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Walt Whitman Served the Union... And the Confederacy!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 15, 2022 3:05 am

Walt Whitman Served the Union... And the Confederacy!

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 15, 2022 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Marshall Field's favorite gift wasn't the one that caused his name to be forever associated with Chicago's premiere museum, or even his massive chain of department stores he built after years of trial, error, and fire--but a small library bearing his name in the small town of Conway, Massacussets--the hometown he left in search of prosperity. Hillsdale professor Kelly Scott Franklin tells the story of how one of America's foremost literary figures was a volunteer on both sides of our nation's Civil War.

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Time Codes:

00:00 - Marshall Feild, The Birth of the Modern Department Store, and a Small Town Library

35:00 - Walt Whitman Served the Union... And the Confederate!

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people.

To search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app, to Apple Podcast, or wherever you get your podcasts. Up next, the story of a retail innovator. Marshall Field was born in 1834 in Massachusetts. Today, many people know Field's name because of his famous department stores, or maybe after the Chicago Field Museum bearing his name. But there's a building in his hometown that less people know about, but became Field's favorite gift. Here to tell the story of Field is Jonathan Boshen, creator of the documentary, A Gift of Prosperity.

Let's get into the story. My name is Jonathan Boshen. I was born in a town called Greenfield, Massachusetts. I live near Conway, Massachusetts.

I'm a documentary filmmaker and I'm also a local historian. When I moved back to the area in 2014, I was out in the Boston area doing work. A few times I had to go through the town of Conway, Massachusetts.

And I remember Conway, you have this beautiful New England downtown area, nice little colonial style town. And then at one end of the town, you have this triumphant epic building, which just stood taller than anything else. This building, which is a library, is very unusual. So I went out there, asked the librarian, I'm like, you know, I've always driven past this place.

What is this? And she gave me a whole history of who Marshall Field was. And I just was sort of like, wow, I was blown away to think that he built this library for his hometown and contributed a lot to the department store business and to the Chicago area. Marshall Field was born in 1834 to a family of farmers. And as soon as Marshall Field could walk and talk, he began working on the farm. By the age of six years old, he was driving cattle, milking cows, raking hay, and performing a lot of other chores that were commonly done by boys his age. When he was about 15 years old, he lost interest in the farm life. He probably just did not enjoy it. He felt he had a higher calling and didn't really felt like he had a future in Conway, Massachusetts. So his father got him a job at a general store that was run by a gentleman named James Whitney. Marshall Field only lasted two weeks. Mr. Whitney told Marshall Field's father, your son's a well-meaning kid, but he has no business working in dry goods.

So Marshall Field returned back to the farm for a little bit. And then after 1851, he decided to give the dry goods venture another shot. A few years earlier, one of his older brothers, Joseph, left Conway for Pittsfield, Massachusetts. And Pittsfield was one of the largest cities in western Massachusetts. Joseph relocated there and got an apprenticeship at Pittsfield's leading dry goods store, which was owned by a gentleman named Deacon H.G. Davis. So Marshall Field went out to Pittsfield, talked to Joseph, and Joseph helped get an apprenticeship at H.G.

Deacon's general store. He loved to work. So every day of those five years, Marshall Field and Joseph slept and lived in a small room above the store and took full advantage of the apprenticeship to learn everything about running the store.

Marshall Field's most common customers were the wives of farmers. It was through bargaining with these women that he learned how to buy, sell, and accurately judge customers and acquire unique skill of selling goods to women. He really specialized in it. He became extremely knowledgeable in what women wanted to buy and could easily assist them with selecting merchandise. And this specialty caused him to cause many women customers to come directly at Davis's store and specifically ask for Marshall Field's assistance because he treated them probably with more respect as customers and not just as a farmer's wife. He was doing stuff that was revolutionary, but he was a young man that I think he wanted to sort of explore the world a little bit more and heard about Chicago, Illinois, and how it was becoming quite the newest boomtown for many people. His brother sort of gave him his blessings. And that year he did end up leaving for Chicago in 1856. Chicago was a pretty young city at the time.

