Louisa May Alcott

The Woman Behind Little Women

Harriet Reisen

Henry Holt and Co.

FROM CHAPTER ELEVEN: I’ve Often Longed to See a War

By 1862, as she approached her thirtieth birthday Louisa was restless, and hungry for adventure before it was too late. “Decided to go to Washington as a nurse if I could find a place,” she wrote in her journal for November. “I love nursing and must let out my pent-up energy in some new way.”

Thirty was the minimum age for being an army nurse. Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of the Union army nursing corps, had also stipulated that volunteers be “plain looking” and married. But under the pressure of casualties from the Battle of Bull Run in the summer of 1862, Dix had to revise her rules to take any respectable woman willing to risk her life in the hellhole of an army hospital.

Louisa’s orders came on December 11; she was to leave for Washington the next morning, to report to the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. Abby, Anna, May, and their next-door neighbor Sophia Hawthorne frantically helped Louisa pack in time for the afternoon train to Boston; Louisa took her journal, Dickens to read to the convalescing soldiers, paper for transcribing their letters and writing her own, and enough sandwiches, gingerbread, and apples to eat all the way to the capital. She choked on a last cup of tea that had been stirred with salt instead of sugar in the excitement, and suddenly it was time to go. “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.’ ” Abby waved her wet handkerchief from the door. “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.” After another tearful leave-taking from Anna and John Pratt at the Boston station, she started on her long journey “full of hope and sorrow, courage and plans.”

In New London, Connecticut, she transferred to the City of Boston, the steamship that would ferry her south to New Jersey, and spent most of the night in a perfect storm of displaced anxiety. “The boat is new, but if it ever intends to blow up, spring a leak, catch fire, or be run into, it will do the deed tonight,” she wrote home, “because I’m here to fulfill my destiny.” She woke in time to watch the sun come up over Long Island Sound, with “mist wreaths furling off, and a pale pink sky above us,” and to catch the train to Washington. By seven in the morning it had passed through Philadelphia, her native city, an “old place, full of Dutch women,” and on to Baltimore, a “big, dirty, shippy, shiftless sort of place.” As they passed the site where the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment had been fired on by a Confederate mob in April of 1861, she felt as if she “should enjoy throwing a stone at somebody, hard.” Her car came uncoupled and then got hit from behind by its unshackled mate, sending passengers, hats, and water jars flying like circus clowns. Louisa was satisfied, “for no journey in America would be complete without [an accident].”

As the train slowed in its approach to the capital, the novice traveler glimpsed a strange, long-imagined world. “We often passed colored people, looking as if they had come out of a picture book, or off the stage . . . not at all the sort of people I’d been accustomed to see at the North.” Encampments along the route “made the fields and lanes gay with blue coats and the glitter of buttons. Military washes flapped and fluttered in the open air . . . and everywhere the boys threw up their arms and cut capers as we passed.” Arriving at nightfall, Louisa was cast into the chaos of the wartime city. A stranger corralled a carriage and jumped in with her, pointing out the unfinished dome of the Capitol and the brilliantly lit White House, where “carriages were rolling in and out of the great gate.” Louisa could just make out the East Room and wished she could peek in. Journey’s end was a formidable building with guards at the door “and a very trying quantity of men lounging about. My heart beat rather faster than usual, and it struck me that I was very far from home.”

The Union Hotel had been hastily converted to a hospital. It was badly lit, crowded, and poorly ventilated. The windows were nailed shut, and smashed panes had been draped with curtains to keep out the cold. Many of the rooms still bore their former designations, “some not so inappropriate,” Louisa thought, “for [her] ward was in truth a ball-room, if gunshot wounds could christen it.” She had barely mastered the route to her upstairs room when she was put in charge of a ward of forty soldiers sick with rheumatism or fever, and wondered when her real war duty would begin. Three days later it did: she was awakened “in the grey dawn” by a loud knock and a cry of “They’ve come, they’ve come! Hurry up ladies—you’re wanted.” For a minute she thought the rebels were coming, but in fact the first wounded were coming from Fredericksburg, where a bloody battle was raging. In five days, thirteen thousand Union soldiers had been killed, captured,

