MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to head back to another contentious time in America's history or rather the end of one. While combing through various Civil War files in the National Archives, a volunteer recently discovered a letter written by a poet and essayist Walt Whitman on behalf of a union soldier dying in a hospital far from home. Here it is.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) My dear wife, you must excuse me for not having written to you before. I have not been very well and did not feel much like writing. But I feel considerably better now. My complaint is an infection of the lungs. I am mustered out of service, but I'm not at present well enough to come home. I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this and let me know how you all are, how things are going on. Let me know how it is with mother. I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side, and I hope it will be God's will that we shall yet meet again. Well, I send you all my love and must now close. Your affectionate husband, Nelson Jabo. Written by Walt Whitman, a friend.
MARTIN: Jackie Budell is a specialist with the National Archives. She says Walt Whitman was working for the government at the time, and he'd often take off early so he could visit wounded soldiers in the hospital.
JACKIE BUDELL: So he would take off with his haversack over his back which was filled with small goodies that might help the soldiers just be more comfortable - so fruit or candy or actually small amounts of change. But I do think it was his investment of time and the emotion that he showed the boys that was probably what they were looking for the most.
MARTIN: But he just visited people. He just took it upon himself...
BUDELL: He just literally visited people. And he bought stationary, and he would bring it with him. And he would offer to write letters home for them.
MARTIN: Many of the soldiers recuperating in the hospital either could not read or write or were just too sick to put pen to paper.
BUDELL: He was in effect kind of helping them to verbalize maybe what they weren't able to say. And I'm sure many of them kind of knew what was about to happen to them, and so they didn't want to worry family at home but at the same time still wanted to, you know, give some parting thoughts to a wife or a mom who wondered where they were.
MARTIN: Always the writer, Whitman might have added a little poetic flourish to the letters from time to time. He wrote about his wartime experience in the book "Memoranda During The War."
BUDELL: So he talks about writing actually hundreds of letters for soldiers in his time, but hardly any of the letters survived. This is really only the third one that we've been able to find with his name on it.
MARTIN: So who was this dying soldier in the letter, Nelson Jabo?
BUDELL: He was a French Canadian who had come across the border, was living in Clinton County, N.Y. His wife was named Adeline, but they had six little kids at home.
MARTIN: Jabo likely joined the Union side for money, Jackie Budell says, to support his family back in New York. After five years of military service, he was able to return home, but he died less than a year after that letter was written.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we say that Nelson Jabo was able to return home to New York state sometime after the letter was written. In fact, he did not make it back home. He died of tuberculosis as a charity patient at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1866.]
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