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Gob's Grief

Chapter One

Walt dreamed his brother's death at Fredericksburg. General Burnside, appearing as an angel at the foot of his bed, announced the tragedy: "The army regrets to inform you that your brother, George Washington Whitman, was shot in the head by a lewd fellow from Charleston." The general alit on the bedpost and drew his dark wings close about him, as if to console himself. Moonlight limned his strange whiskers and his hair. His voice shook as he went on. "Such a beautiful boy. I held him in my arms while his life bled out. See? His blood made this spot." He pointed at his breast, where a dark stain in the shape of a bird lay on the blue wool. "I am so very sorry," the General said, choking and weeping. Tears fell in streams from his eyes, ran over the bed and out the window, where they joined the Rappahannock, which had somehow come north to flow through Brooklyn, bearing the bodies of all the late battle's dead.

In the morning Walt read the wounded list in the Tribune. There it was: "First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore." He knew from George's letters that there was nobody named Whitmore in the company. He walked through snow to his mother's house. "I'll go and find him," he told her.

Washington, Walt quickly discovered, had become a city of hospitals. He looked in half of them before a cadaverous-looking clerk told him he'd be better off looking at Falmouth, where most of the Fredericksburg wounded still lay in field hospitals. He got himself on a government boat that ran down to the landing at Aquia Creek, and went by railroad to the neighborhood of Falmouth, seeking Ferrero's Brigade and the Fifty-first New York, George's regiment. Walt stood outside a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, somebody's splendid residence converted to a hospital, afraid to go in and find his mangled brother. He took a walk around the building, gathering his courage, and found a pile of amputated limbs, arms and legs of varying lengths, all black and blue and rotten in the chill. A thin layer of snow covered some of them. He circled the heap, thinking he must recognize his brother's hand if he saw it. He closed his eyes and considered the amputation; his brother screaming when he woke from the ether, his brother's future contracting to something bitter and small.

But George had only gotten a hole in his cheek. A piece of shell pierced his wispy beard and chipped a tooth. He had spit blood and hot metal into his hand, put the shrapnel in his pocket, and later showed it to his worried brother, who burst into tears and clutched him in a bear hug when they were reunited in Captain Francis's tent, where George sat with his feet propped on a trunk and a cigar stuck in his bandaged face.

"You shouldn't fret," said George. "I couldn't be any healthier than I am. And I've been promoted. Now you may call me Captain Whitman." But Walt could not help fretting, even now that he knew his brother was alive and well. A great, fretting buzz had started up in his head, inspired by the pile of limbs, and the smell of blood in the air, and by ruined Fredericksburg, all broken chimneys and crumbling walls across the river. Walt stayed in George's tent and, watching him sleep, felt a deep thrilling worry. He wandered around the camp, and as he passed by a fire in an enclosure of evergreen branches piled head high against the wind, he met a soldier. They sat down together by the fire, and the soldier told Walt hideous stories about the death of friends. "He put his head in my lap and whispered goodbye to his mama," the soldier said. "And then he turned his eyes away from me and he was dead." Walt put his face in the evergreen wall, smearing his beard with fresh sap, and thought how it smelled like Christmas.

Ten days later, Walt still couldn't leave. He stood by and watched as George moved out with the healthy troops on Christmas Day, then idled in the deserted campground, watching the interminable caravans of army wagons passing and passing into the distance. Near at hand, some stragglers crossed his line of sight--a large young man leading a mule that pulled a wagon, on top of which perched a fat man cursing in French. When all were gone, and the campground empty, Walt went up to the brick mansion and made himself useful, changing dressings, fetching for the nurses, and just sitting with the wounded boys, with the same excited worry on him as when he watched George sleep. Back in Brooklyn a deep and sinister melancholy had settled over him. For the past six months Walt had wandered the streets with a terrible feeling in him--Hell under his skull bones, death under his breast bones, and a feeling that he would like most of all to lie down under the river and sleep forever. But in the hospital that melancholy was gone, scared off, perhaps, by all the shocking misery around him, and it had been replaced by a different sort of sadness, one that was vital, not still; a feeling that did not diminish his soul, but thrilled it.