And when he originally got there, he felt he had made the mistake of a lifetime. He couldn't get an apprenticeship. None of the stores out there really seemed interested in his ideas. A lot of the buildings were crudely built. Stores were sort of get-rich-quick type deal.

Everything out there was just sort of growing. It was a very different place than what it is today. It wasn't like Boston and New York City, which had been around for a while. And because it was a fairly new city, you didn't quite have established names the way you did in Boston or New York City. And there was just a lot of ambition out there. And I imagine a lot of people saw this as sort of a new opportunity to make a name for themselves, to hopefully have a store that would rival some of these other places.

And because it was sort of midway through on a lot of the travel routes, you had people coming from all over the place to settle there. So I think things were definitely not working out from the way he thought they were when he originally went out there. Fortunately, his brother Joseph came out to join him. He managed to get a sort of win as being an agent for him, I think.

And Joseph approached Cooley Wadsworth and Company, which was the city's lead dry goods store. And Joseph introduced Marshall Field. And they must have seen something in him because they hired him for an apprenticeship.

And we've been listening to Jonathan Bocian tell the story of Marshall Field. And he grew up on a farm in the middle of the 19th century. And by the age of 15, he knew farming life wasn't for him. And he tried the world of dry goods where he failed the first time. But his brother Joseph, who would play a part in Marshall's ascent, got him to go to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he learned he had a talent.

He started to understand what women wanted. When we come back, more of what happens next with Marshall Field in Chicago with his brother Joseph here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. When we continue with Our American Stories and our story on Marshall Field, let's return to Jonathan Bocian for more of this remarkable story. When Marshall Field became an apprentice in the business of dry goods, he was given an opportunity to learn the business from the experts, to learn the trade and learn how to do things. He devoted a lot of time to that apprenticeship. He barely had a social life.

He never went out drinking. People began to sort of notice him. I think his employers started to respect him a lot more.

They didn't just see him as another apprenticeship. They started to really pay attention to him. And because Marshall Field was very focused on the dry goods business, he was paying attention to trends. He was paying attention to how people buy. And he began noticing the coming panic of 1857, which was regarded as the world's first financial crisis and one which was triggered by the United States growing at a tremendous rate resulting in an over expansion of our domestic economy and the decline of the international economy because more goods are being produced here in America and not as many are being produced overseas. But Marshall predicted the panic and prior to its arrival, he successfully persuaded his employers to do away with the risky, unreliable credit system that was in use around Chicago.

Cooley, Wadsworth and Company was one of the few stores that made it through the panic. Following the panic, the store reorganizes Cooley, Farewell and Company and to thank Marshall Field, they awarded him a junior partnership. They were very impressed with him.

People were becoming a know him and they saw that he was a very talented young man. So with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Marshall Field was presented with new challenges, but his expertise in selling dry goods was recognized as more valuable to the Union Army than sending him off to be shot at. Soldiers needed uniforms. They needed sleeping materials, eating materials, decks of cards in some cases, little things to help keep the Army looking good, but also to help keep spirits high.

If you don't have happy soldiers, the chances of you winning are not very good. They needed anything they could that would help them win the war. He was not personally responsible for the victory of the Civil War. His contributions were an important piece in the puzzle to help the Union Army declare victory.

Every little thing that everybody did helped out and this was how he helped out with his patriotism and enthusiasm and selling dry goods. So after the American Civil War, Marshall Field's career sort of hit a dead end at Cooley, Farewell and Company and he had a vision. He wanted to be like the big store of Chicago, have a store that was larger than any in New England and for whatever reason, he recognized I couldn't do that through the company and what he needed to do to make that happen was start his own store and he realized that he had a lot of the experience by helping out with the Panic of 1857 and probably with the Civil War, which did boost his image. He said, now's the time to do this because I'm becoming more popular.

