1862 | Washington, DC

Louisa May Alcott Clears for Action

On tending to the war-wounded.

“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 somewhat startling to a three days’ nurse like myself, and as the thundering knock came at our door, I sprang up in my bed.

“Bless you, no, child; it’s the wounded from Fredericksburg. Forty ambulances are at the door, and we shall have our hands full in fifteen minutes.”

“What shall we have to do?”

“Wash, dress, feed, warm, and nurse them for the next three months, I dare say. Eighty beds are ready, and we were getting impatient for the men to come. Now you will begin to see hospital life in earnest, for you won’t probably find time to sit down all day, and may think yourself fortunate if you get to bed by midnight. Come to me in the ballroom when you are ready; the worst cases are always carried there, and I shall need your help.”

So saying, the energetic little woman twirled her hair into a button at the back of her head, in a cleared-for-action sort of style, and vanished, wrestling her way into a feminine kind of pea jacket as she went.

The Gout, etching by James Gillray, 1799.

The Gout, etching by James Gillray, 1799. 

I am free to confess that I had a realizing sense of the fact that my hospital bed wasn’t a bed of roses just then—or the prospect before me one of unmingled rapture. My three days’ experiences had begun with a death, and owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new “nuss,” who suffered untold agonies but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t. 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.

The first thing I met was a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted the human nose, and took it by storm. Cologne, with its seven and seventy evil savors, was a posy bed to it; and the worst of this affliction was, everyone had assured me that it was a chronic weakness of all hospitals, and I must bear it. I did, armed with lavender water with which I so besprinkled myself and premises, that I was soon known among my patients as “the nurse with the bottle.” 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 up stairs 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 like 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. All was hurry and confusion—the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity—for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till duly ticketed and registered. The walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps in doorways filled with helpers and lookers-on. In the midst of it all, the matron’s motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul than the cordial draughts she administered or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.

In the name of Hippocrates doctors have invented the most exquisite form of torture ever known to man: survival.

—Luis Buñuel, 1983

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. The house had been a hotel before hospitals were needed, and many of the doors still bore their old names—some not so inappropriate as might be imagined, for that ward was in truth a “ball” room, if gunshot wounds could christen it. Forty beds were prepared, many already tenanted by tired men who fell down anywhere and drowsed till the smell of food roused them. 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 fight at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all. Presently, Ms. 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 washbowl, 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 of arms] 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 are doon!”

Another, with a gunshot wound through the cheek, asked for a looking glass, 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 Ms. Skinner verified the good opinion I so rashly expressed of her, but I shall never know.

“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 afterward mentioned as carelessly as if gentlemen were in the habit of carrying such trifles about with them. 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, hang him! He’s got shet of a foot, or he’d a cut like the rest of the lot. 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.”

Contributor

Louisa May Alcott

From Hospital Sketches. Alcott tutored Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter, often reading works of philosophy and literature in his library. After six weeks serving as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, she contracted typhoid and was forced to return home to Concord. She wrote Little Women in a six-week period in 1868.