The world didn’t know her yet as a famous writer. Little Women was still nearly a decade away. But thirty year old Louisa May Alcott wanted to help the Union in the Civil War effort. She wanted to get involved, maybe even needed to get involved.
She grew up in a home with a father who was an abolitionist, a member of the Antislavery Society. And her mother once hid a fugitive slave in their oven.
So for Louisa, the time came for her to join. She took a position as a nurse in Georgetown, at the Union Hotel, which had been converted into a hospital.
The following are excerpts of her time there.
November, 1862: “Thirty years old. Decided to go to Washington as nurse if I could find a place. Help needed, and I love nursing, and mustlet out my pent-up energy in some new way. Winter is always a hard and a dull time, and if I am away there is one less to feed and warm and worry over.
I want new experiences, and am sure to get ’em if I go. So I’ve sent in my name, and bide my time writing tales, to leave all snug behind me, and mending up my old clothes,–for nurses don’t need nice things, thank Heaven!”
December, 1862: “On the 11th I received a note from Miss H. M. Stevenson telling me to start for Georgetown next day to fill a place in the Union Hotel Hospital. Mrs. Ropes of Boston was matron, and Miss Kendall of Plymouth was a nurse there, and though a hard place, help was needed. I was ready, and when my commander said “March!” I marched. Packed my trunk, and reported in B. that same evening.
We had all been full of courage till the last moment came; then we all broke down. I realized that I had taken my life in my hand, and might never see them all again. I said, “Shall I stay, Mother?” as I hugged her close. “No, go! and the Lord be with you!” answered the Spartan woman; and till I turned the corner she bravely smiled and waved her wet handkerchief on the door-step. Shall I ever see that dear old face again?
So I set forth in the December twilight, with May and Julian Hawthorne as escort, feeling as if I was the son of the house going to war.
Friday, the 12th, was a very memorable day, spent in running all over Boston to get my pass, etc., calling for parcels, getting a tooth filled, and buying a veil,–my only purchase. A. C. gave me some old clothes; the dear Sewalls money for myself and boys, lots of love and help; and at 5 p.m., saying ‘good-bye’ to a group of tearful faces at the station, I started on my long journey, full of hope and sorrow, courage and plans.
A most interesting journey into a new world full of stirring sights and sounds, new adventures, and an ever-growing sense of the great task I had undertaken.
I said my prayers as I went rushing through the country white with tents, all alive with patriotism, and already red with blood.
A solemn time, but I’m glad to live in it; and am sure it will do me good whether I come out alive or dead.
All went well, and I got to Georgetown one evening very tired. Was kindly welcomed, slept in my narrow bed with two other room-mates, and on the morrow began my new life by seeing a poor man die at dawn, and sitting all day between a boy with pneumonia and a man shot through the lungs. A strange day, but I did my best; and when I put mother’s little black shawl round the boy while he sat up panting for breath, he smiled and said, ‘You are real motherly, ma’am.’ I felt as if I was getting on. The man only lay and stared with his big black eyes, and made me very nervous. But all were well behaved; and I sat looking at the twenty strong faces as they looked back at me,–the only new thing they had to amuse them,–hoping that I looked ‘motherly’ to them; for my thirty years made me feel old, and the suffering round me made me long to comfort every one.”
January, 1863: “I never began the year in a stranger place than this: five hundred miles from home, alone, among strangers, doing painful duties all day long, and leading a life of constant excitement in this great house, surrounded by three or four hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease, and death. Though often homesick, heartsick, and worn out, I like it, find real pleasure in comforting, tending, and cheering these poor souls who seem to love me, to feel my sympathy though unspoken, and acknowledge my hearty good-will, in spite of the ignorance, awkwardness, and bashfulness which I cannot help showing in so new and trying a situation.
The men are docile, respectful, and affectionate, with but few exceptions; truly lovable and manly many of them. John Sulie, a Virginia blacksmith, is the prince of patients; and though what we call a common man in education and condition, to me is all I could expect or ask from the first gentleman in the land. Under his plain speech and unpolished manner I seem to see a noble character, a heart as warm and tender as a woman’s, a nature fresh and frank as any child’s. He is about thirty, I think, tall and handsome, mortally wounded, and dying royally without reproach, repining, or remorse. Mrs. Ropes and myself love him, and feel indignant that such a man should be so early lost; for though he might never distinguish himself before the world, his influence and example cannot be without effect, for real goodness is never wasted.”
Louisa almost died in the camp. She fell ill with typhoid fever and had to leave after only a few weeks. She wrote of the experience, [I] “was told I had had a very bad typhoid fever, had nearly died, and was still very sick. All of which seemed rather curious, for I remembered nothing of it. Found a queer, thin, big-eyed face when I looked in the glass; didn’t know myself at all; and when I tried to walk discovered that I couldn’t, and cried because my legs wouldn’t go.”
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