It was on Sunday the 28th day of December, 1862, that I first saw Walt Whitman in person. We were then living in Washington. As we sat at table, a knock at the door of our room—which served as dining and sitting room—was answered by my husband, William Douglas O'Connor, with a hearty "Come in," and there stood the man, whom Mr. O'Connor afterwards christened "The Good Gray Poet." He was immediately made known to me by name, but I could not have had a moment's doubt, for he looked as his pictures at that time represented him.
He had just returned from the "front," where he had gone to look up his brother George, who was wounded by a spent ball in the battle of Fredericksburg. He had remained some days in camp, and found some of his Brooklyn "boys," and brought with him the names of others whom he wished to see, some of them his friends of the omnibus, horse-car, ferry-boat, and so on, in Brooklyn and New York, soldier boys who were then in hospitals in and around Washington. He thought he might like to remain in Washington perhaps ten days, or two weeks, and had a memorandum of some possible boarding-places that he wanted to see. Mr. O'Connor offered to go out on the search with him; but before they started my husband asked me, aside, if I would not like to have Walt for our guest at table during his stay in Washington, as there was a vacant hall bedroom on the floor where we were keeping house—in two rooms of the upper story of a house on L Street. I was delighted at the proposal, and hailed the opportunity of becoming personally acquainted with the poet. Mr. O'Connor had already made his acquaintance in Boston in 1860, when Thayer and Eldridge were printing Whitman's third edition of Leaves of Grass, and O'Connor's Harrington at the same time. The landlord was consulted, the room could be rented, and on the return of Walt and William from the inspection of the places visited, they not having proved desirable, the room was engaged, our invitation accepted, and Walt became our most welcome guest for months.
Visiting one sick boy in hospital led to his finding another, there or elsewhere, and soon his occupation was the daily visiting of the soldier "boys," as they nearly all were to him,—not only the Brooklyn boys, but any and all who needed ministrations of any kind. These visits led him to Carver Hospital out on Seventh Street, to Columbia Hospital on Fourteenth Street, and to many others, as we had at that time and later twenty-one hospitals and convalescent camps in and around Washington, full of boys and men sick of fevers, and of all the diseases that are incurred by the hardships and exposures of war, aside from the wounded and those dying of disease and exhaustion caused by wounds. And this was the beginning of Whitman's service in behalf of the stricken, a service in which he found himself enlisted not for weeks, but for months and years. After making visits to many hospitals, and ministering to our soldiers in several of them, Walt largely confined his work to the Armory Square Hospital,—that being the nearest to the boat landing, and where many of the worst cases were necessarily detained, the soldiers being too badly wounded to be carried farther. Soon Dr. Bliss, the surgeon in charge, discovered that here was a man who could be trusted to go about the wards and give an apple, an orange, or tobacco, or whatever, to the patients, as his intuition might prompt him, and not give the wrong thing. Walt told me one day that he found soldiers from the West who had never seen an orange till he carried them to the hospital. And he said the aroma of a lemon held in the hand was often most grateful to a fever patient.
On his way to the front in that search for his brother, Walt had reached Washington almost penniless, having had his pocket picked of all the money which had been gathered together by the family. He was, however, soon able to find Mr. C. W. Eldridge, his former publisher, now clerk to Major L. S. Hapgood of Massachusetts, Paymaster United States Volunteers. When Whitman had made his situation known, Mr. Eldridge and Mr. O'Connor were glad to relieve it at once. I had not met him then, being on a visit in Massachusetts. Serious as the situation was, Mr. Eldridge could not repress the facetious comment that any pickpocket who failed to avail himself of such an opportunity as Walt offered, with loose baggy trousers, and no suspenders, would have been a disgrace to his profession. Through Major Hapgood Mr. Eldridge secured passes to the front for himself and Whitman. Walt had left his "carpet bag" with my husband, on his way down, wishing to be burdened with as little luggage as possible. Thus I was hoping and almost expecting to see him on his return from the seat of war. I was still, however, somewhat skeptical as to whether he would actually appear, as I had already learned of his elusive disposition, and of his dislike to be bound in any way. We had been promised by our friend Hector Tyndale of Philadelphia that we should meet him in that city, where he had often been looked for, on the strength of his vague assurances.
He was seldom betrayed into making appointments, as I had learned. When I expressed my doubts about his coming to us on his return from camp,—my husband's answer was, "Yes, he surely will, for there is his carpet bag," which was plainly in evidence.
It was soon after this that Whitman's old friend, William Swinton, who was war correspondent for one of the great New York papers, met him on Pennsylvania Avenue, and asked him where he was to be found in the evening. Being told that he was staying at our house, Swinton said he would come up. Great was his surprise to find Walt actually there. Swinton exclaimed, "Well, Walt, I have known you dozens of years, and made hundreds of appointments with you, but this is the first time that I ever knew you to keep one. I thought I saw signs of decay!"
At this time Whitman's fine physique was impressive; measuring, as he said, a half inch less than six feet in height, weighing about two hundred pounds, with no ailment but those occasional intense headaches caused by exposure to fierce midday sun upon one of the hottest of summer days, after having had his hair cut at the shortest, and strolling along Broadway with head uncovered. He barely escaped sunstroke at the time, and now had to use the protection of an umbrella, as did most persons in our fierce summer weather in Washington.
He told us that the physician also held that the unusual combination which existed in his case, of a rapidly moving brain in a slow-moving, rather lethargic body, was unfavorable. The discrepancy was unfortunate. Even the ability to stop thinking at will, and to make his brain "negative," as he described a gift of his at that time of almost perfect health, did not insure him against these attacks of headache.