Prologue Magazine

“Written by Walt Whitman, a friend”

Three Letters from Soldiers

Summer 2016, Vol. 48, No. 2

By Kenneth M. Price and Jacqueline M. Budell


Refer to Caption

This 1860 painting of Walt Whitman—the poet's favorite—was done by Charles Hine when Whitman was 42. A few years later, Whitman was living in Washington, D.C., and visiting sick and wounded soldiers in Union hospitals.

(Courtesy of the Brooklyn College Library Archives and Special Collections)

During Walt Whitman's hospital visits to thousands of Civil War soldiers, he cared for their wounded and ill bodies; sustained their morale with small gifts, attentiveness, and affection; and regularly urged them to communicate with their families.

As a brother to two soldiers, Whitman knew how much families craved word of their loved ones. He supplied stationery and stamps, and at times he served as an amanuensis, writing on behalf of various soldiers. His Memoranda During the War (1875) suggests he did this frequently for those who could not write for themselves:

"When eligible, I encourage the men to write, and myself, when call'd upon, write all sorts of letters for them, (including love letters, very tender ones.)"

Yet it has been difficult to locate surviving evidence of these Whitman-inscribed letters. Only one such letter was known until recently: a letter penned by Whitman—from David Ferguson to his wife—was reproduced in facsimile in the first volume of Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller (1961). In October 2015, however, an additional letter Whitman wrote for Albion F. Hubbard surfaced and was appraised in an episode of PBS's Antiques Roadshow. Only a few months later, on February 3, 2016, a third letter inscribed by Whitman—this one on behalf of Robert Nelson Jabo—was discovered by Catherine C. Wilson, a volunteer at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Wilson is part of a team preparing Civil War widows' pension files to be digitized, indexed, and made available online (see accompanying story). Word of this discovery made 150 years after the letter was written generated news stories around the world.

Whitman Conveys Love and Hope

Here we consider some of the implications of Whitman's effort to ventriloquize Jabo, Hubbard, and Ferguson, his attempt to channel the thoughts, anguish, and love of ordinary people in an extraordinary time.

The encounters with Jabo and other soldiers fatigued and endangered Whitman even as they enriched him. The soldiers affirmed his belief in the courage and great worth of what he called the "divine average," the unheralded people he featured in his most famous publications, Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas.

Nine months after the war ended, and three months after the soldier's discharge, Whitman inscribed these words for Jabo:

Jan 21, 1865 [6?]

My dear wife,
     You must excuse me for not having written to you before. I have not been very well, & did not feel much like writing—but I feel considerably better now—my complaint is an affection of the lungs—I am mustered out of the service, but am not at present well enough to come home—I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this & let me know how you all are, how things are going one on—let me know how it is with mother—I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side——& I hope it will be God's will that we shall yet meet again—Well I send you all my love, & must now close.

     Your affectionate husband
     Nelson Jabo
Written by Walt Whitman, a friend.


Refer to Caption When Robert Nelson Jabo was unable to write to his wife from his hospital bed, Whitman wrote for him. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)


Military service and pension file records provide a significant amount of information on Jabo, yet he remains something of a mystery nonetheless with his name, age, and place of birth differing among records.

An "X" on the signature line in one document suggests that Jabo was illiterate, and thus clerks must have spelled his French Canadian name phonetically and included his middle name only when stated. In records held at the National Archives, he appears also as Nelson Gebo, Robert Jabo, Robert Jebo, Robert Gebo, Robert Jebow, Narcisse Gibeau, Robert Nelson Gebeaut, and Robert Nelson Jarbo.

Jabo, an Older Civil War Soldier

Additional records—specifically, bed cards that were commonly placed at the foot of the bed in many Civil War hospitals—list Jabo once as born in Paris, France, and married, and on another card, as born in Williamstown, Canada, and single. His date of birth varies, too, ranging from 1814 to 1824. Interestingly, Jabo was fairly old for a Civil War soldier and was roughly the same age as Whitman, who was born in 1819.

