Civil War: Walt Whitman’s “Great Treat of Ice Cream” (1864)

Ward in the Carver General Hospital, Washington, D.C. (SOURCE: NARA)

Few in this country were left untouched by the horrors of the Civil War. American poet Walt Whitman wrote extensively about the impact on the nation. His brother, George Washington Whitman, was a soldier in the Union army. One day, Walt read in the New York Herald that one of the wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg was a “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore.” Believing this to be his brother, Whitman immediately left New York for the south to find his brother.
Walt Whitman, Matthew Brady Studio (SOURCE: Library of Congress)
After great struggles, he finally located his brother in an encampment with only a scratch on his face from an exploding shell. While relieved to find his brother alive, he was also horrified to see the impact of the war first-hand and vowed to be of some use. Instead of returning to New York, he made his way to Washington, D.C. where he got a job in the Army Paymaster’s office copying records.

Whitman spent a significant amount of free time volunteering at local military hospitals through the remainder of the war. He helped move patients between beds, pushed wheelchairs, playing games or simply having a conversation. Many letters from soldiers home to their families were written by the great poet’s hand. Whitman found that one of the greatest needs in the hospital was simply paying attention to the individual soldiers being cared for, many of whom were very young.

On June 3, 1864, Whitman wrote this letter home to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, explaining how a gift of ice cream boosted morale. How he was able to get so much ice cream in the first place is unknown, but it was clearly appreciated – particularly in the dark and gloomy context Whitman describes.

 

Washington | June 3 1864

Dearest mother

Your letter came yesterday — I have not heard the least thing from the 51st since — no doubt they are down there with the Army near Richmond — I have not written to George lately — I think the news from the Army is very good — Mother, you know of course that it is now very near Richmond indeed, from five to ten miles —

Mother, if this campaign was not in progress I should not stop here, as it is now beginning to tell a little upon me, so many bad wounds, many putrified, & all kinds of dreadful ones, I have been rather too much with — but as it is I shall certainly remain here while the thing remains undecided — it is impossible for me to abstain from going to see & minister to certain cases, & that draws me into others, & so on — I have just left Oscar Cunningham, the Ohio boy — he is in a dying condition — there is no hope for him — it would draw tears from the hardest heart to look at him — he is all wasted away to a skeleton, & looks like some one fifty years old — you remember I told you a year ago, when he was first brought in, I thought him the noblest specimen of a young western man I had seen, a real giant in size, & always with a smile on his face — O what a change, he has long been very irritable, to every one but me, & his frame is all wasted away — the young Massachusetts 1st artillery boy, Cutter, I wrote about is dead — he is the one that was brought in a week ago last Sunday, badly wounded in breast — the deaths in the principal hospital I visit, Armory Square, average one an hour — I saw Capt Baldwin of the 14th this morning, he has lost his left arm — is going home soon—

Mr Kalbfleisch & Anson Herrick, (M C from New York) came in one of the wards where I was sitting writing a letter this morning, in the midst of the wounded — Kalbfleisch was so much affected by the sight that he burst into tears — O I must tell you I gave the boys in Carver hospital a great treat of ice cream a couple of days ago, went round myself through about 15 large wards, (I bought some ten gallons, very nice) — you would have cried & been amused too, many of the men had to be fed, several of them I saw cannot probably live, yet they quite enjoyed it, I gave everybody some — quite a number western country boys had never tasted ice cream before — they relish such things, oranges, lemons, &c — Mother, I feel a little blue this morning, as two young men I knew very well have just died, one died last night, & the other about half an hour before I went to the hospital, I did not anticipate the death of either of them, each was a very, very sad case, so young — well, mother, I see I have written you another gloomy sort of letter — I do not feel as first rate as usual —

—Walt

[Postscript] You don’t know how I want to come home & see you all, you, dear Mother, & Jeff & Mat & all — I believe I am homesick, something new for me — then I have seen all the horrors of soldier’s life & not been kept up by its excitement — it is awful to see so much, & not be able to relieve it —