Rediscovering Walt Whitman's Soldiers



Lenore Barbian, PhD, is Associate Professor and Anthropology Program Director at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Paul S. Sledzik, MS, is formerly Curator of Anatomical Collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of the History of Medicine Division of the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

It is a remarkable fact that the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) holds thousands of anatomical specimens from soldiers injured during the American Civil War. More remarkable is that four of these specimens originate from soldiers who the poet and essayist Walt Whitman nursed in the wartime hospitals of Washington, D.C. A study published in the January 2012 issue of the Museum History Journal unites these remains with Whitman’s words to yield a new interpretation of individual sacrifice during a time of unprecedented conflict in American history.

The impetus for this study followed a reading of Roy Morris’s The Better Angel, in which Morris ties the development of Whitman’s Civil War writings to his experiences of caring for wounded soldiers. Morris’s discussion of these soldiers treated by Whitman and Whitman’s own writings about these soldiers prompted the authors—then curators at the NMHM—to explore the collections for evidence of these soldiers. A search revealed specimens from four soldiers—John Mahay, Oscar Wilbur, Oscar Cunningham, and Frank Irwin—still housed within the museum.

In 1862, the United States Surgeon General William Hammond directed medical officers to initiate an unparalleled project commensurate with the unprecedented events of the day, namely “to collect and to forward to the Office of the Surgeon General all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable; together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed; and such other matter as may prove of interest in the study of military medicine and surgery…”

Responding to Hammond’s call, Union Surgeons collected and forwarded specimens derived from routine medical procedures performed on the sick, from surgical operations conducted on the wounded, and from autopsies. Specimens also were collected from battlefields and occasionally from the graves of the soldiers. These specimens of morbid anatomy, alongside durable medical equipment and pre- and post-operative photographs and medical illustrations of wounded soldiers, formed the foundation of the Army Medical Museum (AMM), which is today
the NMHM.

Since their collection nearly 150 years ago, the Civil War specimens of the NMHM have been imbued with multiple cultural meanings. They have been the specimens of morbid anatomy that detailed the medical history of the Civil War. As museum objects they have been catalogued, prepared for display, and preserved for future generations. As Civil War relics, they have become the mementos mori for generations of museum visitors who see not only the bone fractured by a gunshot wound but also the symbolic refuse of a nation divided by war. In storage, their role has been as data—to be photographed, measured, described, compiled into databases, and made available to researchers who mine them as a source of scientific and historical information.

Until now, we have had only medical accounts to describe and interpret these specimens held by one of America’s greatest cultural institutions. Today, with the writings of Walt Whitman reconnected to their human subjects, we have glimpses into the lives of these men, reflections upon their character, and powerful witness to their suffering. In recovering the humanity of these specimens through Whitman’s words, we touch four men who directly experienced Whitman’s kindness and endured the pain and ultimate sacrifice of war.

Note: While the full text of “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections” is available for the next several months courtesy of Left Coast Press, publisher of the Museum History Journal, the manuscript of the article will soon be available permanently in PubMed Central, the free full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature at US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services.

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