Jabo served initially in the 96th New York Infantry. He enlisted on October 26, 1861, in Mooers, Clinton County, New York, to serve three years. He left his work as a mason behind along with his wife Marguerite (also known as Adeline) of 15 years and six young children. The youngest son was just four years old.

Jabo's health declined rapidly after the battle of White Oak Swamp, part of the Seven Days Battles, or Peninsula Campaign (he is described as "sick" and suffering from a "spinal irritation"). Within seven months of his enlistment, he was deemed unfit for duty by a military surgeon and was ultimately discharged on November 13, 1862, for disability. In February 1863 he was examined by Surgeons B. J. Mooers and G. A. Dewey back home in Clinton County, New York, preliminary to his submitting an invalid pension application and was found to be "wholly disabled from obtaining his subsistence from manual labor."

Despite this assessment, he managed to resume work as a mason and do other hard labor. In November 1863 he rejoined the Union service as a substitute for Chester Bullard of Nashua, New Hampshire, and was assigned to Company H of the 8th New Hampshire Infantry. He received no bounty, but the usual fee paid to men willing to serve in place of another (commonly $300) must have been too good to turn down with many children to support.

Military life was no kinder to Jabo the second time around. He was in and out of several military hospitals starting in May 1864, forcing his eventual transfer to the 24th Veteran Reserve Corps Infantry in June 1864, where he could be put on light duty.

Refer to Caption The letter from Private Jabo was found in the pension application file of his widow, Adeline, and was submitted by her as supporting evidence. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)

The Merged Voice of Whitman and Jabo

However, with the exception of a few short periods in 1864 and 1865, Jabo spent more time as a patient than a soldier. When Whitman penned the letter for Jabo, the war was over and what began as "bronchitis" had progressed to pulmonary tuberculosis, or what was commonly known then as consumption. By Christmas 1865, Jabo was transferred to Harewood General Hospital, one of several hospitals in Washington that continued to care for discharged soldiers with lingering illnesses and injuries.

Jabo may have realized his outlook was dim. Consumption killed thousands of men during the war—many of whom were sent home with little hope because there was no treatment. In Jabo's case, as he explained in his letter to Adeline, he was too sick to travel.

Surviving records tell us what Jabo looked like (he was of medium height and had dark hair and a dark complexion), but what he sounded like in conversation is, of course, not recoverable. It seems doubtful that he spoke in entirely grammatical fashion.

Whitman probably tried to channel the sense and spirit of what this particular soldier wanted to convey, while subordinating his own personality in order to give voice to Jabo. Whitman no doubt summarized, interpreted, and made the types of alterations necessary when speech is remade as writing. Direct and unostentatious, Jabo's phrasing as mediated by Whitman seeks to reassure those at home and to express love and concern.

Whitman: For Whom Am I Speaking?

The very simplicity of the document contributes to its emotional impact. Interestingly, this communicative act connects in fundamental ways with Whitman's poetic ambitions. Well before the war, in an unpublished manuscript drafted while preparing Leaves of Grass, Whitman considered how he might "transpose my . . . spirit": "It is you talking—I am your voice—It was tied in you—In me it begins to be loosened. . . . I am the voice of another man."

In November 1865, Harewood became the last military general hospital in Washington City maintained by the government, but even it closed in May 1866. Jabo would be transferred to a USA Post Hospital before eventually becoming a "charity patient" at Providence Hospital, a city institution, in September 1866. He died there in December 1866. His burial place is unknown.

Of the three soldiers Whitman wrote for, we know least about Albion F. Hubbard, though he does appear in Whitman's notebooks. The following letter for Hubbard was written eight days before his death at only 19 years old.

