Archive for September 16, 2021

SHAKO: Louisa May Alcott, Civil War Nurse

Another Literary Civil War Nurse. UPDATED

Those familiar with the poetry of Walt Whitman know the journalist, essayist and poet helped nurse wounded soldiers during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, a passage from his 1865 collection Drum-Taps, is etched in the granite wall surrounding the entrance to Washington’s DuPont Circle Metro station, according to a 2013 Washington Post article.

It reads, in part, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night — some are so young;

Some suffer so much — I recall the experience sweet and sad . . .

But Whitman wasn’t the only American literary figure to draw on the painful experiences of Civil War nursing for inspiration.

Louisa May Alcott, best known for her coming-of-age novel Little Women, left home in Concord, Massachusetts in December 1862 to become a nurse in a Civil War hospital.

Orchard House, the family home of author and Civil War nurse Louisa May Alcott in Concord, Massachusetts. (4GWar photo by John M. Doyle, Copyright Sonoma Road Strategies, LLC)

Those familiar with Little Women may remember that the father of the four March sisters — the “Little Women” of the title — joined the Union Army as a chaplain and became seriously ill with pneumonia. His surprise return to his family at Christmas was a highlight of the book, which Alcott based largely on her own family.

However, Alcott’s own father — the prominent educator, philosopher, and abolitionist Bronson Alcott — was too old to serve in the Union army, your 4GWAR editor learned during a recent visit to Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord. Fired by her family’s abolitionist fervor and inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale — it was Mr. Alcott’s daughter, Louisa, who traveled to Washington to do her part in the “war of the Southern rebellion.”

Louisa May Alcott, age 20, before the Civil War.(Wikipedia)

According to the  National Museum of Civil War Medicine website, the 30-year-old Miss Alcott threw herself into her work at the Union Hotel hospital in Georgetown. Her days were a tiring whirlwind of dressing wounds, cleaning and sewing bandages, supervising convalescent assistants, fetching bed linens, water, and pillows, assisting during surgical procedures, sponging filthy, broken bodies, writing letters on behalf of the sick and injured, and feeding those too weak to feed themselves.

A self-described “red hot Abolitionist,” Alcott was not happy with the prospect of caring for Confederate soldiers. When one injured Rebel was brought in, she privately resolved “to put soap in his eyes, rub his nose the wrong way, and excoriate his cuticle generally,” according to the Civil War medicine site.

Like the father character in Little Women, Alcott herself became seriously ill and returned home a physical wreck, according to the History Net website.

Just a few weeks into her service, Louisa confessed in her journal that “bad air, food, water, work & watching are getting to be too much for me.” The Union Hotel was a grim, dirty place crowded with patients and medical workers. “A more perfect pestilence-box than this house I never saw,” Alcott wrote.

By mid-January Alcott was unable to continue with her nursing duties, and was confined to her room, diagnosed with typhoid pneumonia. She was zealously dosed with calomel, a poisonous mercury compound widely used during the Civil War.  Her condition worsened, and she slipped in and out of consciousness, haunted by alarming hallucinations.

Alcott refused to return home, but the hospital matron telegraphed Bronson Alcott, who hurried to fetch his gravely ill daughter. Louisa was too weak to protest.

Little Women, her most famous book, was first published in 1868. Alcott is also remembered for her book Hospital Sketches, published in 1863, a work of fiction based on letters she had written home during her brief, but harrowing, stint as a wartime nurse.

September 16, 2021 at 11:24 pm Leave a comment


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