I'm becoming the big name. So he got word of a gentleman named Potter Palmer who ran one of the Cooley, Farewells and Company's big competitors and around this time in 1865, his health was kind of declining and his doctor told Mr. Palmer that he needed to get out of the dry goods business. So he was looking to retire from it and take up a different trade.

Marshall Field got word of it. He approached his friend Levy Leader about taking advantage of this opportunity to open up a dry goods store and they respectively sold back their junior partnerships to Cooley, Farewell and Company and joined Potter Palmer. Two years later, once Potter Palmer showed them the ropes of everything and they were ready to depart, Potter Palmer respectively left the partnership and the company was renamed Field and Leader. Marshall Field was now basically one of the people running the company and he had visions that he wanted to put into practice. He had come to know how to treat people and he had a lot of philosophies on how to sell dry goods to people and do so in a manner that was pleasant and respectful to the buyers. His several philosophies that he put into place was give the lady what she wants and the customer is always right. He allowed people to return merchandise which was rarely done in those days and one thing he did was eliminate haggling. He encouraged people to come in and browse his store without being annoyed to buy things.

Some places you would go shopping and you were expected to buy something. Here you could go in and browse and you were welcome to just stay, look at things, try things out and it was a pleasant experience and all of his clerks were trained to be very polite and friendly because he wanted people to be comfortable shopping there and with this hard work he really began to build and even become more well known to the city around Chicago. The Marble Palace was a building that Father Palmer had built.

Palmer admired what Marshall Field was doing and he approached him and said I have this new spectacular building that I think would really add to the shopping experience and Marshall Field bought the place. The Marble Palace as it was referred to around the city was a massive six-story ornate building. The building opened on October 12, 1868 and it was a huge event in the city of Chicago. An event described in the local newspapers as a dazzling assemblage of wealth, beauty and fashion unparalleled in Chicago's history. Customers, mainly the ladies whom the store was built to serve were reported to have gasped at the Marble Palace filled with cosmetics, furniture and other household appliances. I imagine with the architecture which had a lot of marble and was just in those days very beautiful to look at, these women must have felt like kings and queens just going in there. In addition to all of this, Marshall Field, the successful businessman he was, had matured out of his shy, quiet self into a more sociable person and mingled with new customers during the grand opening and the days following.

Overnight the store located at the Marble Palace had become Chicago's most popular spot. He had everything going for him and then on the evening of October 8, 1871 he got word that this was about to change, that all of this legacy, this empire that he was building was in danger. He learned about a nasty fire that started on the south side of Chicago that was quickly consuming the crude buildings of Chicago, Illinois. And we're listening to Jonathan Boesian, creator of the documentary A Gift of Prosperity, about the life of Marshall Field. And by the way, we learn here about the importance of apprenticeships.

So much for college. There he is learning from the experts and real pros and building himself up, not just a resume, but real work and life skills in the business of dry goods. By 1857 he has this impulse.

He feels the coming of the nation's first real financial panic. His insight was to get his employer to get rid of the risky credit system they used. It probably saved the company.

He was rewarded with a junior partnership. But Field wanted more. He saw himself, had a vision of himself as the owner of a big store. And of course, that vision, so often as it happens here in this country with great entrepreneurs and innovators, it opens.

It's a marble palace filled with cosmetics, appliances, clothing, everything any woman would want. Field moved from shy self to man of the town. But in 1871, there was news of a fire and his life, well, was about to change. The life of this big city was about to change. When we come back, what happens next in the life of Marshall Field, his store and his city here on Our American Story. And we continue with our American stories and the final portion of our story on Marshall Field. When we last left off, a massive fire had broken out in the city of Chicago and all of Marshall Field's hard work was at risk.

Let's continue with the story. He got word that all of this legacy, this empire that he was building was in danger. He learned about a nasty fire that started on the south side of Chicago that was quickly consuming the crude buildings of Chicago, Illinois. This store was his life. This business was his life and he did not want to lose anything. So immediately he went down to the store. People were fleeing left and right. He was able to arrange a salvage operation with his remaining employees.

