Louisa May Alcott on Washing the Wounded

Louisa May Alcott“I WANT something to do.”

This remark being addressed to the world in general, no one in particular felt it their duty to reply; so I repeated it to the smaller world about me, received the following suggestions, and settled the matter by answering my own inquiry, as people are apt to do when very much in earnest.

“Write a book,” quoth the author of my being.

“Don’t know enough, sir. First live, then write.” 

From the introduction to  Hospital Sketches 1863

If all you know about Louisa May Alcott‘s writing is her children’s book Little Women, you have missed some of her most interesting work. In November 1862 she recorded in her diary: “Thirty. Decided to go to Washington as a nurse…” (Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War). Her impressions and reactions to what she experienced in the hospitals were published in the anti-slavery Boston newspaper The Commonwealth. These brief fictionalized sketches about the wounded soldiers at the Hurly-Burly Hotel (a temporary hospital), the trials of nursing, and Miss Tribulation Periwinkle’s frustrations with the doctors, the bureaucracy, and the lack of supplies had a light-hearted tone designed to relive the hearts of those waiting for news of their own loved ones in the war. The sketches written in the sentimental style of the period proved to be very popular and were well received by the literary critics of the time. They served to establish Alcott as a major writer of the Civil War period. They were reprinted as a book in 1863 and the proceeds used to fund aid for the wounded and orphans.

Alcott served only a short time as a nurse. She contracted typhoid fever and was treated with mercury with may have shortened her life. She died at age 55 in 1888. The following excerpt is from Sketch 3 “The Day”.

“Come, my dear, begin to wash as fast as you can…”

If she had requested me to shave them all or dance a hornpipe on the stove funnel, I should have been less staggered; but to scrub some dozen lords of creation at a moment’s notice was really–really–. However, there was no time for nonsense, and having resolved when I came to do everything I was bid, I drowned my scruples in my wash bowl, clutched my soap manfully, and assuming a businesslike air, made a dab at the first dirty specimen I saw, bent on performing my task vi et amis if necessary. I chanced to light on a withered old Irishman, wounded in the head, which caused that portion of his frame to be tastefully laid out like a garden, the bandages being the walks, his hair the shrubbery. He was so overpowered by the honor of having a lady wash him, as he expressed it, that he did nothing but roll up his eyes and bless me, in an irresistible style which was too much for my sense of the ludicrous; so we laughed together, and when I knelt down to take off his shoes, he “flopped” also and wouldn’t hear of my touching “them dirty craters. May your bed above be aisy darlin’ for the day’s work ye ar doon!–Whoosh! there ye are, and bedad, it’s hard tellin’ which is the dirtiest, the fut or the shoe.” It was; and if he hadn’t been to the fore, I should have gone on pulling under the impression the “fut” was a boot, for the trousers, socks, shoes and legs were a mass of mud. This comical tableau produced a general grin, at which propitious beginning I took heart and scrubbed away like any tidy parent on a Saturday night. Some of them took the performance like sleepy children, leaning their tired heads against me as I worked, others looked grimly scandalized, and several of the roughest colored like bashful girls. One 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 reckin it did, marm, for that shot would have gone a couple inches deeper, but for my old mammy’s camphor bag,”  answered the cheerful philosopher.

Another with a gunshot wound through the cheek, asked for a looking glass, and when I brought one, regarded his face with a dolorous expression, as he muttered–“I vow to gosh, that’s too bad! I wasn’t a bad looking chap before, and now I’m done for; won’t there be a thundering scar? and what on earth will Josephine Skinner say?”

He looked up to me with his one eye so appealing, that I controlled my risibles, and assured him that if Josephine was a girl of good 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 soldier could wear. I hope Miss Skinner verified the good I so rashly expressed of her, but I will never know.

The next scrubbie 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, 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 subs 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.”

The hospitals of Washington in the beginning of the Civil war were places full of pain and suffering. Contemporary novelists such as Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain, Robin Oliveria in My Name is Mary Sutter, and Patricia O’Brien in her novel about Alcott The Glory Cloak have depicted this gruesome side. On the other hand, using humor and appealing to sentiment allowed Alcott to criticize what she saw as the horrible treatment the wounded received as was done in the ling running TV show *Mash*.

If you were writing about the horrors of war what tone would you take

Brief Biography

Louisa May Alcott is My Passion | Analysis and reflection from someone endlessly fascinated with Louisa May Alcott. Member/supporter of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (including the Alcott International Circle) and the Louisa May Alcott Society.

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