March 6.--I have been up to look at the dance and supper-rooms, for the inauguration ball at the Patent office; and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view a while since, fill'd with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredricksbugh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz; 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 there, (for the crowd of the badly hurt was great, and much for nurse to do, and much for surgeon.)
The Patent Office Building was the first official building to serve as a venue for a presidential inaugural ball. The building served as a hospital from September 1861-June1862, and again in September 1862-April 1863. Joann P. Krieg's book, A Whitman Chronology (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998) doesn't say when Whitman worked at the hospital, but she does mention an article written by Whitman that appeared in the New York Times on February 26, 1863 where he discusses the advantages the newly constructed hospitals have over the hospitals "set up in public buildings, such as the Patent Office hospital" (pg. 51). This shows that Whitman is writing this from his point of view, an important distinction.
This entry taps into some animosity that must have been present around the festivities of the inauguration. While the re-election of the President was something Whitman was pleased with, I can only imagine that a large ball in the midst of a long war with heavy casualties struck some as somewhat a tone-deaf political move. Never-the-less, the ball was well attended and, by some accounts, the attendees were not model guests.
In the reading I've done, cynicism is rare in Whitman's writing, especially when writing about the administration. However, this entry comes off very cynical to me, and I don't say that as a criticism against Whitman. Considering the history he had with war wounded, it is easy to understand how he would take some offense.
Here Whitman directly contrasts the festivities of the ball with the sights and sounds of the hospital. The ladies' perfumes are set against the "odor of wounds and blood." The "violins' sweetness" is lined up beside a soldier's groan. "Beautiful women" are matched against "the blue face" and "the glassy eye of the dying." Finally, while the inaugural ball will be well staffed with waiters and cooks and any number of people to keep the guests happy, "many a mother's son amid strangers, [were] passing away untended," and there was much work for the few nurses and surgeons to tend to. It is, perhaps, a brief look at a small disappointment experienced by Whitman at the way life sometimes plays out. In Whitman's mind, this building was sacred now. Having this ball, where people could pass the time and gleefully forget about the war for a few hours, was a slap in the face to the soldiers who had suffered and died in that building. In reality, it was probably cheaper to hold the ball--a tradition that had been in place since the first presidential inauguration--in a public building rather than constructing a temporary facility as had been done at the several previous inaugurations.
Whether one agrees with Whitman or not, this piece of text is another example of Whitman's devotion to the soldiers he cared for.