New England novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is perhaps best known as the author of young adult fiction, including Little Women (1868), and Little Men (1871). However, Alcott put her writing talents to use in describing her Civil War experiences as a volunteer nurse in an autobiographical account called Hospital Sketches (1863).
The result was not what one might expect from a nurse’s narrative. Alcott’s account is unique because of its irreverence and her extremely dry sense of humor. Giving herself the literary nom de plume of “Tribulation Periwinkle,” she describes the ironies of being an Abolitionist wanting to get in on the “excitement” of the war but finding herself in over her head. Alcott contracted typhoid fever during her Civil War service, for which she was treated with mercury; scholars have speculated that the health problems she suffered later on throughout her life were related to her exposure to mercury.
Here Alcott describes her interactions with wounded soldiers from the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia, Robert E. Lee’s one-sided Confederate victory over Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac in which the 12,000 Union casualties were over twice those of Lee’s rebels.It gives us a perspective of what was on Union soldiers’ minds after the battle; rather than being preoccupied with the overall military situation or their cause, they were focused on matters at hand and their lives at home.
Alcott manages to give a general sense of each soldier’s personality in describing her brief interactions with them. It is interesting to think that each of these soldiers, otherwise lost to history, achieved some form of immortality in the following narrative.
Eager To Help
…Having a taste for “ghastliness,” I had rather longed for the wounded to arrive, for rheumatism wasn’t heroic, neither was liver complaint, or measles; even fever had lost its charms since “bathing burning brows” had been used up in romances, real and ideal; but when I peeped into the dusky street lined with what I at first had innocently called market carts, now unloading their sad freight at our door, I recalled sundry reminiscences I had heard from nurses of longer standing, my ardor experienced a sudden chill, and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again…
Having been run over by three excited surgeons, bumped against by migratory coal-hods, water-pails, and small boys, nearly scalded by an avalanche of newly-filled teapots, and hopelessly entangled in a knot of colored sisters coming to wash, I progressed by slow stages upstairs and down, till the main hall was reached, and I paused to take breath and a survey. There they were! “our brave boys,” as the papers justly call them, for cowards could hardly have been so riddled with shot and shell, so torn and shattered, nor have borne suffering for which we have no name, with an uncomplaining fortitude, which made one glad to cherish each as a brother. In they came, some on stretchers, some in men’s arms, some feebly staggering along propped on rude crutches, and one lay stark and still with covered face, as a comrade gave his name to be recorded before they carried him away to the dead house…
ORders To Bathe Men
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, which was rather “a hard road to travel” just then…Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw—ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat, more plainly than any telegram of the Burnside blunder. I pitied them so much, I dared not speak to them, though, remembering all they had been through since the rout at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all.
Presently, Miss Blank tore me from my refuge behind piles of one-sleeved shirts, odd socks, bandages and lint; put basin, sponge, towels, and a block of brown soap into my hands, with these appalling directions: “Come, my dear, begin to wash as fast as you can. Tell them to take off socks, coats and shirts, scrub them well, put on clean shirts, and the attendants will finish them off, and lay them in bed.”
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 armis [by force] 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…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 [may you be blessed in heaven] 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 [foot] or the shoe.” It was; and if he hadn’t been to the fore, I should have gone on pulling, under the impression that the “fut” was a boot, for trousers, socks, shoes and legs were a mass of mud…
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 [blushed] like bashful girls…Another, with a gunshot wound through the cheek, asked for a looking-glass [mirror], and 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 controlled my risibles and assured him that if Josephine was a girl of 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 brave soldier could wear. I hope Miss Skinner verified the good opinion I so rashly expressed of her, but I shall never know.
The next scrubbee 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…
“I say, Mrs.!” called a voice behind me; and, turning, I saw a rough Michigander, with an arm blown off at the shoulder, and two or three bullets still in him—as he afterwards mentioned, as carelessly as if gentlemen were in the habit of carrying such trifles about with them.
“Don’t You Wash Him!”
I went to him, and, while administering a dose of soap and water, he whispered, irefully: “That red-headed devil, over yonder, is a reb [Confederate], damn him! … Don’t you wash him, nor feed him, but jest let him holler till he’s tired. It’s a blasted shame to fetch them fellers in here, alongside of us; and so I’ll tell the chap that bosses this concern; cuss me if I don’t.”
I regret to say that I did not deliver a moral sermon upon the duty of forgiving our enemies, and the sin of profanity, then and there; but, being a red-hot Abolitionist, stared fixedly at the tall rebel, who was a copperhead, in every sense of the word, and privately resolved to put soap in his eyes, rub his nose the wrong way, and excoriate his cuticle generally, if I had the washing of him.
My amiable intentions, however, were frustrated; for, when I approached, with as Christian an expression as my principles would allow, and asked the question, “Shall I try to make you more comfortable, sir?” all I got for my pains was a gruff, “No; I’ll do it myself.”
“Here’s your Southern chivalry, with a witness,” thought I, dumping the basin down before him, thereby quenching a strong desire to give him a summary baptism, in return for his ungraciousness; for my angry passions rose, at this rebuff, in a way that would have scandalized good Dr. Watts. He was a disappointment in all respects, (the rebel, not the blessed Doctor), for he was neither fiendish, romantic, pathetic, or anything interesting; but a long, fat man, with a head like a burning bush, and a perfectly expressionless face: so I could hate him without the slightest drawback, and ignored his existence from that day forth. One redeeming trait he certainly did possess, as the floor speedily testified; for his ablutions were so vigorously performed, that his bed soon stood like an isolated island, in a sea of soap-suds, and he resembled a dripping merman, suffering from the loss of a fin. If cleanliness is a near neighbor to godliness, then was the big rebel the godliest man in my ward that day.
Having done up our human wash, and laid it out to dry, the second syllable of our version of the word warfare was enacted with much success. Great trays of bread, meat, soup and coffee appeared…Very welcome seemed the generous meal, after a week of suffering, exposure, and short commons; soon the brown faces began to smile, as food, warmth, and rest, did their pleasant work; and the grateful “Thankee’s” were followed by more graphic accounts of the battle and retreat, than any paid reporter could have given us. Curious contrasts of the tragic and comic met one everywhere; and some touching as well as ludicrous episodes, might have been recorded that day.