- Historic Sites
Two Civil War Letters
Missives, one by Mark Twain, the other by Walt Whitman, reflect the impact of the Civil War on the nation.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? etc. In the Patent Office, as I stood (here one night, just off the cot-side of a dying soldier, in a large ward that had received the worst cases of 2d Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburgh, the surgeon, Dr. Stone, (Horatio Stone, the sculptor.) told me, of all who had died in that crowded ward the past six months, he had still to find the first man or boy who had met the approach of death with a single tremor, or unmanly fear.
But let me change the subject. … Washington and its points I find bear a second and a third perusal, and doubtless indeed many. My first impressions, architectural, &c. were not favorable; but upon the whole, the city, the spates, buildings, &c. make no unfit emblem of our country, so far, so broadly planned, every thing in plenty, money & materials staggering with plenty, but the fruit of the plans, the knit, the combination yet wanting. Determined to express ourselves greatly in a Capital but no fit Capital yet here, (time, associations wanting. I suppose) many a hiatus yet, many a thing to be taken down and done over again yet, perhaps an entire change of base, may-be a succession of changes. Congress does not seize very hard upon me, I studied it and its members with curiosity … much gab, great fear of public opinion, plenty of low business talent, but no masterful man in Congress, (probably best so).
I think well of the President. He has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion. My notion is too, that underneath his outside smutched mannerism, and stories from third-class county bar-rooms, (it is his humor.) Mr. Lincoln keeps a fountain of first-class practical telling wisdom. I do not dwell on the supposed failures of his government; he has shown, I sometimes think an almost supernatural tact in keeping the ship afloat at all, with head steady, not only not going down, and now certain not to, but with proud and resolute spirit, and flag flying in sight of the world, menacing and high as ever. I say never yet captain, never ruler, had such a perplexing dangerous task as his, the past two years. I more and more rely upon his idiomatic western genius, careless of court dress or court decorums.
I am living here without much definite aim (except going to the hospitals,) yet I have quite a good time. I make some money by scribbling for the papers, and as copyist. I have had, (and have.) thoughts of trying to get a clerkship or something, but I only try in a listless sort of way, and of course do not succeed. I have strong letters of introduction from Mr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson to Mr. Seward and Mr. Chase, but I have not presented them. I have seen Mr. Sumner several times anent of my office-hunting, he promised fair once, but he does not seem to be finally fascinated. I hire a bright little 3d story front room, with service, &c. for $7 a month, dine in the same house. (394 L St. a private house,) and remain yet much of the old vagabond that so gracefully becomes me. … My health, strength, personal beauty, etc. are I am happy to inform you, without diminution, but on the contrary quite the reverse. I weigh full 220 pounds avoirdupois, yet still retain my usual perfect shape, a regular model. My beard, neck. &c. are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever. …
Friday Morning. 20th. I finish my letter in the office of Major Hapgood, a paymaster and a friend of mine. This is a large building, filled with paymaster’s offices some thirty or forty or more. This room is up on the fifth floor (a most noble and broad view from my window.) Curious scenes around here, a continual stream of soldiers, officers, cripples, etc. etc. some climbing wearily up the stairs. They seek their pay, and every hour, almost every minute, has its incident, its hitch, its romance, farce or tragedy. There are two paymasters in this room. A sentry at the street door, another half way up the stairs, another at the chief clerk’s door, all with muskets & bayonets, sometimes a great swarm, hundreds, around the sidewalk in front waiting. (Everybody is waiting for something here.) I take a pause, look up, a couple of minutes from my pen and paper, see spread, off there, the Potomac, very fine, nothing petty about it, the Washington monument, not half finished, the public grounds around it filled with ten thousand beeves on the hoof, to the left the Smithsonian with its brown turrets, to the right, far across, Arlington heights, the forts, eight or ten of them, then the long bridge, and down a ways, but quite plain, the shipping of Alexandria, opposite me, and in stone throw, is the Treasury building, and below the bustle and life of Pennsylvania Avenue. I shall hasten with my letter, and then go forth and take a stroll down “the avenue’ as they call it here.
Now you boys, don’t you think I have done the handsome thing by writing this astounding, magnificent letter, certainly the longest I ever wrote in my life? …