Justin’s Cultural Museum Project – Walt Whitman’s Family

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Walt Whitman's Birthplace in Huntington, NY.

Walt Whitman Jr. is inarguably the most famous member of his family. However, certain primary source documents show that the rest of the Whitman clan was as colorful and intriguing as America’s most celebrated poet. Walt Whitman’s immediate family consisted of parents Walter Sr. and Louisa (nee Van Velsor); younger sisters Mary and Hannah, elder brother Jesse; younger brothers Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Edward. This post will focus on the relationships between Walt and the three youngest of his four younger brothers.

Walt's younger brother George Washington Whitman

George Washington Whitman was born on November 28, 1829 and died in 1901. The earliest significant fact that exists about him is that in 1838 and the age of eight he worked at Walt’s short-lived newspaper The Long Islander as an assistant. Besides this brief job, not much else is known about George’s early life. However, we do know that George served as a soldier for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and that he was the only Whitman to do so. He enlisted in April 1861 and after only one hundred days into service he was promoted to sergeant major.  On September 30, 1864, George was captured in Virginia and incarcerated in several prisons in the state (About Whitman).

During George’s prison sentence, Walt worked to free his brother in the best way he knew how: writing. He wrote various letters to the press pleading for his younger brother’s release. One such plea was printed in the December 27, 1864 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle, along with an exposé about the treatment of the war captives. The letter was effective, and George was released, returning to his military duties after a brief furlough back home in Brooklyn. He ended his distinguished career as a lieutenant colonel (Gohdes, 144).

Many letters and correspondences from George’s time in the army have survived, most of which he addressed to his mother Louisa, to whom both Walt and he were very close. However, we do know that he wrote at least one letter to his famous brother:

Dear Brother.

I returned to the Regt last night (I have been away on Court Martial you know) and found your letter of July 5th and Mothers, and Hannahs, that you sent me at the same time. Poor Hann I feel quite worried about her and have just written to her saying that Mother and I will come on to see her in the cours of three or four weeks. Walt I suppose you know that we are going to be Mustered out of service, we are making out the Muster Rolls now, and we expect to be in New York in about 10 days. I have been over to Washing ton two or three times since I saw you, but it was always in the afternoon (after C.M. hours) so that I could not get up to your place in time to see you. Walt come over and see us,  the stage leaves Willards twice every day, and brings you right to Camp, so jump in and come over. 4   I have written to Mother to day to let her know that I am coming home, and telling her to get ready for a trip to Vermont. I am sleepy so good night Walt.


Thomas Jefferson Whitman, more commonly called “Jeff”, was born in the summer of 1833 and died in 1890.  Fourteen years Walt’s junior, he was closer to his famous brother than any of their other siblings, fondly referred to by the poet as “a real brother” and “understander” (Pollack, 107). At age fifteen he traveled with Walt to New Orleans to work as an office boy for the Crescent, a newspaper for which his elder brother wrote. It was during the journey to Louisiana that the two brothers would bond. However, their time in New Orleans was short-lived; Jeff was often sick with dysentery, an infectious diarrhea, and it was this illness, along with homesickness as well as a clash between Walt and the editors of the Crescent (particularly over his opposition to slavery) that compelled the two Whitmans to return north (About Whitman).

In 1855, after marrying Martha Mitchell, nicknamed “Mattie”, Jeff and Walt started to grow apart, and the elder brother felt that he was no longer very important to the younger (Pollack, 108). However, Jeff continued to support his brother both financially and emotionally. The former capacity became even more possible in 1867 when he became the chief engineer of a waterworks business in St. Louis. But more importantly, Jeff wrote to Walt frequently and for all his life. Many correspondences between the brothers exist. Their last known exchange occurred via telegram on May 31, 1889, Walt’s seventieth birthday; however, the last known letter is dated July 14, 1888:

My dear Walt

I was very very glad to get a letter from you yesterday. 1   I have been quite worried about you, wondering how things were going  I am more than glad to hear that you are holding your own

I am up here on a question of the disposal of the sewage of the city  Davis and Flad 2   are associated with me and we have been confabing about a week—Yesterday they went away—leaving me here to make surveys etc

I am going down to Chicago in the morning to meet some people—will be back here on Wednesday

I hope dear Walt that you are gaining again—I was very sorry that I could not get back to Camden—but I had to go with my Committee to Louisville

Yours affectionately Jeff

Edward, the youngest Whitman sibling, born in 1835, holds the distinction not having been named after a family member or an esteemed political figure. But what really marked him as an outsider was his mental retardation. Described by historians as “feeble-minded and crippled”, Edward suffered from an early bout of scarlet fever suspected to have impaired his mental and physical capabilities (Gohdes, 183). However, the degree of his retardation still perplexes historians. Letters written by families explain that the adult Edward showed some agency by going to church alone, completing errands, and transmitting messages (Pollack, 200). He and his famous brother were not particularly close, though Walt did help pay for his medical expenses once he started to make money from his writing. He also feared that their father Walter Sr.’s alcoholism might have, in some way, contributed to the disability (Pollack, 22). However, Walt did write to his brother occasionally:

Dear Ed:

It is pretty sad days just now for me here—our dear brother Jeff has died last Tuesday at St Louis, Missouri of typhoid pneumonia. Jessie went on first train soon as she heard he was sick, but poor Jeff was dead when she arrived—George has gone on—(must have got there this morning)—Hannah is poorly at Burlington, Vermont, but gets about the house. Very cold here. I am still about (not much about for I can only move by help) but have the grip badly, & bladder trouble. I often think of you and hope you have comfortable times—I have heard you have a good kind attendant who has been there some time in the asylum—I wish he would stop here at 328 Mickle & see me a few minutes when he is in Camden. My best respects to Mr and Mrs. Currie—My love to you—

Walt Whitman

Edward died in the asylum in 1902.

Works Cited

Gohdes, Clarence and Rollo G. Silver, eds. Faint clews & indirections; manuscripts of Walt Whitman and his family. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1949.

Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Price, Kenneth M. and Ed Folsom. “About Walt Whitman”. Modern American Poetry. December 8, 2009 <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/whitman/bio.htm>.

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