Envelope self-addressed by Walt Whitman himself,
for the use of Corporal Bethuel Smith:
Care Major Hapgood Paymaster USA
Cor 15th & F St.
It was originally enclosed with Whitman's letter to Smith, who then used it to mail a reply back to Whitman, postmarked September 18, 1863 at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Envelope is docketed at the left edge by Whitman upon receipt:
"Bethuel Smith / Carlisle / Sept '63".
The Library of Congress holds Whitman's draft copy of the letter he sent to Corporal Smith accompanied by this envelope, and also holds the letter this envelope carried back to Whitman.
In fact, Whitman's letter refers to the fact that he is enclosing an envelope. Whitman's addressing overlaps the postage stamp edge, proving that he affixed the stamp himself.
Corporal Bethuel Smith is among the handful of soldiers mentioned by name by Whitman in the "Typical Soldiers" chapter of Specimen Days, his autobiographical book published in 1883.
The envelope is in superb condition because it had been professionally window-mounted on a leaf of fine paper and bound into a volume of the first edition 10-volume set of The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1902 — numbered 293 of the limited edition of the "Paumanok Edition" of 300 copies.
It is detached from the volume.
The 10-volume set it was discovered in is included in this lot.
About the Correspondence Between Walt Whitman and Corporal Bethuel Smith
Walt Whitman served as a volunteer nurse for injured soldiers in Washington, D.C. hospitals during the Civil War, a pivotal experience that served to greatly influence the course and content of his work from then on.
In his notebooks and in the articles about the hospitals he wrote for newspapers, Whitman invariably and repeatedly mentioned the small gifts he constantly brought to the soldiers he cared for, placing an emphasis on the stationery and stamped envelopes he distributed in the hospital wards. Providing the means for them to write to their loved ones, and often doing it personally for those unable to do so themselves, was considered by him to be a very important part of the comfort he was providing.
He established especially strong bonds with a few soldiers that resulted in his writing to them what can fairly be described as infatuated love letters — one of these soldiers was Corporal Bethuel Smith, the recipient of this envelope.
Bethuel Smith was a 22-year-old farmer from Glen Falls, New York, serving in the Second U.S. Cavalry. He suffered a gunshot wound to his right foot at Culpeper Court House, Virginia and arrived about August 14, 1863 at Armory Hospital in Washington, D.C. This is where Whitman met him.
Smith was discharged from Armory Hospital on September 11th and sent to the U.S. General Hospital in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for further recuperation in anticipation of his rejoining his regiment in that area. Whitman must have been caught unaware of Smith's sudden departure, but soon wrote the first letter of their correspondence to him at Carlisle, enclosing this self-addressed stamped envelope.
Whitman's draft for this letter, currently in the Library of Congress, expresses his concern and longing for his friend, whom he calls "Thuey." The bracketed passage is covered over in Whitman's draft:
I thought I would write you a few lines & see if they would reach you — I was very much disappointed when I went to Armory that evening to find my dear comrade was gone so sudden & unexpected. [Thuey, I think about you often & miss you more than you have any idea of — I hope you will...]
Thuey, did you take the envelope you had with my address? — if you did why have you not written to me, comrade?
The envelope Whitman says he left for Smith is not the envelope I am offering because mine is folded to fit into an envelope — and is mentioned later in Whitman's letter, as it continues:
What kind of accommodations have you at Carlisle, Thu, & how is the foot? I want to hear all about it — If you get this you must write to me, Thu, you need not mind ceremony — there is no need of ceremony between dear friends for that I hope we are, my loving boy, for all the differences in our ages.
There is nothing new with me here — I am very well in health & spirits, & only need some employment, clerkship or something, at fair wages to make things go agreeable with me — no, there is one thing more I need & that is Thuey, for I believe I am quite a fool, I miss you so.
Well, Thu, it seems as though they were moving again in front — Pleasonton has been advancing & fighting — he had all the cavalry moving, had quite a fight last Sunday, driving Stuart — a good many wounded were brought here very late Monday night 12 o'clock — some 70 to Armory Hospital — all cavalry. In Ward A things go on the same — I dont go as often as I did — Pyne & I went on quite a spree Monday, went to the mystic Varieties & elsewhere, (saw the ghost as they call it) — had an oyster supper, ale, &c. quite a time.
Well I will not write any more this time — so good bye for present, Thuey, & I pray God bless you, my dear loving comrade, & I hope he will bring us together again — good by, dear boy, from your true friend — Thuey, I enclose an envelope but will write my address here too for future — Thuey, you went away without getting paid, aint you broke? I can send you a little a few 10ct bills, my darling -- You write to me, Thu, just how it is -- you need not be afraid, my darling comrade -- it is little, but it may be some use -- Thuey, you write to me just as you would to your own older brother."
Corporal Smith wrote back, in a letter dated September 17th and mailed in the envelope offered in this lot, that he "left the armory hospital in somewhat of a hurry," and relating the particulars of his trip to Carlisle and the condition of his foot. He takes Whitman up on his offer to send money, saying that he indeed is broke.
Their correspondence continued — 4 more letters from Smith exist through August 1864, but none of Whitman's to him. Smith's letters are far more reserved in tone than Whitman's, though he several times expresses that he would like to see Whitman again, and in the last of his war date letters he says, "I would like to see you very much, I have drempt of you often & thought of you oftener still."
Whitman renewed their correspondence briefly 10 years later, sending him copies of his newspaper articles about the Civil War and an inscribed photograph of himself.
Walt Whitman and the Love Language of Postage Stamps:
A Speculative Aspect of Whitman's Envelope for Thuey
Scholars today acknowledge that Walt Whitman was gay, and some have even elevated his historical significance as such by referring to him as being a "prophet of gay liberation" or something similar.
Considering that Whitman's letter may fairly be described as an infatuated love letter, and that the postage stamp he placed on the envelope is cocked at a precise 45-degree angle, one wonders if this might actually be an example of Whitman utilizing a symbolic language other than words: indulging in the 19th century fad of placing postage stamps in unorthodox configurations to convey a secret sentiment — a practice variously referred to as "stamp flirtation" or "the language of postage stamps."
Before postage stamps were invented, the cost of postage was borne by the recipient, not the sender. One of the reasons pre-payment of postage with stamps was devised was to thwart the practice of a sender conveying a simple message in code on the outside of a blank letter. The code-marks could be seen at a glance by the recipient, who was then free to reject the letter, thus saving the cost of postage.
With the advent of postage stamp pre-payment in Great Britain in 1840 and the United States in 1847, the use of secret-marks as a money-saving ruse ended. However, the potential for using postage stamp placement was seized upon as an extension of other already existing means of coded flirtation such as gifts of flowers and gestures made with handkerchiefs, fans, parasols, hats, gloves, and even cigars.
It is of course obviously problematic to definitively document the early use of "stamp flirtation" owing to the secretive nature of privately agreed-upon coded meanings, but the practice eventually became a full-blown fad in the 1870s on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, gaining popularity as it was disseminated widely in newspaper articles and pamphlets that included explanations of what the codes were.
The meaning ascribed to a stamp cocked crosswise to the left in the upper right hand corner of an envelope varies by source, some being "Write at once," "Do you love me?" and "I send a kiss." Some 1870s American sources suggested "Who cares?" — meaning "Who cares about you?" I find this interpretation of Whitman's stamp placement, there beside his name, to be most satisfying.