‘I will sing the song of companionship’
Remembering Peter Doyle, the former Confederate Soldier from Limerick who was Walt Whitman’s lover and muse
Each of us inevitable;
Each of us limitless — each of us with his or her right upon the earth.
— Whitman, Salut au Monde, 11
Peter Doyle was born in St. John’s parish in Limerick City in early June 1843. (1) His parents were Peter Doyle Snr and Catherine Nash, and Peter was their sixth child. In 1852, in the immediate wake of the Great Famine, the Doyle family decided to emigrate to the United States. Peter was just eight years old. Their migration followed an unbearably sad trend as the population of Limerick dropped by over 20 percent between 1841 and 1851. It is not known if this cataclysmic time claimed the lives of two of Peter’s sisters Elizabeth and Mary. They were not aboard the ship and Doyle’s biographer Martin G. Murray did not find evidence that they rejoined their family at a later stage. This voyage was a fraught one and their ship, the William Patten, was nearly lost at sea during a brutal storm.
The Doyle family settled in Alexandria, Virginia where Peter Snr was likely employed as a blacksmith. About six years later they moved to Richmond due to the economic downturn which led to some foundries closing in Alexandria. In Richmond, Peter Snr worked at the Tredegar Iron Works alongside many Irish and German Immigrants as well as African American slaves.(2) The company used slave labour to break a strike in 1847 and from then on they continued to use enslaved persons to reduce their overall operating costs.
This foundry became an important supplier of munitions to Confederate forces during the Civil War, furnishing over 1,000 artillery pieces.(3) One wonders what these enslaved persons felt as they were forced to assist in making these weapons, which were used to ensure that they, and their descendants, would be chattel slaves forever more. A review of the Richmond Dispatch informs us that some of the slaves working at the foundry were tortured after stealing some firewood and that at least nine others ran away. (4)
This number included an African American named Edmund; like Peter Snr he was also a blacksmith, but instead of being paid for his labour he was hired out to the Tredegar Iron Works on behalf of his owner.
ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD. — Ranaway, about the 15th May, my negro man EDMUND; about 32 years of age; bright mulatto; about 5 feet 8 inches high; a blacksmith; was hired to Jos. R. Anderson; he is very round shouldered, and stands back on his legs when walking; walks very fast, and stammers slightly when talking; when last seen he was on Shockoe Hill. I will give the above reward if delivered to A. Y. STOKES & CO., Richmond, or delivered in jail, so I can get him.
Richmond Dispatch, 9/2/1862
Doyle’s role during the American Civil War
It was not a quadrille in a ballroom.
- Whitman, Memoranda
Peter enlisted with the Richmond Fayette Artillery in April 1861 when he was just seventeen years old, serving alongside ten other Irish-born men.(5) Doyle’s seventeen month involvement with this light artillery battalion included the Siege of Yorktown, the Battle of Seven Pines, and the Seven Days Campaign. His military experience culminated in the bloodiest single-day battle in American history at Antietam on the 17 September 1862. He was injured in this battle and sent back to hospital in Richmond to receive treatment.
While there he successfully sought a discharge based on a string “of truths and half-truths” and he never returned to the field of battle. Interviewed by Richard Maurice Bucke over thirty years later, Doyle was spoke very little about his military service or how he ended up in Washington D.C. in 1863.(6) Whether he was still traumatised by the experience or just blocked it out, we do not know. Murray contends that Doyle’s motivation for seeking a discharge was due to a “combination of war weariness and illness.”(7) After all, his battalion had “engaged in arguably the most demanding series of battles fought during the war” which included the aforementioned bloodbath at Antietam. His illness, while not specified, was clearly a serious one as “even after [he] received his discharge, his service record continues to show him as spending time in military hospitals.” When fully recovered he clearly had enough of the war and fled North where was apprehended by Union forces who imprisoned him in Washington D.C. as an unauthorised “insurgent.” Doyle pleaded that he was a British subject and a refugee from the South. He was released on 11 May 1863 after swearing an oath not to aid the Confederacy. So began his new life in Washington D.C.
Witnessing Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination
But before moving on to discuss Doyle and Whitman’s relationship, I must include Doyle’s first hand account of a seismic moment in American history. When interviewed by Bucke in 1895, Doyle revealed that he was indeed present in Ford’s Theatre when President Lincoln was assassinated by the Southern white supremacist, John Wilkes Booth.
Walt was not at the theatre the night Lincoln was shot. It was me he got all that from in the book they are almost my words. I heard that the President and his wife would be present and made up my mind to go. There was a great crowd in the building. I got into the second gallery. There was nothing extraordinary in the performance. I saw everything on the stage and was in a good position to see the President’s box. I heard the pistol shot. I had no idea what it was, what it meant — it was sort of muffled. I really knew nothing of what had occurred until Mrs. Lincoln leaned out of the box and cried, “The President is shot!” I needn’t tell you what I felt then, or saw. It is all put down in Walt’s piece — that piece is exactly right. I saw Booth on the cushion of the box, saw him jump over, saw him catch his foot, which turned, saw him fall on the stage. He got up on his feet, cried out something which I could not hear for the hub-hub and disappeared. I suppose I lingered almost the last person. (8)
Doyle was certain that his account of that night directly influenced Whitman’s description of Lincoln’s death as featured in his Memoranda During the War. (9) Murray contends that while Doyle may have not inspired the Drum Taps war poems directly “he at least reinforced the feelings underlying them.”(10)
Doyle’s relationship with Walt Whitman
“All I have to say is — to say nothing — only a good smacking kiss, & many of them…”
— Whitman to Doyle, The Correspondence, 2:110
Peter Doyle had settled down in Washington D.C. and worked as a horse-car conductor. It was in 1865 while driving one of theses cars that Doyle first met Whitman. He recounted the genesis of their relationship to Bucke.
