Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War, Part I

Louisa May Alcott in the 1850s

While going through some old files this past weekend, a document practically jumped out at me, falling from a stack of papers and landing on the floor at my feet. It was a script for a production I put together about 15 years ago. I have only the one hardcopy left and I hadn’t looked at it in so long, I’d forgotten where it was.

When I was in grad school, I had the good fortune to convince a professor to allow me to produce a play based on the Civil War as an independent project. The finished product consisted of monologues from nine different historical figures and followed their experiences over the course of the war. With the support of a splendid cast and crew who somehow had faith that this thing would come together, we managed to produce this show in one of the campus theaters. I’m still not sure how we succeeded in pulling it off. It was, without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on.

Putting this script together was quite a task. I must have read 30 to 40 Civil War memoirs, some well-known and some completely obscure. Of all the historical figures to make the final cut, I suppose my favorite was Louisa May Alcott.

I think Alcott’s writing is brilliant. It is, at times, surprisingly modern in tone…practical, wry, touched with sarcasm that would fit in well in our present cynical era, but also sincere and enthusiastic at the same time.

Of course, in Little Women, she crafted what is, I think, the best depiction of home-life during the Civil War, fictionalized though it may be. Even more interesting, her Hospital Sketches, published in 1863, tells of her brief experience as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C. Although she caught some flak from army nurses who claimed that she was glorifying her short service and insulting those who had served in the worst of circumstances for years and years. Be that as it may, the book is still superb.

Alcott was raised primarily in Concord. Her transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott (who I’ve always thought of as something of a crackpot) was involved in various experiments in utopian communities. She received instruction from all the great Concord writers…Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne. By the time the Civil War broke out, she had already begun a successful career as a writer. But in April 1861, the war distracted her, “War is declared with the South,” she wrote, “and our Concord company went to Washington. A busy time getting them ready and sad day seeing them off…I have often longed to see a war, and now I may have my wish. I long to be a man, but as I can’t fight I will content myself with working for those who can.”

Alcott plunged in to the war effort on the home front, “Spent yesterday working for our boys at the front. Three hundred women all sewing together at the hall for two days. Today I took a sail to the forts in Boston and…felt very Joan-of-Arc-y as I stood on the walls with the flag flying over me and the cannon all about. It seems as if a few energetic women could carry on the war better than the men do so far.”

By November 1862 she had tired of “sewing bees and lint picks…and socks for our boys.” Recording the bad news from the war front she wrote, “I feel the stir in the air and long for battle like a warhorse when he smells powder…I have decided to go to Washington as a nurse if I can find a place…So I’ve sent in my name and bide my time writing tales.”

On December 11 she received a letter stating that she had been admitted as an army nurse and should report to the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington. “Though it is a hard place, help is needed. My family had been all full of courage till the last moment came, then we all broke down…If I thought anyone would believe it, I’d boldly state that I slept on the train from Concord to Boston…But I’ll confess…I took the veil and what I did behind it is nobody’s business; but I maintain that the soldier who cries when his mother says goodbye is the boy who fights best and dies bravest.”

She had hoped to be stationed at the Armory Square Hospital, a large complex that employed the best medical standards of the day (the site of which, by the way, is now occupied by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and part of the National Mall). Instead, she was sent to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, then on the outskirts of Washington City. As the name would imply, it had been a hotel and tavern (many hotels in Washington were converted to hospitals). But this one had been condemned shortly before the war. It was cramped, poorly ventilated, and dirty…hardly a model hospital.

Arriving at her post, Alcott was dropped off  at “a great pile of buildings with a flag flying before it. The Union Hotel Hospital. My heart beat faster and it suddenly struck me that I was very far from home. Marching boldly up the steps, I found that no papers were necessary, for the men fell back, the guards touched their caps, a boy opened the door and as it closed behind me…Nurse Alcott’s mission was begun.”

Although she may sound naive in her enthusiasm, this was so typical of the period. Men and women all headed off to war with dreams of glory. The timing of her arrival is astoundingly ironic. That very day, the tragic Battle of Fredericksburg had been fought. The wounded were already headed her way.

Nurse Alcott would have a very tough week ahead.

Sources: The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, (1989) ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy; Hospital Sketches and Camp Fire Stories, (1909) Louisa May Alcott.

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