“Having a taste for ‘ghastliness,’ I had rather longed for the wounded to arrive, but when I peeped into the dusky street lined with what I had innocently called market carts, now unloading their sad freight at our door . . . my ardor experienced a sudden chill, and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again.” Forty carts discharged their injured cargo bound for eighty beds in the once-elegant ballroom. Some were carried in on stretchers, others staggered in on crutches, and the few who could stay on their feet helped the many who couldn’t. “All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed until duly ticketed, and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled.” From behind a stack of folded linens, Louisa stared transfixed at a group of men gathered around the stove, “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.” She could not move from fear until the matron, Hannah Ropes, thrust a washbasin, a sponge, and a block of brown soap into her hands and told her to begin washing patients as fast as she could. “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—.”

She did it anyway. For an unmarried woman of thirty, who may have never seen a naked man except perhaps her father, or boys at a swimming hole, or the Fruitlands nudist Samuel Bower by moonlight, it was a turning point. She had not only to see the men’s bodies, but to touch them intimately and with assurance. She clutched her block of brown soap “manfully” and made a “dab at the first dirty specimen” she saw, an “old withered Irishman” so delighted to have a well-meaning woman sponge him clean that he blessed her on the spot, which made her laugh. The worst was not over, but the fear of it was. For the next twelve hours she moved from bed to bed, washing putrid gaping wounds, mopping foreheads, bringing water to those who could drink and food to those who could eat, and stifling tears at the sight of young boys with stumps for legs or holes blown through their peach-fuzzed cheeks as she tried to ease their misery. Her gentle touch was usually the only, and the best, offering she could make to them. After she spoon-fed a New Hampshire man, she accepted a pair of earrings intended for the wife of his dead mate because, he said, she looked so much like the man’s new widow. A soldier shot in the stomach asked for a glass of water; she returned with it minutes later to find him dead.

The next day she assisted at amputations, where “the merciful magic of ether” was judged unnecessary, and “the poor souls had to bear their pains as best they might.” After the sawing, the hacking, and the trimming, she learned how to dress wounds from a surgeon who “seemed to regard a dilapidated body very much as [she] should have regarded a damaged garment . . . cutting, sawing, patching and piecing with the enthusiasm of an accomplished surgical seamstress.”

It was a harrowing initiation, but it made of her an instant veteran, confident and useful. Like her father’s friend, the poet Walt Whitman, who also served as a nurse, she understood that the battlefield was not necessarily where the essence of the war was to be found. “The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for . . . in the hospitals, among the wounded,” Whitman had written. In moments of calm on the ward, Louisa sat with her American personalities as they struggled to write letters home, letters that began with vivid descriptions of battle and ended with “a somewhat sudden plunge from patriotism to provender, desiring ‘Marm,’ ‘Mary Ann,’ or ‘Aunt Peters’ to send along some pies, pickles, sweet stuff, and apples, to ‘yourn in haste.’

She wrote a poem with the rhythm of a march and called it “Beds.”

Beds to the front of them, Beds to the right of them,

Beds to the left of them, Nobody blundered.

Beamed at by hungry souls, Screamed at with brimming bowls,

Steamed at by army rolls, Buttered and sundered.

With coffee not cannon plied, Each must be satisfied,

Whether they lived or died; All the men wondered.

“I never began the year in a stranger place than this,” Louisa wrote on the first day of 1863, “five hundred miles from home, alone among strangers, doing painful duties all day long, & leading a life of constant excitement in this great house surrounded by 3 or 4 hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease & death. Though often homesick, heart sick & worn out, I like it.” The night before she had celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation by leaping from her bed at midnight and racing to the window to add her own cheer to the hollering and singing in the streets of the embattled nation’s capital. She waved her handkerchief to a crowd of black men gathered below, and returned to bed to savor the bursts of firecrackers and choruses of “Glory, Hallelujah” that sounded all night.