Friday evening June 12th

Dear friend,
     As I have a favorable opportunity, by means of a visitor to the hospital, who is now sitting by the side of my bed, I write you again, making the second time this week, to let you know that I am tolerably comfortable, have good care & medical attendance, & hope to be up before long—have been up & moving around the ward both this forenoon & afternoon though I move around pretty slow as I am weak yet—A member of the Massachusetts Relief society has called upon me & given me a few trifles——— Dear friend, I wish you would say to Mrs. Rice I send her my best love & respects—I send my love to Horace, also to Charles & Mrs Clare—I would like so much to see the face of a friend, —I wish you would write me a good long letter, some of you my dear friends, as a letter from home is very acceptable in hospital——— My diarrhea is still somewhat troublesome yet I feel in pretty good spirits—I send you an envelope with my address on— Keep a copy of it & this one you please put a stamp on & write to me—Please give my love to the friends in the village & tell them I should like to hear from them, & give them my direction here in hospital—Good bye for the present

     Albion F. Hubbard
     written by Walt Whitman, a friend.

Like the hybrid Jabo/Whitman, Hubbard/Whitman strives to reassure those at home that a soldier is not suffering alone: in both cases, a friend is said to be "by my side" (Jabo) or "by the side of my bed" (Hubbard). And like Jabo, Hubbard tries to be consoling: he is comfortable, he claims, has good medical care, and hopes to be better soon. Whitman's notebooks, however, provide a glimpse into a grimmer reality:

Refer to Caption Whitman noted to himself that he had written a letter for Albion Hubbard, who had been in military service for only a year and died just eight days after the date of the letter. (Rare Book Division, Oscar Lion Collection, New York Public Library)
Albion F. Hubbard
ward C bed 7
Co F 1st Mass Cavalry
—been in the service one year
—has had two carbuncles, one on arm, one on ancle healing at present yet great holes left, stuffed with rags
—worked on a farm 8 years before enlisting—wrote letter
—for him to the man he lived with
died June 20th '63

Born in Sunderland and later living in Conway (both in Franklin County, Massachusetts), Hubbard was raised as a foster child by Austin and Charlotte Baker Rice from the age of 10. He was one of about 12 orphaned children absorbed into the family, as explained by Austin and Charlotte's son Charles in a family history published in 1905. He seems to have been taken in shortly after his mother died in December 1853.

A Whitman Letter Emerges on TV

Hubbard likely received a good education as he worked the Rice farm—Austin Rice had also been a teacher and a justice of the peace. Not surprisingly, then, Hubbard signed his own name to his enlistment paper on August 15, 1862.

Austin Rice also signed the document giving his permission as Hubbard's guardian. The young soldier was described as 5' 7.25" tall with a dark complexion, hazel eyes, and brown hair. Having grown up on the farm, he may have never heard of the places where his unit would soon face the enemy: Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The owner of the letter featured on PBS's Antiques Roadshow remarked:

The letter belonged to my mother, and it was written by Walt Whitman to my mom's great-great-great-grandfather. Walt Whitman would go around, as I understand, and would be the scribe for injured soldiers in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, and this young man was a foster child in that [Rice's] family. The letter has been in my family all along. It sat in a corner of the closet for years and years. . . . I did see that the date on it is the 12th, and the young man who it was being written for died . . . days later, so it's kind of sad, too.

The times were in fact gloomy beyond measure. The extent of the woe may be suggested, paradoxically, by the unadorned language of the notebook passage about Hubbard. There is no comment or editorializing on the pitiable sadness of seeing a 19-year-old waste away (diarrhea was a frequent killer in the Civil War). The facts were enough. The detached language Whitman employs masks the powerful effect such scenes had on him. In Memoranda During the War, he avoids maudlin language, but he acknowledges that after spending the "good part of the day" at a hospital, he needed to walk at sundown to the "edge of the woods to soothe myself." Military documents show that Hubbard's body was embalmed and returned home for burial. He rests at the Pine Grove Cemetery in Conway, Massachusetts, near the final resting place of his birth parents, Horace and Mary Gunn Hubbard.

