Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

The "Need of Means Additional": Walt Whitman's Civil War Fundraising

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

The "Need of Means Additional": Walt Whitman's Civil War Fundraising

Article excerpt

WhitMan's Work volunteering in the hospitals during the Civil War was financially costly: the poet distributed fruit, paper, money, and other gifts to the patients, and all of his giving required significant resources. By the time he settled in Washington, D.C., in early 1863 to help comfort the wounded soldiers in the hospitals, the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) and other aid agencies had already developed sophisticated fundraising machines to support their endeavors, and even these were struggling. The competition for dollars, and for oversight of them, was fierce. Whitman, who opposed what he saw as the bureaucratic callousness of the Sanitary Commission agents, signed on with the USSC's primary competitor, the U.S. Christian Commission, shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C. He does not seem to have made public use of his affiliation in trying to raise money, however, and there are no surviving letters in which the poet speaks directly to his commission. While he was more sympathetic with the Christian Commission's approach to working with soldiers, his lack of church sponsorship-one of the key requirements for delegates, who were mostly Evangelical ministers-may have kept him from making his participation public.1

Even more puzzling is the fact that the Annals of the Christian Commission, the official history of the organization published in 1868, contains no record of Whitman's ser vice, although there is a list of all registered delegates year by year, with the declaration:

The Commission refers confidently to the subjoined list of their Delegates. It includes the names of men from all denominations of Christians and from every section of the loyal States. In connection with the results of the work itself, this catalog of names is the most satisfactory evidence which the Commission can present to those whose benefactions it dispensed, that their great trust was faithfully and wisely administered.2

Given public controversy over the poet's writing, Lemuel Moss, the Commission's Secretary, may have deliberately removed Whitman from the record after the war. It is also possible that, in spite of the surviving paperwork to the contrary, Whitman was never officially recognized as a delegate. The first Annual Report, delivered in January 1863, noted, "there is much worthy of especial mention, of which no record has been kept. For example, a large number of Christian men and women have been associated as helpers with our Delegates and committees in their work in hospitals and camps" (Moss 133). While Whitman obtained a signed Delegate's commission on January 20, 1863,3 he may have acted more as a contingent volunteer, granted papers in the aftermath of a fierce battle so that he could move freely, but never officially registered with the central office. In light of his celebrity, however, his complete absence from the recorded lists of delegates, and from subsequent histories, is peculiar.4 Furthermore, the standard term for delegates was "not less than six weeks," so, given this relatively short duration, it is highly unlikely that Whitman would have been able to keep his commission for the entire span of his volunteer service (Moss 543).

Whatever the truth may be behind the nature of the poet's affiliation with the Christian Commission, 5 his surviving correspondence demonstrates that he constantly faced the pressing need to raise money. To meet that need, Whitman, with considerable assistance from his brother Thomas Jefferson Whitman (Jeff ), eventually undertook what fundraising professionals today would recognize as an early form of a social-media campaign, using carefully crafted letters that were shared and passed from one person to another in order to reach out to donors.6 The rhetorical strategies that Whitman adopted in these letters, largely at Jeff's suggestion, are not only those still considered the most effective in fundraising, but they also demonstrate one of the ways that Whitman developed his approach to writing about his hospital experience. …

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