The Christmas release of director Greta Gerwig’s new film version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women presents a fresh opportunity for Alcott’s 19th-century classic to be read as a book that speaks to the present feminist moment. But it will be a shame if the renewed interest in Alcott that Gerwig has sparked does not also lead to a long-overdue appreciation of Alcott’s heroism in the Civil War.
In 1862, two weeks before Christmas, Alcott left her home in Concord, Massachusetts, to serve the Union cause by working in a military hospital in Washington, D.C. In Little Women Alcott made the Civil War the background for her story of the March sisters and their mother, but in 1862 the Civil War became central to Alcott’s life.
In the Union Hotel Hospital, a former Georgetown tavern in which she worked, Alcott saw death firsthand, and, like the doctors and nurses in the hospital, became vulnerable to the disease and infection the wounded troops brought with them.
Walt Whitman’s account in Specimen Days of his work at the modern Union hospital in Washington, D.C., is far better known than Alcott’s. When we think of the suffering experienced by the soldiers of the Civil War, the quote most often cited is Whitman’s “the real war will never get in the books.”
Alcott’s stories of her Civil War experiences appeared serially in May and June 1863 in the Commonwealth, a Boston anti-slavery newspaper. They are as moving as anything Whitman wrote about the war and were published together in August 1863 under the title Hospital Sketches long before Specimen Days appeared in book form.
Alcott began her Civil War nursing service as a novice. On Dec. 16, 1862, the carts she saw drawing up to the hospital to which she had been assigned were not, as she first thought, farmer’s market carts carrying produce. They were carts bearing wounded and dying men from the battle of Fredericksburg, where the Union Army endured one of its worst defeats of the war, suffering 13,000 casualties. There was no time for Alcott to absorb the war gradually or get used to the sight of a veteran “with an arm blown off at the shoulder.”
Alcott soon realized her duties were as much psychological as physical: “Having got the bodies of my boys into something like order, the next task was to minister to their minds,” she observed early in Hospital Sketches. The doctors, after doing their best for their patients, had no hesitation in giving Alcott the unwelcome task of telling men who were dying that they would not survive their hospital stay.
“I could have sat down on the spot and cried heartily, if I had not learned the wisdom of bottling up one’s tears for leisure moments,” Alcott wrote of an especially painful assignment to deliver the bad news. She did as told. Then she stayed with the soldier to the end.
When the soldier died, he was holding Alcott’s hand so tightly that she needed help prying open his grip. Even when her hand got back its color, the white marks of the dead soldier’s fingers remained. “I could not but be glad that through its touch, the presence of human sympathy, perhaps had lightened that hard hour,” Alcott remarked.
Over the course of her time in Washington, Alcott became better at learning to deal with the suffering around her, but she never shut her eyes to the wrongs she saw. She was especially sensitive to the racism of the North. “The nurses were willing to be served by the colored people, but seldom thanked them, never praised, and scarcely recognized them in the street,” she noted. In her postscript to Hospital Sketches, she observed that the next hospital she hoped to work in would be one for “colored regiments.”
That next assignment never came. As a result of her hospital work, Alcott contracted pneumonia and typhus. At the end of six weeks at the military hospital that she called Hurly-burly House because of its disorganization, Alcott’s father, the famed educator Bronson Alcott, came to Washington to take her home. As her biographer Susan Cheever has written, “She left for the war a vigorous and energetic woman; she returned a true casualty.”
Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning that came from the doses of calomel medicine the doctors in Washington prescribed for her, and the physician treating her at her home in Concord added to her difficulties, ordering her head shaved on the grounds the shaving would lower her fever.
Sick as she was, Alcott thought she had no grounds for complaint given the horrors she had witnessed in Washington. As she wrote in her understated conclusion to Hospital Sketches, “I shall never regret the going, though 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.”