“You ask where I first met him ? It is a curious story. We felt to each other at once. I was a conductor. The night was very stormy, he had been over to see Burroughs before he came down to take the car the storm was awful. Walt had his blanket it was thrown round his shoulders he seemed like an old sea-captain. He was the only passenger, it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go in and talk with him. Something in me made me do it and something in him drew me that way. He used to say there was something in me had the same effect on him. Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once I put my hand on his knee we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip in fact went all the way back with me…[…]…From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends…[…]…Walt rode with me often often at noon, always at night. He rode round with me on the last trip sometimes rode for several trips. Everybody knew him.” (11)
For the next eight years Whitman and Doyle were lovers. Clearly the couple were infatuated with each other and they expressed themselves by writing a torrent of letters whenever they were apart. Doyle’s collection of these letters were published by Bucke in 1895. They are fascinating to read; instead of exhibiting his usual literary flair, Whitman’s correspondence with Doyle was often plain, direct, passionate and uninhibited. Henry James noted that they celebrated “the beauty of the natural”. From a distance the two men appear to be opposites, the intellectual and the labourer. Yet these letters make that assumption appear frivolous, for they reveal the common ground of mutual affection that existed between these two men; and the words themselves revel in life at its most unassuming.
Considering the level of prejudice that existed in the nineteenth century around same-sex relations, Murray rightfully argues that Doyle “deserves considerable credit for the courage he showed in agreeing to the publication of this revealing correspondence.” (12) Low and behold, Peter was apparently seen as the “black sheep” in his extended family from the moment the book appeared in print.
In my view the most affecting passage of the Doyle interview is when he explains why he could not be at Whitman’s side as the end neared. He had personally nursed Whitman during his bout of illness in 1873 (this was just before the poet left Washington for good) but now the old man was in a different place, with a whole host of different attendants. An entourage of sorts. The intimacy was now broken, but the love remained.
“Towards the end I saw very little of Walt, but he continued to write me. He never altered his manner toward me; here are a few more recent postal cards, you will see that they show the same old love. I know he wondered why I saw so little of him the three or four years before he died, but when I explained it to him he understood. Nevertheless, I am sorry for it now. The obstacles were too small to have made the difference I allowed. It was only this : In the old days I had always open doors to Walt going, coming, staying, as I chose. Now, I had to run the gauntlet of Mrs. Davis and a nurse and what not. Somehow, I could not do it. It seemed as if things were not as they should have been. Then I had a mad impulse to go over and nurse him. I was his proper nurse he understood me I understood him. We loved each other deeply, but there were things preventing that, too. I saw them. I should have gone to see him, at least, in spite of everything. I know it now, I did not know it then, but it is all right. Walt realised I never swerved from him, he knows it now, that is enough.” (13)
You will be glad to know that this final sentiment was not wishful thinking on Doyle’s part. It was confirmed in a sense in 1888, when Whitman was bed bound and severely ill. He was reminiscing on his dearest companion by reading some of ‘Pete’s’ letters. They evidently still brought a smile to his face. Whitman turned to his chronicler and told him that he believed Doyle encapsulated “the real Irish character, the higher samples of it, […] how noble, tenacious, loyal, they are!” (14)
Peter Doyle died on the 19 April 1907 in Philadelphia aged 63.
If you wish to read a detailed biography of Peter Doyle upon which this blog has relied, look no further than Martin G. Murray’s paper which can be accessed here http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/anc.00155.html
Limerick readers should note that The Collegians by Gerald Griffin was one of Walt Whitman’s favourite novels. He said “it was a beautiful study of Irish life, Irish characters…[…]…some of the few novels I have read stick to me like gum arabic — won’t let go. The Collegians was one of them..”
Murray, 1994 (2) Bucke, 1897 (3) Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 1976 (4) Civil War Richmond, 2008 (5) Murray (6) Bucke (7) Murray (8) Bucke (9) Whitman, 1875 (10) Murray (11) Bucke, p.23 (12) Murray (13) Bucke, p. 32 (14) Krieg, introduction
References & Further Reading
Bucke, Richard Maurice, Whitman, Walt. Calamus: A Series of Letters Written During the Years 1868–1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle), 1897.
Civil War Richmond, Information about the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, VA during the Civil War URL: http://www.mdgorman.com/Other_Sites/tredegar_iron_works.htm, 2008
Krieg, Johann P. Whitman and the Irish, 2000.
Murray, Martin G. “Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle”, Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 12 (Summer 1994), pp. 1–51
Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman, 2000.
Le Master, J.R., Kummings, Donald K.(ed), The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Walt Whitman, 2013.
Virginia Department of Historic Resources, ”Tredegar Iron Works National Historic Landmark nomination”, 1976 http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Richmond/127-0186_TredegarIronWorks_1976_Nomination_NHL.pdf
Whitman, Walt. Memoranda During The War: and Death of Abraham Lincoln, 1875.