And by the time the fire had come to the building, it completely wiped out this massive, beautiful building. Fortunately, their jumping into action to save as much as they could did pay off. He was able to rescue a small percentage of merchandise as well as a lot of the company records to where they could reopen. And through hard work, taking risks in the business, having a vision, they were able to move back into another building a year after the fire. But for almost the next decade, it was rough.

There was stuff that probably would have caused anybody to give up if it wasn't him. They moved around to several different locations because they thought at one point, because the fire destroyed one part of the city, that another part was going to sort of become the new shopping hub. So they moved to one part of the city.

Didn't quite happen. The Singer Sewing Machine Company built another building that was just as fancy and ornate as what Potter Palmer had. And he bought it and fate and fire hit them again. Fortunately, from there, they were able to finally settle down and Marshall Field was able to finally pursue opportunities that he wanted to pursue.

He could finally focus more on building up his business. His store really began to grow and grow during the 1880s and 1890s. And Field built a handsome 13 story structure that opened to the public in 1893. They had a cafeteria for luncheons, a gymnasium, a music room with live musicians playing throughout the day to help relax employees.

And they even had a hospital. You knew if you worked for Marshall Field, you were going to be taken care of. By the turn of the century, Marshall Field was worth what would be considered today $60 billion. So there were numerous investments that Marshall Field made. Marshall Field's most notable gift was his contribution of $1 million to help the recently chartered Columbia Museum of Chicago become a reality to the city. In appreciation of Marshall Field's gift, the museum was renamed the Field Columbia Museum and this inspired him to really do something special for the town of Conway, Massachusetts. So Marshall Field was a person who I think was very proud of his roots growing up. He had a lot of respect for and even kept in touch with a lot of the people in Conway, even though life didn't quite turn out for him the way I think the family envisioned for him.

Like he didn't hold any grudges against the community at all. And Conway had a small library. During this time period, a lot of these towns, their libraries weren't really what they were today or even really during the 20th century. They were little rooms and buildings that had a collection of books.

People would pay to be members of this library type group and the collection of books would move around to different houses. Unfortunately, and not just Conway, but a lot of these towns, it was very common for one of these collections of books to go up in smoke and the building was destroyed by fire. And the town started its own library. However, though, at the time the collection was being housed in a room that was located in the town hall building. And this was an old building that was built in the 1850s.

And he felt that his town deserved a lot better. So on the morning of September 9th, 1899, citizens of Conway, Massachusetts read an interesting headline that surprised many. Marshall Field was going to build a library for his hometown of Conway.

And this was going to be a nice little building that Field stated would be as small as demanded by appropriateness but the finest in New England by both its architecture and literacy resources. Saturday, July 13th, 1901 was the grand opening ceremony and it was described as a special day that the small town of Conway would greatly remember and would be a building dedication and celebration unlike any other the town of Conway or any other surrounding town or community had ever held. And opening address was given by Reverend Charles B. Rice who gave a long speech praising the gift of Marshall Field. The last portion was a brief introduction of Marshall Field who would give his first ever and only public address. Here is what Marshall Field said, I am exceedingly gratified to see so many of the citizens of Conway here to take part in the dedication of this building.

It is now 50 years since I have left you but I have never lost interest in the town or in its inhabitants and it is now my privilege and my great pleasure to present this token of friendship as I now do in the memory of my mother and father. And it blew people's minds away just having this beautiful building that really welcomed people made them feel like kings and queens and to have access to all of this knowledge. A collection of 700 books is nice but with a place like that like that's just a free education. Five years after Marshall Field opened the Field Memorial Library he died from ammonia. He passed away on January 16, 1906 at just the age of 71. While he did have all these accomplishments under his belt the library in Conway was really his favorite most personal gift and as well he left them a massive amount of money. This was described as his favorite act of charity. It didn't sound like that a lot of the arts and things that he donated to around Chicago really excited him but for some reason the Field Library the way he gave back this really made him very happy. He realized he was making a difference to many people and it's like he had accomplished all these things through building the company and Chicago area and this was just something he did for a town in a completely different part of the country that was just highly appreciated. And a great job on the editing and storytelling by Monty Montgomery with an assist from Jim Watkins and a special thanks to Jonathan Bocian creator of the documentary A Gift of Prosperity and that essentially is a Marshall Field story. And what a story it is about aspiration about apprenticeship and work and about the American dream and then always that includes or often does generosity. And there is this man this billionaire in his day going and giving his first ever and only public address to the small town that he left. It is now 50 years since I left you he said but I never lost interest in the town or its inhabitants and so many of us leave small towns to go to bigger places.