Even sadder, it turns out, were the circumstances for David Ferguson, whose letter to his wife was written when he was clearly unaware that she had died five days earlier:

April 29th, 1863

Dear wife,
     I am now to inform you that I have been now sick for two weeks—have been for the past week in Armory Square Hospital—have a pretty bad cold, the doctor does not call my disease by any particular name—I have considerable cough—but I think I shall be up all right before a great while, so you must not be uneasy—I have pretty good care taken of me here, & I shall do well—I send you an envelope for you to put a letter in, as I wish you to write to me.
     I send you my love. I have this letter written by a friend who sometimes calls in to see me & the other boys.
     Good bye for the present, & God bless you & all.

     David Ferguson
     The above letter is written by Walt Whitman, a visitor to the hospitals.

Refer to Caption Whitman visited many hospitals, including Carver Hospital in Washington (pictured here), where he once provided a general ice cream treat. (111-B-173)

Although there were at least 34 David Fergusons who served in the Union army, only one was in Armory Square hospital in April 1863. This particular David Ferguson served in the 15th New York Engineers, Company I, as a corporal. (Whitman was a New Yorker, too, and his brother Thomas Jefferson ["Jeff"] Whitman was an engineer, so Ferguson may have been of special interest to the poet.)

An immigrant from Scotland, Ferguson enlisted as a private at age 33 to serve two years. Military records reveal that he stood 5' 8" tall, had blue eyes and brown hair, with the ruddy complexion one may expect of a rigger who worked outdoors. He was discharged May 22, 1863, on a surgeon's certificate from Armory Square General Hospital: "Extreme debility resulting from a severe attack of pneumonia and the impossibility of his recovering before the expiration of his term of service."

Unlike the other two soldiers, Ferguson returned home.

As noted, Ferguson's wife had died of debility even before the April 29 letter was written. She was buried in "Calvary," probably in Queens, New York. It is not known when Ferguson received the news about his wife's death. He himself died of consumption on June 16, 1863 (less than eight weeks after his wife) at 609 Water Street, lower east side of New York City. He is buried in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn. His young daughter and son, ages 11 and 9, were left orphaned.

What do these soldiers—Jabo, Hubbard, and Ferguson—have in common? Two of the three were immigrants, and none were wealthy or privileged. All were vulnerable in various ways, and all died within a year of when Whitman wrote for them.

In each case Whitman sought to help them sustain connections with those people they were emotionally close to despite their physical separation and distance. At the same time, he offset their absence, to the extent he could, with his presence, providing affection and tenderness. The ties Whitman forged with many soldiers were charged with longing and loss: it seems possible that for Whitman these letters were a prescient rite of grieving-in-advance, with Whitman loving and mourning these soldiers as he recognized he was likely to lose them.

"I believe no men ever loved each other as I and some of these poor wounded, sick and dying men love each other," he once noted.

Refer to Caption This stereograph shows Harewood General Hospital, where Private Jabo encountered Walt Whitman as the writer visited sick and wounded soldiers. (Library of Congress)

These letters have significance for family histories and implications for Civil War history as well. They offer the particularity and power of bottom-up history. And perhaps they begin to fill in that "real history" of the war Whitman was sure would never get into the books.

A full history of the war needs to reckon with significant battles, widespread destruction, and the political and moral stakes of our bloodiest war. But it needs also to attend to the common and too-often-forgotten soldiers and to celebrate moments of kindness and sympathy in the midst of near-despair inducing circumstances.

Hospitals were dangerous places in the Civil War, making Whitman's time spent visiting soldiers both courageous and generous. Few writers would have sacrificed such an enormous amount of time at the height of a literary career. His visits to the hospitals were acts of love that remain frankly inspiring.

Kenneth M. Price is Hillegass University professor of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

Jacqueline M. Budell is an archives specialist and coordinator of digital partnership projects at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. She has managed the Civil War Widows' Pension Digitization Project since 2009.

