Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches
On May 22, 1863, the first of four installments of Louisa May Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches” were published in the Commonwealth, a Boston abolitionist newspaper. They were immensely popular, and were soon published in book form. They describe her work as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, Washington, DC, a “hastily remodeled tavern, . . . dank, grubby, still reeking of beer.”
“Like so many young, idealistic New Englanders,” writes Randall Fuller, “Alcott had considered traveling to Port Royal [South Carolina] to teach the contrabands, but these plans did not work out, and she finally volunteered for hospital work. . . . ‘I long to be a man; but as I can’t fight I will content myself with working for those who can.’
“Since her early teen years, Louisa had indulged in reveries that involved the writing of bestsellers, the making of huge fortunes after she had become the next Harriet Beecher Stowe. But despite her best efforts, the world had so far remained unimpressed. ‘Stick to your teaching,’ advised James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic . . .. ‘You can’t write.’
“Part of what made Hospital Sketches so popular was its narrator: a thinly disguised version of the author herself whose nom de guerre is Tribulation Periwinkle and whose place of work is a fractious hospital she calls Hurly-Burly House. Modeled on the hyperbolic narrators of Dickens, Trib converts the sorrowful realities of war into an effective blend of melodrama and comedy. Her crisp vignettes of wounded soldiers are always presented within a sentimental framework that assures the book’s readers that human suffering is but a precondition for heavenly reward.
“But the book was also a success for its vivid portraits of an increasingly growing segment of the population: the severely wounded, the maimed and disfigured, the permanently disabled. . . . Alcott portrayed this new class of people in a tone that oscillated between humor and compassion. . . . ”
From Hospital Days:
“THEY’VE come! they’ve come! hurry up, ladies-you’re wanted.”
“Who have come? the rebels?”
. . .
“Bless you, no child;” [my room-mate said.] [I]t’s the wounded from Fredericksburg; forty ambulances are at the door, and we shall have our hands full in fifteen minutes.”
“What shall we have to do?”
. . . 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. The house had been a hotel before hospitals were needed, and many of the doors still bore their old names; some not so inappropriate as might be imagined, for my ward was in truth a ball-room, if gun-shot wounds could christen it. 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 lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat, [Page 35] more plainly than any telegram of the Burnside blunder.
. . . One [wounded soldier] wore a soiled little bag about his neck, and, as I moved it, to bathe his wounded breast, I said,
“Your talisman didn’t save you, did it?”
“Well, I reckon it did, marm, for that shot would a gone a couple a inches deeper but for my old mammy’s camphor bag,” answered the cheerful philosopher.
Another, with a gun-shot wound through the cheek, asked for a looking-glass, and when I brought one, regarded his swollen face with a dolorous expression, as he muttered-
“I vow to gosh, that’s too bad! I warn’t a bad looking chap before, and now I’m done for; won’t there be a thunderin’ scar? and what on earth will Josephine Skinner say?”
He looked up at me with his one eye so appealingly, that I controlled my risibles, and assured him that if Josephine was a girl of sense, she would admire the honorable scar, as a lasting proof that he had faced the enemy, for all women thought a wound the best decoration a brave soldier could wear. I hope Miss Skinner verified the good opinion I so rashly expressed of her, but I shall never know.
The next scrubbee was a nice looking lad, with a curly brown mane, and a budding trace of gingerbread over the lip, which he called his beard, and defended stoutly, when the barber jocosely suggested its immolation. He lay on a bed, [Page 37] with one leg gone, and the right arm so shattered that it must evidently follow: yet the little Sergeant was as merry as if his afflictions were not worth lamenting over; and when a drop or two of salt water mingled with my suds at the sight of this strong young body, so marred and maimed, the boy looked up, with a brave smile, though there was a little quiver of the lips, as he said,
“Now don’t you fret yourself about me, miss; I’m first rate here, for it’s nuts to lie still on this bed, after knocking about in those confounded ambulances, that shake what there is left of a fellow to jelly. I never was in one of these places before, and think this cleaning up a jolly thing for us, though I’m afraid it isn’t for you ladies.”
“Is this your first battle, Sergeant?”
“No, miss; I’ve been in six scrimmages, and never got a scratch till this last one; but it’s done the business pretty thoroughly for me, I should say. Lord! what a scramble there’ll be for arms and legs, when we old boys come out of our graves, on the Judgment Day: wonder if we shall get our own again? If we do, my leg will have to tramp from Fredericksburg, my arm from here, I suppose, and meet my body, wherever it may be.”
The fancy seemed to tickle him mightily, for he laughed blithely, and so did I; which, no doubt, caused the new nurse to be regarded as a light-minded sinner by the Chaplain, who roamed vaguely about, informing the men that they were all worms, corrupt of heart, with perishable bodies, and souls only to be saved by a diligent perusal of certain tracts, . . . .
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, executive director, Vermont Humanities Council
Randall Fuller, From Battlefields Rising, How the Civil War Transformed American Literature, pp. 140, 142.
L. M. Alcott, Hospital Sketches, Boston: James Redpath, Publisher, 1863.