This show is broadcast from a small town Oxford Mississippi and many of us return to those small towns because we love them. The story of Marshall Field and the birth of the department store. An innovator story an American dreamers story here on Our American Story. And we continue here with Our American Stories and we love telling stories from the great American literature canon. You've probably read Walt Whitman or at least you were supposed to in your high school English class.

But even if you've heard of Leaves of Grass you've probably never heard this tale that Hillsdale College professor Kelly Franklin brings us. It was winter in 1862 and Americans were fighting our nation's Civil War. In mid-December the Union suffered a disaster at the Battle of Fredericksburg Virginia. The entrenched Confederates cut down wave after wave of Union soldiers leaving the Northern Army with 13,000 casualties more than double those of the southern defenders.

From the Union standpoint things looked pretty bleak for the formerly United States of America. News of the casualties hit the papers right away and on December 16th the American writer Walt Whitman learned that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg. With no other information Whitman set out to find his brother. He searched the hospitals in DC with no luck until a friend lent him money and got him a pass to the front where George if he were still alive might be found.

Then in Falmouth Virginia Whitman located his brother safe and sound with only a minor wound to his face. But Whitman also saw something else something he never forgot. Outside a field hospital Whitman saw a heap of amputated limbs enough to fill a one horse cart. Horrified he wrote in his diary, at the foot of a tree immediately in front a heap of feet legs arms and human fragments cut bloody black and blue swelled and sickening. By 1862 Walt Whitman had already achieved some fame and some notoriety as a poet that celebrated the human body. I am the poet of the body. He had written in his 1855 book Leaves of Grass. And I am the poet of the soul.

The man's body is sacred and the woman's body is sacred. But in that grisly moment outside the field hospital Whitman got his first real glimpse of the human cost of the Civil War. It wasn't long before he knew what he wanted to do about it. In January of 1863 Whitman returned to Washington D.C. where he began perhaps the greatest undertaking of his life. While the war raged on Whitman threw himself into the task of visiting the sick and wounded men both northerners and southerners who languished in the Civil War hospitals. The Union already had many doctors and nurses but Whitman intuitively knew that people need more than medical treatment to get well. Companionship, comfort, morale boosting even a kind word.

And as a volunteer Whitman could provide that to the soldiers. He worked a part time job in the mornings and spent the afternoons and evenings in the hospitals. He talked with the men, sat with them. He brought a satchel full of little gifts, candy, clothes, fruit, money, tobacco, stamps and paper for writing letters.

When the weather was hot he brought them ice cream. While in the hospitals Whitman wrote down the names and descriptions of the soldiers in his notebooks along with anything special they asked for. Henry Benton, Company E, 7th Ohio Volunteer, Ward K, Bed 44. Wants a little jelly and an orange. Wounded last Sunday at Chancellorsville in Leg.

I saw the bullet and a piece of the bone. Stout Hardy, Ohio Boy. Henry Eberle, Bed 8, Ward K, Company H, 28th Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Wants a German prayer book. Wounded in the left shoulder pretty bad. Not all of his visits were cheerful. Of a man named Hiram Johnson from the 157th New York Volunteers Whitman wrote in his notebook.

This is the bed of death. Although he supported the union Whitman left the politics of the war outside the hospital doors and treated the wounded equally. In his memoir of the Civil War Whitman later described taking care of a 19 year old boy from Baltimore whose right leg had been amputated. He writes. As I was lingering soothing him in his pain he says to me suddenly I hardly think you know who I am. I don't wish to impose upon you. I am a rebel soldier.

