A memento inspires a Union soldier’s great-grandson to research an encounter with the poet.
For years my family has stored away a collection of Civil War–period images, including cartes de visite (CDVs), daguerreotypes and tintypes. The item that has fascinated me the most is an autographed CDV of Walt Whitman, the American poet who frequently visited hospitals to comfort sick and wounded soldiers. My great-grand – father, Corporal Darius Maples Lillie of the 44th New York Infantry, was wounded in the chest during the Battle of the Wilderness. He somehow survived being transported—likely by wagon, then by train and finally by boat—to Washington City and Armory Square Hospital. Family legend has it that during his recovery there he met Whitman. Yet beyond the evidence of that Whitman-signed CDV, I had no proof of their encounter until a trip to the Library of Congress provided some corroboration.
Whitman, a New Yorker, originally came to Washington, D.C., searching for his brother, George, after reading in a New York news – paper that he had been wounded at Fredericksburg in December 1862. After confirming that George had suffered only a minor wound, Whitman dedicated himself to visiting the sick and wounded who were then crowding the city’s many wartime hospitals.
Whitman described his activities in the nation’s capital in an October 11, 1863, letter to his mother (reprinted in his collection titled The Wound-Dresser ): “I am continually moving around among the hospitals. One I go to oftenest the last three months is ‘Armorysquare’ as it is large, generally full of the worst wounds and sickness and is among the least visited.” In another letter he explained: “I spend my evenings at the hospitals, my days often. I give little gifts of money in small sums, which I am enabled to do— all sorts of things indeed, food, clothing, letter-stamps (I write lots of letters), now and then a good pair of crutches etc. Then I read to the boys. The whole ward that can walk gather around me and listen.”
In a letter referring to the Battle of the Wilderness, where my great-grandfather was wounded, Whitman writes: “Things are going pretty badly with the wounded. They are crowded here in Washington in immense numbers, and all those that come up from the Wilderness and that region, arrived here so neglected, and in such plight, it was awful. The papers are full of puffs [spin], etc., but the truth is, the largest proportion of worst cases got little or no attention. We receive them here with their wounds full of worms—some all swelled and inflamed. Many of the amputations have to be done over again.”
Darius M. Lillie, a farmer in the hamlet of Apalachin, N.Y., near Binghamton, when the war broke out, enlisted in the 44th New York Volunteers on August 19, 1861. The unit had been formed in honor of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of President Abraham Lincoln’s, who became the first Union officer killed in the war. Ellsworth was shot on May 24, 1861, while removing a Confederate flag that was hanging from the Marshall House Tavern in Alexandria, Va.
The 44th New York volunteer infantry, or “Ellsworth Avengers,” also known as the “People’s Ellsworth Regiment,” was formed in memory of the colonel’s death. The 44th New York in particular was raised by soliciting from each town and ward in the state of New York “able bodied men, who were temperate, of good moral character, not less than five feet eight inches in height and not exceeding thirty years of age.”
My great-grandfather had been in action for some time before that fateful day of May 6, 1864, when he was wounded in the chest at the Wilderness. Two years earlier, on June 27, 1862, he had been captured at Gaines’ Mill during the Seven Days’ Campaign. He survived a month in a Richmond prison camp, most likely Belle Isle, before he was paroled at Aikens Landing on August 5, 1862. Returning to the ranks, he was again wounded in the right leg at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 30, 1862.
Pension records indicate he was sent to Washington’s Campbell Hospital to recover from his second wound. That did not end his active service, however. Lillie’s regiment, part of Daniel Butterfield’s brigade and Fitz-John Porter’s division in the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps, had been held in reserve at Antietam, but was engaged at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The regiment’s finest hour may have come on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg. Positioned on the left of the Union line, the 44th New York joined the 20th Maine, the 83rd Pennsylvania and the 16th Michigan in the defense of Little Round Top. Today a large castle-like monument that doubles as an observation tower commemorates the heroism of the 44th New York. Darius Lillie’s name is among those engraved on the memorial.
The story of Lillie’s later wounding at the Wilderness and his meeting Walt Whitman at Armory Square Hospital is consistent with the histories of both men. But I could find no specific details about their encounter until I took a trip to Washington, D.C., in September 2005 to view a special Library of Congress exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s groundbreaking, and at one time controversial, collection of poetry. That exhibit, “Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and the Leaves of Grass,” also included a lecture by curator Barbara Bair on Whitman’s years in Washington.
After the lecture I showed my CDVs of Whitman and my great-grandfather to Bair and the other curators. I was pleasantly surprised when they offered to search the LOC’s collection of Whitman notebooks, which the poet accumulated during his visits to the hospitals, for any reference to my great-grandfather. I knew Whitman had visited with thousands of soldiers, so I had no expectation that the curators would find any reference to Darius Lillie. In fact, I had already searched his published collection of hospital notes in Memoranda During the War, as well as the expanded Specimen Days, both published after the war, which included moving vignettes of the poet’s experiences. These are well worth reading to gain an understanding of what working with the wounded was like for him.
The day after my visit to Washington I received an e-mail from Alice Birney, manuscript curator of the LOC’s Whitman collection, to say she had found two notations in hospital notebooks in the collection regarding my great-grandfather. One was a brief reference that listed “Darius Lillie, May ’64, Co G, 44th NY, Armory, Ward 2, rt breast ball passed through.” But in another note book, labeled book #12, 1864, Whitman wrote of “Darius Lillie, Co G, 44th New York, Upper room
Armory Building, Ward 2, bed 49, Mrs Lucinda Lillie (his mother), Appalachin [sic], Tioga Co, NY, tell her to send address of Charles (Darius’ brother) here.” The poet also made a note to “send a little money” and to tell “brother-in-law John Morton of Owego, Tioga County, where he (Lillie) is and how wounded May 6th.”
It was very gratifying to find a direct reference to my great-grandfather by Whitman. Of course, I will always wish that I knew more about their visits at Armory Square, but considering that my family came into possession of the CDV autographed by the great poet’s own hand, and that my great-grandfather had benefited from Whitman’s care has special significance for me—all the more meaningful because of my own involvement with wounded soldiers. Whitman’s compassion for the Civil War wounded inspires the care I provide as a physician assistant to veterans at the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center in North Carolina.
For a history of Walt Whitman’s Civil War years, see Roy Morris’ The Better Angel or Lincoln and Whitman, by Daniel Epstein. Whitman’s Civil War poetry is included in his chapter of Leaves of Grass titled “Drum Taps.”
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.