When Walt finally left Falmouth, it was to watch over a cargo of wounded as they traveled through the early-morning darkness back to Aquia Creek, where they would be loaded on a steamer bound for Washington. With every jolt and shake of the train, a chorus of horrible groans wafted through the cars. Walt thought it would drive him insane. What saved him was the singing of a boy with a leg wound. The boy's name was Hank Smith. He'd come all the way from divided Missouri, and said he had a gaggle of cousins fighting under General Beauregard. He sang "Oh, Susannah" over and over again, and no one told him to be quiet.

All the worst cases went to a hospital called Armory Square, because it was closest to the boat landing at the foot of Sixth Street. Walt accompanied them, and kept up the service he'd begun at Falmouth--visiting, talking, reading, fetching, and helping.

And he went to other hospitals. There were certainly enough of them to keep him busy. Their names were published in the papers like a list of churches--Finley, Campbell, Carver, Harewood, Mount Pleasant, Judiciary. And then there were the public buildings, also stuffed with wounded. Even the Patent Office held them; boys on cots set up on the marble floor of the Model Room. He brought horehound candy to an eighteen-year-old from Iowa, who lay with a missing arm and a sore throat in front of the glass case which held Ben Franklin's printing press. Two boys from Brooklyn had cots in front of General Washington's camp equipment. Walt read to them from Brooklyn papers his mother sent down, every now and then looking up at the General's tents rolled neatly around their posts, his folded chairs and mess kit, his sword and cane, his washstand, his surveyor's compass, and a few feet down in a special case all to itself, the Declaration of Independence. Other wounded boys lay in front of pieces of the Atlantic Cable, beside ingenious toys, in sight of rattraps, next to the razor of Captain Cook.

Walt could not visit every place all in a day, though he tried at first. Eventually, he picked a few and stuck with those. But mostly he was at Armory Square, where Hank Smith was.

"I had my daddy's pistol with me," said Hank Smith, sprawling in his slender iron-framed bed. "That's why I got my leg still." It wasn't the first time Walt had been told how Hank had saved his own leg from the "chopping butchers" in the field hospital, but he didn't mind hearing the story again. It was spring. The leg was still bad, though not as bad as it had been. At least that was the impression that Hank gave. He never complained about his wound. He'd come down with typhoid, too, a gift from the hospital. "I want my pistol back," he said.

"I'll see what I can do." Walt always said that, but they both knew no one was going to give Hank back the pistol with which he'd threatened to blow out the brains of the surgeon who tried to take his leg. They had left him alone, then, and later another doctor had said there wasn't any need to amputate.

"Meanwhile, here's an orange," said Walt. He pulled the fruit out of his coat pocket and peeled it. Soldiers' heads began to turn in their beds as the smell drifted over the ward. Some asked if he had any for them.

" 'Course he does," said Hank. In fact, Walt had a coatful of them. He had bought them at Center Market, then walked through the misty, wet morning, over the brackish canal and across the filthy Mall. The lowing of cattle drifted towards him from the unfinished monument to General Washington as he walked along, wanting an orange for himself but afraid to eat one lest he be short when he got to the hospital. He had money for oranges, sweets, books, tobacco, and other good things from sponsors in Brooklyn and New York and elsewhere. And he had a little money for himself from a job, three hours a day as a copyist in the paymaster's office--he'd given up, for the present, on seeking a fancier appointment, put away in a drawer the letters of introduction to powerful personages from Mr. Emerson. From his desk in the paymaster's office, he had a spectacular view of Georgetown and the river, and the stones that were said to mark the watery graves of three Indian sisters. The sisters had cursed the spot: anyone who tried to cross there must drown. Walt would sit and stare at the rocks, imagining himself shedding his shirt and shoes by the riverside, trying to swim across. He imagined drowning, too, the great weight of water pressing down on him. (When he was a child, he'd nearly drowned in the sea.) Inevitably, his reverie was broken by the clump-clump of one-legged soldiers on their crutches, coming up the stairs to the office located, perversely, on the fourth floor.

After he'd distributed the oranges, Walt wrote letters on behalf of various boys until his hand ached. Dear Sister, he wrote for Hank, I have been brave but wicked. Pray for me.