I said I did not know that but it made no difference. Visiting him daily for about two weeks after that while he lived. Death had marked him and he was quite alone. Many of these Civil War soldiers died far from family and home. Some of them even died unknown and unidentified.

It was the era before dog tags and DNA testing. In March of 1864 Whitman described one of these cases in a letter to his mother. Whitman wrote of the arrival of a train carrying sick and wounded soldiers. Mother it was a dreadful night pretty dark the wind gusty and the rain fell in torrents. One poor boy he seemed to me quite young he was quite small. He groaned some as the stretcher bearers were carrying him along and again as they carried him through the hospital gate. They set down the stretcher and examined him and the poor boy was dead.

The doctor came immediately but it was all of no use. The worst of it is too that he is entirely unknown. There was nothing on his clothes or anyone with him to identify him and he is altogether unknown.

Mother it is enough to rack one's heart such things. Very likely his folks will never know in the world what has become of him. And many men died unknown in the war. Many were hastily buried or lost altogether in the chaos and aftermath of battle.

This meant that families and friends were denied many of the rituals of grief. But Walt Whitman was also at the height of his career as a poet and during the war he would write poems of grief and mourning that would help him and the nation express those terrible losses. Walt Whitman had worked with words and language for most of his life.

Born on Long Island he supported himself from a very young age working at a printing shop, in a law office and as a teacher. But he soon found his way to authorship writing journalism, conventional poems and fiction. Then in 1855 Whitman published his experimental book Leaves of Grass which violated all the current norms of poetry and celebrated the full range of human life from democracy to sexuality writing in powerful free verse about the body, the soul, nature and city life and the labors of working class men and women. But now Whitman had a war to write about and at the end of it he published a book of war poems called Drum Taps. In one of his best poems, Vigil Strange I kept on the field one night, Whitman recreates an imaginary moment of grief and burial for the fallen dead. The poetic speaker describes seeing a young soldier struck down in the heat of battle. Unable to stop for the conflict rages on around them, the narrator charges ahead but returns that night to keep vigil for a boy he calls both son and comrade. Long there and then in vigil I stood, dimly around me the battlefield spreading, vigil wondrous and vigil sweet there in the fragrant silent night.

The speaker stays with the body all night. Still at latest lingering of the night, indeed just as the dawn appeared, my comrade I wrapped in his blanket, enveloped well his form, folded the blanket well, tucking it carefully overhead and carefully under feet. And there and then and bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude grave I deposited. Finding my vigil strange with that, vigil of night and battlefield dim, vigil for boy of responding kisses, never again on earth responding, vigil for comrade swiftly slain, vigil I never forget how as day brightened I rose from the chilled ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket and buried him where he fell. Like in most of his poems, the soldier remains nameless, which means that he could be anyone, known or unknown, Yankee or rebel, any of the more than 600,000 men who perished in the war. Whitman continued to visit the hospitals on and off throughout the war.

He once estimated that he had visited somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers. He also wrote that, after his time in the hospitals, the pages of his notebooks were actually stained with soldier's blood. Walt Whitman would have a long and fruitful life and career as a writer right up to his death in 1892. But he always thought about his hospital years as something central to his life.

Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life. Those years of hospital visits represent a tremendous act of service to his fellow Americans during a time of war. While we tend to remember him as one of America's great poets, Walt Whitman's sacrificial charity during the Civil War may be his greatest legacy. But we can also be thankful he was a writer. Although he once claimed that the real war will never get in the books, Walt Whitman's diaries, letters, poems and memoirs constitute a powerful eyewitness account, a moving record of one man's mind and heart during this bloody chapter in the story of American history. And great job on that, Robbie, and thank you to Hillsdale professor Kelly Franklin for telling us about a great man and a part of his life so few people know. Walt Whitman's story, the story of the American Civil War, this is our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 10:29:11 / 2023-02-17 10:41:45 / 13

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