He believed that the name “G. W. Whitmore,” which had appeared in the New York Tribune, was strikingly similar to that of his brother, George Washington Whitman. To put an end to his own incessant worry (and presumably his mother’s as well), Walt ventured to the Union capital. At that time, most people lacked the means to make such a journey. Walt, who from 1846-1848 was the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, made the trip not simply because he could, but because he was unwilling to wait for a third-party to confirm that his brother was being cared for.
Twenty-one year old Erastus Haskell of the 141st New York Volunteer Infantry had taken ill with typhoid fever and was sent to Armory Square Hospital in Washington D.C. He, a carpenter from Connecticut, and Joel M. Jansen, a 19-year-old farmer from Tompkins, New York, had both volunteered in Elmira, New York in 1862. Erastus was placed into Company K, while Joel was put into Company C. They were each designated a fife player, musician being a rank equivalent to private. The 141st Infantry Regiment fought in nearly 20 battles and skirmishes, during many of which fife music would have inspired patriotic unity among their fellow infantrymen; as bullets flew and blood spilled, they and their fifes were responsible for keeping pace and restraining soldiers’ nerves on the battlefield. Shortly before Erastus fell sick, Joel wrote a letter to Erastus’s father in New York. He writes a little of Erastus’s well-being, but primarily about their unusually comfortable stay at Camp Casey. His letter finishes half of the way down one page. With paper being so precious and scarce a resource, Joel offered the rest of the page and the length of another to Erastus’s pen. Erastus accepted his offer, and wrote to reassure his family of his safety while off duty. This simple, everyday act of sharing paper, though today taken for granted, also symbolized the bond which had developed between the two young men. While it is unclear whether they knew of each other before the war, their appointments to the rank of musician would have brought them closer together. That Joel and Erastus wrote this letter together indicates some degree of brotherly sentiment shared between the two soldiers.
Shortly after arriving, Walt learned that his brother had indeed been wounded, but his injuries were minor, merely a flesh wound to the cheek. Prior to his trip, Walt had received his brother’s letters, which detail the severity of soldiers’ wounds and the hardships of life between skirmishes and battles. The sight of wounded and sick men disturbed Walt, and he began spending considerable amounts of time in the northern capital caring for them. But something about Erastus resonated with Walt. Though Erastus seemed disinterested in sharing too many of his thoughts with Walt, Brooklyn’s poet became invested in the boy’s emotional and physical health. On July 27, 1863, he wrote to Erastus’s parents, “I enclose you an envelope to send your letter to Erastus-put a stamp on it & write soon. I suppose you know he has been sick a great deal since he has been in the service.” Walt sat for hours, sometime late into the night beside Erastus’s bed, keeping an otherwise alone and dying young soldier company. Erastus E. Haskell died on August 2, 1863, of typhoid. In a letter to Erastus’s father dated August 10 of that year, Walt writes further about caring for Erastus:
“I used to sit by the side of his bed pretty silent, as that seemed most agreeable to him, & I felt it so too-he was generally opprest for breath, & with the heat, & I would fan him-occasionally he would want a drink.”
At the time, some believed Walt to be homosexual, and the matter has been investigated by scholars since. Walt writes in his first letter of July 27, “I am merely a friend.” In spite of the persistent rumors of Walt’s sexual orientation and the deeply caring sentiment conveyed through his letters about Erastus, this statement should be taken at face value. Whether Walt was gay or not is of no concern here, because his sole intention was to care for the “poor boy.” No matter what Walt felt for Erastus, he did care for Erastus and for the many soldiers Walt assisted in their hour of need.
This collection of letters was digitized in 1998 as part of the N-YHS Library’s first digital project, “Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society,” for the Library of Congress American Memory website. The Library of Congress is currently restructuring the American Memory site, and has retired collections digitized by other institutions. In assembling the data necessary for the New York Historical Society to republish the letters online, I have become particularly attached to these letters. The thoughtfulness of the content is thoroughly engaging, bringing to the attention of scholars and schoolchildren the bonds cultivated between strangers during the Civil War. In some sense, these letters show how the war brought people together, in spite of the divisions that incited the conflict, divisions that threatened to divide a country.
To access the digitized collection of these letters, please visit the Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Library.