Of all the thousands of sick, wounded and homesick young soldiers that Walt Whitman met in the military hospitals in Washington, D.C., during his three years of volunteer service in the Civil War, one had a particularly evocative name—Tom Sawyer.
As tempting as it is to think of America’s greatest poet meeting one of her best-loved fictional characters, this Tom Sawyer was not Mark Twain’s red-haired boyhood scamp from St. Petersburg, Missouri, but a very real 21-year-old soapmaker from Cambridgeport, Massachusetts.
In a way, however, both Tom Sawyers were wounded while attempting to free the slaves: Twain’s Tom was shot in the leg while helping Huckleberry Finn get Jim safely downriver from Missouri, and the Massachusetts Tom was similarly wounded while fighting Confederates at the Battle of Second Bull Run, Virginia, in August 1862.
Whitman was serving as a volunteer at Armory Square Hospital when he met Thomas Sawyer of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry later that summer. Something about the young soapmaker particularly attracted Whitman’s attention, and he spent long hours entertaining Sawyer and their mutual friend, Union private Lewy Brown of Elkton, Maryland.
After Sawyer returned to active duty in 1863, Whitman wrote him several affectionate letters: “You must not forget me, for I never shall you,” Whitman implored. “My love you have in life or death forever.” Sawyer responded, a little formally perhaps: “I fully reciprocate your friendship, and it will afford me great pleasure to meet you after the war will have terminated or sooner if circumstances will permit.”
In the end, Whitman never saw his Tom Sawyer again, but he never forgot any of the young soldiers he had met in the hospitals during the war. As he wrote in a valedictory poem a quarter of a century later: “The moon gives you light,/And the bugles and the drums give you music,/And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,/My heart gives you love.”