Armory Square was under the command of a brilliant drunk named Canning Woodhull. Over whiskey, he explained to Walt his radical policies, which included washing hands and instruments, throwing out used sponges, and swabbing everything in sight with bitter-smelling Labarraque's solution. He had an absolute lack of faith in laudable pus.

"Nothing laudable about it," he said. "White or green, pus is pus, and either way it's bad for the boys. There are creatures in the wounds--elements of evil. They are the emissaries of Hell, sent earthward to increase our suffering, to increase death and increase grief. You can't see them except by their actions." The two men knocked glasses and drank, and Walt made a face because the whiskey was medicinal, laced with quinine. It did not seem to bother Woodhull.

"I have the information from my wife," Woodhull said, "who has great and secret knowledge. She talks to spirits. Much of what she hears is nonsense--do not tell her I said so. But this bit about the creatures in the pus--that's true."

Maybe it was. Woodhull's hospital got the worst cases and kept them alive better than any other hospital in the city, even ones that got casualties only half as severe. The doctor stayed in charge despite a reputation as a wastrel and a drunk and a nascent lunatic. A year earlier he had been removed by a coalition of his colleagues, only to be reinstated by Dr. Letterman, the medical director of the Army of the Potomac, who had been personally impressed by many visits to Armory Square. "They say General Grant is a drunk, too," Letterman said in response to the charges against Dr. Woodhull.

"The creatures are vulnerable to prayer and bromine, and whiskey and Labarraque's. Lucky for us." Woodhull downed another glass. "Ah, sir--there is the matter of the nurses. Some of them are complaining. Just last Tuesday I was in Ward E with the redoubtable Mrs. Hawley. We saw you come in at the end of the aisle and she said, 'Here comes that odious Walt Whitman to talk evil and unbelief to my boys. I think I would rather see the evil one himself--at least if he had horns and hoofs--in my ward. I shall get him out as soon as possible!' And she rushed off to do just that. And you know how she failed to eject you, how she always fails to eject you." He poured again.

"Shall I stop coming, then?"

"Heavens no. As long as old Hawley is complaining, I'll know you're doing good. God bless her pointy little head."

Two surgeons came into Woodhull's makeshift office, a corner of Ward F sectioned off by three regimental flags.

"Assistant Surgeon Walker is determined to kill Captain Carter," said Dr. Bliss, a dour black-eyed man from Baltimore. "She has given him opium for his diarrhea, and, very foolishly, in my opinion, withheld ipecac and calomel." Dr. Mary Walker stood next to him, looking calm, her arms folded across her chest. Her blue uniform was immaculate, a studied contrast to Woodhull's stained and threadbare greatcoat, which he wore in winter and summer alike.

"Dr. Walker is doing as I have asked her," said Woodhull. "Ipecac and calomel are to be withheld in all cases of flux and diarrhea."

"For God's sake, why?" asked Dr. Bliss, his face reddening. He was new in Armory Square. Earlier that same day Woodhull had castigated him for not cleaning a suppurating chest wound.

"Because it is for the best," said Woodhull. "Because if you do it that way, a boy will not die. Because if you do it that way, some mother's heart will not be broken."

Dr. Bliss turned redder, then paled, as if his rage had broken and ebbed. He scowled at Dr. Walker, turned sharply on his heel, and left. Dr. Walker sat down.

"Buffoon," she said. Woodhull poured whiskey for her, handed her the glass, then took a rag and began to knock the lint from her second lieutenant's shoulder straps. It was an open secret in the hospital that they were married in all but name.

"Dr. Walker," said Woodhull, "why don't you tell Mr. Whitman about your recent arrest?"

The woman sipped her whiskey and told how she'd been arrested outside of her boardinghouse for masquerading as a man. Walt only half listened to her talk. He was thinking about diarrhea. It was just about the worst thing, he had decided. He'd seen it kill more boys than all the minie balls and shrapnel, and typhoid and pneumonia, than all the other afflictions combined. He'd written to his mother: War is nine hundred and ninety-nine parts diarrhea to one part glory. Those who like wars ought to be made to fight in them. And sometimes, up to his neck in sickness and death, he did believe that the war was an insufferable evil, but other times it seemed to be gloriously necessary, and all the blood and carnage and misery a terrible new beginning that was somehow a relief to him.

Gob's Grief
by by Chris Adrian