Learn more about:

Note on Sources

Whitman's Memoranda During the War is available at The Walt Whitman Archive, ed. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price.

The David Ferguson/Walt Whitman letter is in the Charles E. Feinberg collection at the Library of Congress. A facsimile of this letter is included in the first volume of Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York University Press, 1961).

The Albion F. Hubbard/Walt Whitman letter is owned by a private individual who prefers to remain anonymous. This letter was discussed on an episode of PBS's Antiques Roadshow, October 26, 2015..

The newly discovered letter is part of Widow's Certificate No. 168568, Letter from Robert N. Jabo to his Wife, 1/21/1865 [sic]; Approved Pension File for Adeline Jabo, widow of Robert N. Jabo, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, 1861–1934; Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives Identifier 26421227; National Archives Building; Washington, D.C. Whitman misdated the letter "Jan. 21, 1865" even though it was composed in 1866 as other evidence makes clear. Someone other than Whitman annotated the letter in pencil with a "(6?)," rightly calling into question Whitman's dating.

Details of the military and personal histories of all three soldiers can be found among several key record series at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The framework of a soldier's Civil War military service is best found in his Compiled Military Service Record, known as a CMSR. This collects abstracted information from official military records together with other original personal papers to document the military service of a soldier who fought in any volunteer organization during the American Civil War. These individual files were created between 1890 and 1912 and are part of Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1762–1984. They typically contain information regarding enlistment, age, physical description, nativity, occupation, attendance, pay, status after battle, transfers, hospital admittance and discharge, medical diagnoses, discharge for disability, death, and dispersal of effects.

Jabo served in three military units, and there is a CMSR for each: 96th New York Infantry, 8th New Hampshire Infantry, and 24th Veteran Reserve Corps (VRC) Infantry. It is among these records and others mentioned later that we find many variations on his name in format and spelling. Hubbard's CMSR is filed with those of the First Massachusetts Cavalry; and Ferguson’s with those of the 15th New York Engineers.

Jabo's CMSR identifies the man who paid him to serve as his substitute as Chester Ballard of Nashua, New Hampshire. Other records from the period suggest that the name was likely Chester Bullard. The Bullard spelling is consistent in Consolidated Lists of Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863–1865; Entry 172 of Record Group 110, Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau (Civil War); as well as in U.S. federal census records from 1860 through 1880. Bullard appears to have been successful enough in business to afford the fee needed for him to stay home with his wife and two daughters.

Soldiers' pension files (Record Group 15) can provide specific details about an injury or illness and other wartime experiences. They often include reports of medical examinations and affidavits from witnesses testifying to the soldier's inability to perform manual labor or provide support for himself and his family.

In Jabo's case, he twice applied for a soldier's pension: once in March 1863 after his discharge from the 96th New York Infantry (Soldier's Original No. 13771), and again in October 1865 dated one day after his discharge from the 24th Veteran Reserve Corps Infantry (Soldier's Original No. 96060). He marks both applications with an "X" in place of signature. An examining surgeon's certificate in the latter file indicates that Jabo is suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis of the left lung, which was moving into the right lung at the time he was discharged. Jabo explains in his application that his disease is a result of "laying on the ground in damp and cold weather." Documents from both files are now consolidated into Widow's Certificate No. 168568.

Pension files of dependents in the Widows' Certificate (WC) series go beyond military service to document family relationships and often shed light on the soldier's illness and death in rich detail. The pension office examiner for the Jabo case noted on the "brief" or summary of the case that a letter from the soldier to his wife was submitted as evidence because it references the soldier's medical condition at that time, and that he was "mustered out of service, but not well enough to come home." The examiner added in parentheses: "(Written by Walt Whitman)." Evidence submitted by Adeline identifies who was waiting at home—the file includes proof of their marriage in Canada and the baptism in Canton, St. Lawrence County, New York, of their four youngest children (under the age of 16 and eligible for pension). Their names were Alvina, Charles, Albert, and Alfred.

