Civil War Hospital Sketches from Louisa May Alcott

The author of Little Women writes about her experiences tending to the wounded at a Union hospital in Georgetown.

Illustration of Louisa May Alcott tending to a wounded veteran at bedside.

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Cover for the Saturday Evening Post's Civil War collector's issue, featuring Gen. U.S. Grant on the cover.

This article and other stories of the Civil War can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Saturday Evening Post: Untold Stories of the Civil War.

American novelist Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experiences as a Sanitary Commission nurse in a series of letters for the abolitionist Boston Commonwealth. The letters, published as Hosptial Sketches in 1863, earned Alcott her first public attention as an author and praise for her sensitivity and wit.

The Post published excerpts from Hospital Sketches, a few weeks after Gettysburg, when Union hospitals were overflowing with casualties from the battle. On these pages, Alcott describes caring for soldiers from Fredericksburg in December 1862.

* * *

They’ve come! they’ve come! Hurry up, ladies — you’re wanted.”

“Who have come? The Rebels?”

This sudden summons in the gray dawn was some- what startling to a three days’ nurse like myself, and, as the thundering knock came at our door, I sprang up in my bed, prepared “To gird my woman’s form, And on the ramparts die,” if necessary; but my room- mate took it more coolly, and, as she began a rapid toilet, answered my bewildered question, — (“Bless you, no child; it’s the wounded from Fredericksburg; forty ambulances are at the door, and we shall have our hands full in 15 minutes.”)

Louisa May Alcott
Abolitionist and author, Louisa May Alcott (Library of Congress)

The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty.

I chanced to light on a withered old Irishman, wounded in the head. 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 wouldn’t hear of my touching “them dirty crayters”.

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 col- ored 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 reckon it did, ma’am, for that shot would a gone a couple a inches deeper but for my old mammy’s camphor bag,” answered the cheerful philosopher.

Another, with a gun-shot wound through the cheek, asked for a looking-glass. When I brought one, regarded his swollen face with a dolorous expression, as he muttered —

“I vow to gosh, that’s too bad! I warn’t a bad looking chap before, and now I’m done for; won’t there be a thunderin’ scar? and what on earth will Josephine Skinner say?”

He looked up at me with his one eye so appealingly, that I assured him that if Josephine was a girl of sense, she would admire the honorable scar.

The next scrubbee was a nice-looking lad, with a a bud- ding trace of gingerbread over the lip, which he called his beard, and defended stoutly, when the barber jocosely sug- gested its immolation. He lay on a bed, with one leg gone, and the right arm so shattered that it must evidently fol- low: 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 suds 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.”

“Is this your first battle, Sergeant?”

“No, miss; I’ve been in six scrimmages, and never got a scratch till this last one; but it’s done the business pretty thoroughly for me, I should say. Lord! What a scramble there’ll be for arms and legs, when we old boys come out of our graves, on the Judgment Day: wonder if we shall get our own again? If we do, my leg will have to tramp from Fredericksburg, my arm from here, I suppose, and meet my body, wherever it may be.”

The fancy seemed to tickle him mightily.

 

Donation notes to Soldiers

Illustration of wounded Civil War soldiers being treated at a Sanitation Commission camp.
An illustration showing the Sanitary Commission, which provided care and supplies to soldiers. (The Saturday Evening Post, 1864)

Alcott volunteered with the Sanitary Commission, created in 1861 to help organize donations and volunteers. Throughout the war, the Post published Commission news, including the excerpt below.

— Originally published March 26, 1864 —

Some of the marks on the items sent to the sanitary Commission show the thought and feeling at home:

On a homespun blanket, worn, but washed as clean as snow, was pinned a bit of paper which said: “This blanket was carried by Milly Aldrich (who is ninety-three years old) down hill and up hill, one and a half miles, to be given to some soldier.”

On a bed quilt was pinned a card, saying: “My son is in the army. Whoever is made warm by this quilt, which i have worked on for six days and most all of six nights, let him remember his own mother’s love.”

On another blanket was this: “This blanket was used by a soldier in the war of 1812 — may it keep some soldier warm in this war against Traitors.”

On a pillow was written: “This pillow belonged to my little boy, who died resting on it; it is a precious treasure to me, but i give it for the soldiers.”

On a pair of woolen socks was written: “These stockings were knit by a little girl five years old, and she is going to knit some more, for Mother says it will help some poor soldier.”

On a bundle containing bandages was written: “This is a poor gift, but it is all i had: i have given my husband and my boy, and only wish i had more to give, but i haven’t.”

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Comments

  1. This feature is so unique and wonderful. Hearing from Louisa May Alcott in her own words is a privilege to be able to read, including her conversations with the injured men.

    Her writing style is one I really love, though it must be read more slowly to truly understand it. In a way it’s almost like a filter for the truly horrific on-the-scene reporting this entails. Her compassion for the man asking for the mirror is just one example of her soothing kindness combined with having to be a very tough woman to be able to endure her duties as a Sanitary Commission volunteer.

    The notes on the items sent to the commission are so compassionate also; each one in its own unique way, sharing the common bond of giving for the greater good of the soldiers.

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