The essential Walt Whitman

Re-enactor: The poet returns to the Washington building where he tended the Civil War wounded.

May 05, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

In the Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery, in the golden light of the waning day, Charlie Herbek speaks the words of the poet Walt Whitman, the wound-dresser of the Civil War.

"Here is a case of a soldier I found among the crowded cots in the Patent Office. He likes to have someone to talk to. And we will listen to him. He got badly hit at Fredericksburg that eventful Saturday, 13th of December. He lay the succeeding two days and nights helpless on the field Our soldier is from Pennsylvania. ... The wounds prove to be bad ones. But he retains a good heart."

Herbek, a Civil War re-enactor, is rehearsing for his portrayal of Whitman at the gallery as part of the launch of the Civil War Discovery Trail Saturday and Sunday by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The Portrait Gallery in Washington was the old Patent Office when Whitman tended the sick and wounded here, until it closed as a hospital early in 1863. A splendid neo-Grecian edifice between Seventh and Ninth streets and G and F streets, the building looks much as it did in Whitman's day.

Herbek rehearses beneath a skylight, patterned like a splintered image from a kaleidoscope, casting a warm nostalgic glow over the Great Hall.

The wounded were placed here in "a great long double row up and down through the middle of the hall."

"The Old Patent Office opened up again not as a hospital but for the inaugural ball for Lincoln in 1864," Herbek says. Whitman went up to see "the gorgeous array'd dance and supper rooms for the inaugural ball." Herbek again takes the part of Whitman.

"And I could not help thinking ... what a different scene they presented to my view while since, fill'd with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war brought in from Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg.

"That night in March though, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz. But then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood. And many a mother's son amid strangers, passing away untended here. For the crowd of the badly hurt was great and much to do for nurse and for surgeon."

Herbek, a career Army officer who retired three years ago from the transportation corps, seems a somewhat unlikely portrayer of Whitman, the Quakerish rebel, prophet and champion of American intellectual independence, walker in the city and loafer on the beaches of Long Island, lover of opera, rationalist liberal reader of Tom Paine, friend of the outcast and the outlaw, the solitary singer of the body and the soul.

Herbek lives in Fredericksburg, in Spotsylvania County, an area rich in Civil War history where practically every acre was a battlefield. Whitman started his secular ministry to the Civil War sick and wounded and dying in Falmouth across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.

He came down from New York, his beloved "Mannahatta," to find his brother, George Washington Whitman, later a lieutenant colonel, who was slightly wounded while fighting with the 51st New York Volunteers at Fredericksburg.

"He spent a day or two at `a large brick mansion on the banks of the Rappahannock,' which was the Chatham House," Herbek says, "and that's where he sees what he considers to be the appalling conditions for the wounded and sick.

"After he's been there several days, he doesn't see that he does much good for the wounded and the dying. But he says `I cannot leave them.' "

Whitman has become Herbek's favorite character. He identifies with Whitman precisely because of his military experience.

"I spent 22 years with soldiers," he says. "I've been through all kinds of scenes with them. You really come to love them and understand what is really necessary to take care of them. Whitman seemed to have an instinctual understanding of that.

"And he was always focused on the individual lower-ranking person. He wasn't concerned about the generals and colonels and anybody who would normally make it into the paper. His greatest concern was for the people he saw here, the privates, and the sergeants and the lieutenants who were here without their limbs because they were the ones who were bearing the brunt of all the fighting."

Herbek first did Whitman about a year ago at Kenmore House, at Fredericksburg, a "plantation" now of seven acres, where George Washington's sister once lived. He's done lots of research, but he relies heavily on the "Memoranda During War." "This really is the script," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of changes, other then tenses and transitions."

He wears a beard flecked with a smattering of gray, and in costume he looks a bit like the young Whitman around the time of the publication of "Leaves of Grass." He's 48, slightly older than Whitman, who was 41 at the start of the war. But he looks a whole lot younger. Whitman, the good gray poet, always looked considerably older than he was.

"What fascinates me about this particular time and him is his understanding of the soldiers and his complete identification with the tragedy they're going through," Herbek says. "And his concern with the lowest-ranking guy who doesn't get into the history books and who ends up as an unknown."

He speaks again the words of Whitman, soft, firm, compassionate: "And everywhere among these countless graves ... we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly, or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown."

Walt Whitman

What: Actor Charlie Herbek portrays Walt Whitman in a one-man Civil War show.

Where: National Portrait Gallery, F Street between Seventh and Ninth, Washington

When: 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Admission: Free

Call: 703-682-2350

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