“The worth of life lies in the experiences that fill it.” (60) In this way Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women and many other beloved children’s classics of the 19th century once summarized a part of her life’s view. That summary occurred during a short period of Alcott’s life that involved her service as a wartime nurse ministering to wounded Union soldiers. Although Louisa May Alcott’s nursing service encompassed only a few weeks, it shaped many of her core values and nearly cost her life. While Alcott is best known for her career as a writer it can scarcely be an exaggeration to say that the short span of weeks during which she nursed sick and maimed Union soldiers left an indelible imprint upon her spirit, beliefs, and future writing. These imprints are best understood via the series of articles Alcott penned about her nursing experiences, which were published under the title Hospital Sketches.
It was the popularity of Louisa May Alcott’s dispatches from Washington Hospital that motivated a Boston publisher to release them in book form. These articles, drawn from the pages of The Commonwealth, a regional newspaper, were printed with the express provision that five cents of the cost of the book would be donated to charities supporting the orphans of fallen soldiers. It was further promised that, should the sale of Hospital Sketches exceed expectations, that donation would be doubled. To the surprise and pleasure of her publishers, the sale of Hospital Sketches greatly exceeded expectations and both generated more resources for the support of orphans than expected and set the stage for Louisa May Alcott’s literary success. But those developments pale when compared to effect of the real life experiences that working as a nurse had upon Miss Alcott.
Although the actual hospital that Louisa May Alcott worked in was known as Washington Hospital, it was in reality a former hotel converted to a new purpose. Miss Alcott arrived in Washington just before the terrible Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862 and it was the human detritus of that Union defeat that set the stage for her initial rendezvous with the realities of war. Within a relative few days of arriving at Hurly-Burly House, as Alcott described her assigned hospital in her writing, she was confronted with the bitter realities of battles and their human cost.
Hearing that the wounded were arriving, Louisa May Alcott approached the former ballroom that had been converted into a ward. There, Alcott had her first encounter with the gritty nature of wartime nursing. Her first impressions would remain with her the rest of her life, the first of which related to the simple olfactory nature of working in a military hospital:
“The first thing I met was a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted a human nose, and took it by storm. Cologne, with its seven and seventy evil savors, was a posy-bed to it; and the worst of this affliction to it was, everyone had assured me that it was a chronic weakness of all hospitals, and I must bear it. I did, armed with lavender water, with which I so besprinkled myself and premises, that…I was soon known among my patients as “nurse with the bottle.” (20-21)
Beyond the foul inhalations necessitated by nursing, the terrible suffering of her patients soon overwhelmed any sensory sensitivities Louisa May Alcott may have felt. The casualties at Fredericksburg, like so many other Civil War battles, involved many gradations of suffering. These sick and wounded men streamed into Washington on the heels of yet another dispiriting Union defeat. When Miss Alcott met her first patients the sights could hardly have been anticipated:
“The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant , entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather a “hard road to travel” just then…Forty beds were prepared, many already tenanted by tired men who fell down anywhere, and drowsed till the smell of food roused them. Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw – ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being useless; and all wearing that disheartened look that proclaimed defeat more plainly than any telegram.” (21-22)
These battered warriors came with all sorts of ailments and injuries. Some of the men were stricken by fevers, pneumonia, or various illnesses. Many of the soldiers brought with them shattered or missing limbs. Some of the men bore the vivid marks of wounds, in many cases festering, received on the field of battle. In each case, Louisa May Alcott and her nursing colleagues began by removing soiled clothing, washing the men, tending to fouled bandages, and then situating the wounded soldiers into their new abode. For many of these injured men the presence of women nurses such as Miss Alcott was a brightening experience. The women who tended the patients reminded many of them of sisters, wives, or mothers far away in their distant homes. But, despite even the most heartfelt efforts, not every patient met a happy outcome at Washington Hospital.
The Civil War claimed over 630,000 American lives. Many of those deaths occurred in hospitals such as the one where Louisa May Alcott served. One of the lasting impressions Miss Alcott’s work left on her was the fact that she frequently eased the suffering of young men as they died. In Hospital Sketches Louisa May Alcott described several close encounters with death and dying. In each case the suffering of the soldiers she nursed left an after image in her life. In one instance the death Miss Alcott witnessed involved a brave young infantryman from a West Virginia regiment who quietly cried and then gasped out questions such as “How long must this suffering go on?” and “Can’t anyone give me more air?” On another occasion a soldier wounded in the abdomen politely declined Miss Alcott’s offer of water as he knew he was not long for this earth. Louisa left this man’s side for just a few moments as she went to get a cup of water for him only to return to find the soldier dead, and her sole remaining responsibility to cover his still body with a shroud. Another time Louisa watched an elderly father sit by the bedside of his fading son whose wounds and fever doomed him. In turn, both the father and son stared at their family member as they slept and quietly prayed for their well being. The son died and the father silently clipped a lock of his hair for a keepsake before arranging to bring his son’s remains back home for a proper burial. Time and again Louisa May Alcott witnessed this type of human tragedy while attempting to keep up with the seemingly endless demands of tending to the patients she was responsible for.
Surrounded by suffering and pestilence – tirelessly trying to help ease the pain of others – it was not surprising that Louisa May Alcott’s constitution broke down. Approximately one month after starting her nursing service, Miss Alcott became ill with typhoid and nearly died. Sequestered in her quarters for a period of weeks, Miss Alcott survived albeit with the loss of all her hair and much of her future health. Determined to continue her nursing services against physician’s recommendations, it was only the intercession of her father that convinced Louisa May Alcott to return home. Although Alcott never returned to nursing service, the impact of what she saw and did at Washington Hospital permanently affected her. The stories of suffering and stoic heroism that her nursing days gave to her made Louisa May Alcott a more powerful writer. Consider the tragedy and beauty comingling in the following selection drawn from Hospital Sketches and then reflect on the impact of such experiences on a young writer:
“Wandering up and down these lower halls, I often heard cries from above, steps hurrying to and fro, saw surgeons passing up, or men coming down carrying a stretcher, where lay a long white figure, whose face was shrouded and whose fight was done. Sometimes I stopped to watch the passers in the street, the moonlight shining on the spire opposite, or the gleam of some vessel floating, like a white-winged sea-gull, down the broad Potomac, whose fullest flow can never wash away the red stain of the land.” (34)
In the end, despite the fact that she nearly died of typhoid, Louisa May Alcott never questioned the rectitude of her wartime service. In her own words Alcott looked back at her sacrifices and described them in a pithy but heartfelt manner, “I never shall regret the going, through a sharp tussle with typhoid, ten dollars, and a wig, are all the visible results of the experiment; for one may live and learn much in a month. A good fit of illness proves the value of health; real danger tries one’s mettle; and self-sacrifice sweetens character, Let no one who sincerely desires to help the work on in this way, delay going through any fear.” (60) Like so many other Americans of her era, Louisa May Alcott was called upon to sacrifice much for causes great and mighty. Like many members of her generation, Louisa May Alcott answered the call of duty and helped shape the America we now live in.
Alcott, Louisa May, Hospital Sketches. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006.
-By Greg Romaneck