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Perhaps 25 years ago, I spent an afternoon sorting through Duke University’s collection of Walt Whitman’s personal papers searching for anything he had written during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865). I knew that Whitman worked with casualties in army hospitals and, given that I was a psychiatrist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina (just a 15-minute walk from the University library where Whitman’s papers were stored), I hoped to find some observation of Whitman’s that could help me better understand the veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War in my clinic.

Despite hours with the library archivist sorting through Duke’s Whitman collection, I didn’t find anything of use. Then, following my 2014 move to Washington, D.C., as I rode an escalator down into the Dupont Circle Metro station, I raised my eyes to see, carved deeply in the stone over my head, the last (but two) lines of Whitman’s wartime poem, “The Wound Dresser.” I had found what I was hoping for! 

A quote from Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Wound Dresser,” carved in stone outside DuPont Circle Metro station in Washington, D.C., United States

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Image Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This poem first appeared in Whitman’s 1865 collection, Drum Taps. It must have been written either during or immediately after the war, yet the poem is set many years later when the central figure is a bent old man. Perhaps Whitman, himself a journalist of the war in real time, believed that the graphic images of combat wounds and blasted lives depicted in his poem would be less overwhelming to readers if presented as long-past events or, as you will read, as vivid dreams of the past (“…in silence in dreams’ projections”) rather than current events.  Whitman later incorporated “The Wound Dresser” into his ever-evolving magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, thus weaving it into that philosophic autobiography in poetry.    

Walt Whitman

Image Credit: George C. Cox ‎‎(1851–1903, photo) Adam Cuerden (1979-, ‎restoration), Public domain, via Wikimedia ‎Commons

The story of how Whitman came to write “The Wound Dresser” is a highly personal one. On December 16, 1862, Walt Whitman, (1819 – 1892), saw his brother George named in the New York Tribune’s casualty list. George was a First Lieutenant in the Union Army. The nature and severity of his wounds weren’t indicated. Whitman immediately left New York City to find his brother among the battle casualties hospitalized in Washington, D.C. His wallet was stolen along the way, so Whitman walked a good deal of the 230 miles not knowing if his brother was still alive. He eventually found George, whose wounds were only slight. 

Once in Washington, Whitman found a part-time government job that freed him to spend much of his time volunteering as a nurse in army hospitals and, sometimes, travelling to field hospitals set up at battlegrounds near the capital. Later, he toured army hospitals across the nation including those in New York City’s Manhattan and Brooklyn.

We share “The Wound Dresser” in the current issue of StressPoints, because, on February 10, 2022, Theater of War Productions, Community Building Art Works, and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series, Poetry in America, jointly hosted a live reading of the poem which is now available here. This Zoom event featured clips from Poetry in America’s recent episode on “The Wound-Dresser” and a live reading of the poem by a volunteer cast of distinguished actors including David Strathairn (Nomadland), Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America and Westworld), and combat veteran COL (Ret.) Gregory D. Gadson (now an actor who was featured in the recent movie, Battleship). Other readers included Craig Manbauman (Poet, Nurse, and United States Air Force Veteran) and Maj. (Ret.) Belena Stuart Marquez (United States Air Force Veteran). The reading was followed by live discussion among a group of veterans and caregivers and a give-and-take with the audience.  The program was attended by 1,541 listeners in 24 countries.   

Theater of War has been engaging modern audiences through live performances and insightful discussions since 2009. Originally offering performances featuring fresh translations of Greek tragedies for servicemembers and veterans, Theater of War has branched out during the pandemic to address the experiences, strengths and vulnerabilities of health care professionals and diverse populations in the face of COVID-19. Their performances, under the direction of artistic director, Bryan Doerries, are free but require pre-registration at https://theaterofwar.com/. We recommend them highly to our readers.

Reader Advisory: Although this poem was written more than 150 years ago, it conjures up images that are more graphic than most modern news coverage of battle wounds. These may cause distress in some readers.

The Wound Dresser 


An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass'd heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover'd with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur'd works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers' perils or soldier's joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams' projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof'd hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill'd with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill'd again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look'd on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)


Thus in silence in dreams' projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier's loving arms about this neck have cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)