The Good Gray Nurse

I was speaking at the Fraunces Tavern Lecture Series several months ago when a member of the audience asked if I had come across any diaries kept by nurses. I was ready to say “no,” when I realized that one of the most unlikely, yet infinitely compassionate, nurses of the Civil War was NYC diarist, The Good Gray Poet, Walt Whitman.

Medically untrained, Whitman volunteered to assist in changing the dressings and tending to the wounded and dying of New York’s 154th Infantry Regiment. (Technically in Washington, D.C., but when Whitman tends the 154th anywhere, it is New York.)

I directed the questioner to Whitman’s writings, but, as time was short, didn’t read from them. I’m sorry for that, and, seeking to make amends, now post the following:

This afternoon, July 22d, I have spent a long time with Oscar F. Wilber, company G, 154th New York, low with chronic diarrhoea, and a bad wound also. He asked me to read him a chapter in the New Testament. . . . He said, “Make your own choice.” I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ, and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the fol lowing chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing.” He said “It is my chief reliance.” He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.” He spoke calmly of his con dition. The wound was very bad, it discharg’d much. Then the diar rhoea had prostrated him, and I felt that he was even then the same as dying. He behaved very manly and affectionate. The kiss I gave him as I was about leaving he return’d fourfold. He gave me his mother’s address. . . . He died a few days after the one just described.

July 22, 1863
Walt Whitman

(New York Diaries: 1609-2009. p. 233)

Photo credit: The Alderman Library, University of Virginia