Long-lost letter inked by Walt Whitman adds human face to trials of Civil War

The 19th century poet routinely visited wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals, frequently writing letters home dictated by illiterate patients.

The Library of America/AP
A rare 'soldier letter,' penned by Walt Whitman (shown in this archival photo), was discovered last month by a National Archives volunteer who is part of a team preparing Civil War widows' pension files to be digitized and placed online.

This February, National Archives volunteer Catherine Cusack Wilson made a discovery she’ll never forget: a letter from groundbreaking American poet Walt Whitman to a wounded Civil War soldier.

"I'm looking through the file, and I see this letter, and I start reading it," Ms. Wilson, a librarian from Falls Church, told The Washington Post, which first reported on the find on Wednesday. The back of the letter said, "Written by Walt Whitman, a friend."

Wilson was part of a volunteer team that was sorting through Civil War widow’s pension files to prepare them for digitization.

Jackie Budell, the archivist who oversees the pension file project, said that at first she was cautious about the authenticity of the document. There are only two other similar letters in existence.

"It doesn't get much bigger, in my eyes," Ms. Budell told the Post. "It's just simply stunning.... We're not going to find another one like this, probably, for a while."

The 19th century poet frequently visited sick and dying Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals. He spent time with the soldiers, visiting and giving them gifts of food and money. Mr. Whitman also wrote letters for those who were unable to do so themselves.

In 1864, Whitman told The New York Times that he did "a good deal of this, of course, writing all kinds, including love letters.”

One of the soldiers that Whitman visited was Private Robert Jabo, who lay dying in Washington’s Harewood Hospital. Pvt. Jabo, who had served with the 8th New Hampshire Infantry, was illiterate and unable to write home. Whitman evidently volunteered to write for him.

Some 150 years later, volunteer Wilson found the letter while checking through correspondence included in a pension file conservation project for candidates for conservation. She enjoys reading letters from soldiers to their families, she said, which is how Jabo’s letter caught her eye.

The letter was most likely written on January 21, 1866, just 11 months before he died.

“I am mustered out of the service but am not at present well enough to come home,” Whitman wrote for Jabo. “I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this and let me know how you all are.”

Budell told the Post that Jabo, a French Canadian from northern New York, was likely really named Robert Narcisse Gibeau. He was discharged from his first regiment, the 96th New York, due to disability, but was likely paid to sign up as a substitute in the 8th New Hampshire.

“He obviously is a man with six kids at home who needs the money,” said Budell. After his death, it is possible that Jabo’s wife used the letter to receive the pension she was due as a Civil War veteran’s widow, which explains how it ended up in the pension file. Jabo’s wife was evidently granted her pension, which amounted to about $12 per month, or roughly $182 in today's dollars.

Budell took steps to authenticate the letter. She contacted the head of the National Archives, David Ferriero, who in turn contacted a Walt Whitman handwriting expert, Kenneth Price of the University of Nebraska.

Noting Whitman’s penmanship for the letters x, d, and l, as well as the fact that Whitman characteristically shortened the word “and” to a plus sign, Mr. Price decided that the letter was authentic.

The letter will be kept in the National Archives.

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