Louisa May Alcott — Stories From a Civil War Nurse

Many readers relegate Miss Alcott to being the author of Little Women and other novels marketed to young girls. But since her father did not excel in earning money, and her eldest sister was widowed early in life, Louisa took up the role of financially supporting her extended family. She wrote constantly, often churning out books, short stories, and magazine articles as fast as her pen could be rushed across the paper.

My favorite portion of Miss Alcott’s writings were the stories based upon her tragically brief time (December 1862 to January 1863) working as a Civil War nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in the Georgetown section of the District of Columbia. While nursing at the unsanitary former hotel she contracted typhoid pneumonia. For weeks she was close to death, and never completely recovered her good health.

Fiction written during or soon after the events portrayed is an excellent source of historical research, for the writer gives everyday details rarely found in scholarly history books. For anyone with an interest in learning more about Civil War medicine (or the depths of Louisa May Alcott’s life experiences) I recommend the following:

Hospital Sketches – based on Miss Alcott’s letters home, this short book was first published in 1863, and later revised in 1869.

Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle tells of her adventures at the “Hurly-burly House” hospital. There is much levity as she tells of the government red-tape she needed to untangle before arriving at the hospital, and of such not-in-the-job-description trials as a one-legged sleepwalker hopping about the ward during her night shift.

There are also deathbed vigils and other heartbreaking scenes, told by someone who didn’t have to imagine what may have been – she was reporting what she’d seen and done. I always cry when I read Hospital Sketches – but I keep re-reading it.

(Download book at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3837 )

My Contraband – first published in an 1863 issue of Atlantic Monthly, this short story was reprinted in the 1869 Alcott book Camp and Fireside Stories, as well as numerous later anthologies. It can be found in the Dover Thrift Editions’ Louisa May Alcott collection entitled Short Stories (1996, Dover Publications, Inc.)

Contraband was the term used to categorize former slaves, especially those helping the Union Army. Set in a military hospital, a nurse must confront a wounded mulatto who has excellent reasons for wanting to murder his former master. The drama is intense, and if this story doesn’t make you ponder what you would have done, you have no business reading good fiction.

These next two stories were also in Camp and Fireside Stories. They were likely first published in magazines during or soon after the Civil War.

The Blue and the Gray – A nurse has good reason to believe a wounded Confederate soldier wants to make sure a Union soldier does not survive. The mercy and forgiveness shown in this story may come across as unrealistic, but for anyone attempting to live a Christian life, the outcome is worth some reflection.

A Hospital Christmas – I consider this to be more of a series of vignettes than a strongly-plotted story. A long stay in a military hospital is always a burden, but it is doubly trying on December 25th. The ward nurse provides small gifts left at each bedside, and oversees decorating the room with evergreens. When the most disliked invalid receives a generous Christmas box, can he be pursuaded to share?

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