Poet and author Walt Whitman lived and worked in Washington DC in the 1860’s. He served as a psychological nurse during the devastation that was the American Civil War. Whitman wrote to a friend in 1863, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield.”
To imagine life in Washington as Whitman knew it, begin a walking tour of at the National Portrait Gallery, formerly the Old Patent Office where Whitman worked as a federal employee. Picture the former boarding houses, offices and hospitals the poet frequented while living in DC, around the time of the Civil War. Today there is an alley designated Walt Whitman Way on a section of F Street NW between 7th and 8th Streets. This location was selected because it was the site that served as a temporary hospital where the poet ministered to the wounded soldiers.
Walt Whitman Way is part of the “Civil War to Civil Rights” heritage trail. The heritage trail in Penn Quarter includes the restoration of the Old Post Office (now the Hotel Monaco), National Portrait Gallery, and Clara Barton’s Office for Missing Soldiers of the Civil War located at E and 7th Streets NW. You can also see Whitman’s writing on the walls of the Dupont Circle Metro Rail Station.
Next time you’re walking in Penn Quarter, take a minute to read the signs and remember the heroic, compassionate American poet. Then try to imagine this lively, thriving city center a very different place, in a very different time.
See also: Whitman Walk