The WC pension file includes statements of military service for the New Hampshire and VRC units (with confirmation of his status as a substitute) and proof from the Surgeon General and Adjutant General Offices of the War Department of Jabo's illnesses and dates for various hospital stays. Outside the military, the file includes an affidavit from Clinton County, New York, physicians who examined Jabo before his second enlistment and commented on his physical abilities in the fall of 1863 as an "able-bodied healthy man." This testimony offers a comparison of Jabo before service as opposed to after discharge, and thus is used to assert that the illness that caused his death must have been a result of his military service.

Accepted proof of Jabo's death is noted on the brief in the pension file. The pension examiner recorded that Adeline received correspondence from Providence Hospital confirming her husband's status as a "charity patient" and eventual death in December. Finally, Adeline's death is documented on a record officially dropping her from the pension roll in 1901.

In June 1892, David Ferguson's son Charles applied for arrears of pension monies due him as a minor child. His sister, Mary Jane, had died in September 1877 of the same disease that took her parents, leaving Charles as the only surviving family member. The file (Widow's Certificate No. 376311) provides evidence of David's marriage to Margaret Flemming in 1850, the birth dates of both children, and the deaths of Margaret, David, and Mary Jane in New York City.

Carded Medical Records of Volunteer Soldiers in the Mexican and Civil Wars, 1846–1865 (Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1762–1984; Entry 534) were consulted for each soldier to confirm their medical treatment, diagnoses and outcome. The abstracted information derives from Field Records of Hospitals, 1812–1912 (Entry 544 of the same record group). These field books were also consulted to confirm the information. In particular, the field book for Armory Square General Hospital for the month of April 1863 was reviewed page by page to ascertain the identity of the "David Ferguson" of the Whitman-scribed letter as being the soldier who served in the 15th New York Engineers.

Regimental and Company Books of Civil War Volunteer Union Organizations, 1861–1867 (Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1762–1984; Entries 112–115) at times provided a small detail of interest that was not abstracted in a soldier’s CMSR. One example would be the notation for Jabo on November 6, 1863, in volume 4 of the regimental descriptive book of the 24th VRC Infantry that stated he was a "Substitute [receiving] No Bounty [pay]."

Population schedules of the Records of the Bureau of the Census (Record Group 29) supplied family information that was lacking in the WC pension file, including the names of Jabo's children who were older than 16 at the time Adeline completed her pension application (they were Adaline and Joseph). Federal and existing state census records were consulted for each of the families to establish place of residence before the war and identify extended family members, as well as to compare age, nativity, and occupation. Finally, in Jabo's case, census records confirmed that the family appeared to consistently use the spelling "Gebo" for their surname.

Insight into the Rice family and their support of orphaned children in Franklin County, Massachusetts is found in a book written by Charles Baker Rice (mentioned in Albion Hubbard’s letter home) titled Colonel Austin Rice, Charlotte Baker Rice of Conway: A Memorial (printed for the family; The Arakelyan Press, 1905). An electronic version can be accessed on the web using Google Books; an original is available at the New York Public Library.

Burial locations for Albion F. Hubbard and David Ferguson were confirmed using the website

The "transpose my . . . spirit" manuscript is held in the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Whitman Archive ID: duk.00787.

The Whitman notebook passage about Albion Hubbard can be located in the Rare Book Division, New York Public Library; Oscar Lion Collection; A Series of Washington Hospital Notes. Written by Walt Whitman at the bedsides of sick and wounded soldiers, Washington, D.C., 1863–1865, "[Ms. leaf recto] Albion F Hubbard, Ward C bed 7," New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1863).

Whitman's note "[Ms. leaf recto] Writing letters by the bed-side" is in the New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1863.

Whitman's comment about the love he shared with dying men is in his letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, September 8, 1863. Available at the Whitman Archive.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.


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