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150 Years Ago: Monday, December 29, 1862

Walt WhitmanSource: Library of Congress

Walt Whitman
Source: Library of Congress

From Washington City, poet Walt Whitman writes to his mother about finding his brother First Lieutenant George Washington Whitman of the 51st New York Infantry, who they had seen listed as “killed or wounded” at the battle of Fredericksburg in the December 16th New York Tribune:

“I landed here without a dime. (TCWP note: A pickpocket took Walt’s money) The next two days I spent hunting through the hospitals, walking day and night trying to get information, when I found dear brother George, and found that he was alive and well, O you may imagine how trifling all my little cares and difficulties seemed. And now that I realize the way that hundreds of thousands of good men are now living, and have had to live for a year or more, not only without any of the comforts, but with death and sickness and hard marching and hard fighting (and no success at that) for their continual experience – really nothing we call trouble seems worth talking about.”

Walt was relieved; with only a minor facial wound, his brother was one of the lucky ones. He writes more gruesome details of what he sees in a notebook:

“Spent a good part of the day in a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock, used as a hospital since the battle. Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within 10 yards of the front of the house, I noticed a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each covered with its brown woolen blanket. In the dooryard, toward the river, are fresh graves, mostly of officers, their names on pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt.”

It is from this experience that Walt Whitman decides to devote himself to the care of wounded and sick soldiers; he will not return home to New York.

Unaware that U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant was forced to suspend his advance to Vicksburg due to communications and supply lines being cut by Confederate cavalry, Major General William T. Sherman launches his attack on the outer defenses of Vicksburg. Nothing about the battle at Chickasaw Bayou goes well for Sherman; troops become lost, some are lacerated by Confederate crossfire, heavy rains pour and the Yazoo River rises to dangerous levels. “This has been a dreadful disaster,” a distraught Sherman tells Admiral David Dixon Porter tonight, whose own attacks using naval gunboats failed to do any significant damage to the Confederates. Yet Sherman also declares that he is “generally satisfied with the high spirit manifested” by his men as they had the difficult job of attacking the enemy safely positioned on the high bluffs. As a result, Union casualties are 1,776 killed, captured or missing; Confederate casualties are only 207. Sherman consults with Porter and they decide that they will resume attacks tomorrow. In the meantime, Porter will send a boat north to Memphis, Tennessee to obtain more small arms ammunition.

Daily Civil War Calendar

December 2012

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