A few weeks into the routine, she paused to outline a typical day. She was up by six, dressed quickly by gaslight, and then hurried to her ward to fling open the windows to air out the room. It made the men “grumble & shiver,” but Louisa (trained under a fierce fresh-air enthusiast) knew it was the only cure for air “bad enough to breed a pestilence.” She gave the fire a poke and went off to a quick breakfast with her colleagues. She found the women silly, the men self-important. At midday, she helped the wounded soldiers down big portions of soup, meat, potatoes, and bread, marveling that their appetites exceeded the supply of food, no matter how much was available. Newspapers, conversation, and doctors’ final rounds followed supper at five, the gaslight was dimmed at nine, and the day nurses’ shift was done.

Dr. John Winslow, a surgeon slow at his work though kind to the men, began to take an interest in Louisa and turned up at her room bearing books in lieu of flowers. She declined to visit his room but accepted his invitations to go walking. They went together to the Capitol to hear a dull sermon by William Henry Channing, then had a duller dinner at a German restaurant. “Quotes Browning copiously, is given to confidences in the twilight, & altogether is amiably amusing, & exceedingly young” was Louisa’s assessment of Dr. Winslow. Perhaps to avoid him, she volunteered for the night shift, which also freed her to take long runs in the mornings. From the top of a steep hill on her route, Louisa watched army wagons trundle off to replenish the troops, and saw the bursts of smoke from cannon fire.

Louisa liked being part of what she called the “night side” of life, to be up “owling” when “sleep & death have the house to themselves.” The hospital matron, Mrs. Ropes, admired Louisa and gave her the responsibility of assigning the patients in her three-room ward to the appropriate quarters, according to their condition: the “duty room” held the newly wounded; the “pleasure room” was for recovering soldiers, whom Louisa entertained with games, gossip, and probably the Dickens’ Sairy Gamp imitation that had been her sister Lizzie’s sickbed delight. The “pathetic room” of hopeless cases was a place to bring “teapots, lullabies, consolation, and, sometimes, a shroud.”

The sleeping men often broke the night silence of the ward talking, crying, making all kinds of noise. The gruff and reticent soldier by day became mild and chatty in sleep at night; the stiff facades of control devolved into groans and frank cries of pain; a drummer boy sang sweetly. Sometimes Louisa looked out the window at the moonlit church spire across the way, at the passersby on the street, at a boat gliding down the Potomac River. All that river water could not wash out the bloodstains on the land, she thought, but what had been washed away was Louisa’s naïveté about the excitement and glory of fighting a righteous battle.

One night she found herself alone at the bedside of a New Jersey man reliving the recent horrors of battle. He cheered on or cried out to fallen comrades, ducked incoming shots, and grabbed Louisa’s arm roughly, to pull her away from imaginary bursting shells. The man’s ravings were pitiful to hear and impossible to restrain. In the meantime, a fever-racked one-legged soldier propelled himself through the ward like a ghost, telling Louisa that he was dancing home, crashing into beds, and threatening harm to himself and everybody else. With no orderly there, Louisa was helpless to contain two sadly unhinged men, and the situation deteriorated even more when sobbing broke out from the twelve-year-old drummer boy in the corner bed. The boy’s loud lament was for the death of the wounded soldier who had carried him to safety.

Nursing tempered Louisa, matured her, replaced her book knowledge of behavior under duress with real-life experience. For all their liberality, her parents’ notions of human character were just that—notions. They were idealists (especially her father but also her mother) who didn’t see people for who they were so much as for how far they fell short of what they should be. Louisa wanted to know life in all its true variety, and she was getting the chance.

John Suhre was a Virginia blacksmith, a big strong man of thirty, her own age, with a small but indisputably fatal wound in his back that he could not see and had to lie on in order to breathe. He sat propped up in a bed that had been extended to accommodate his outsize frame, looking around with serenity, never making a request or a complaint. When he slept—and Louisa spent several nights watching him sleep—a tender smile played around his mouth, like a woman’s, she thought.

When he was awake, Louisa was a little afraid of the man. Unsure how to respond to his manly strength and dignity, she hung back, thinking she wasn’t needed or wanted. From her admiring description in Hospital Sketches, the book Louisa created from her letters home, it is obvious that she loved John Suhre, but whether with a worshipper’s awe, a woman’s desire, or a mother’s devotion is hard to discern. “A most attractive face he had,” she says, “thoughtful and often beautifully mild while watching the afflictions of others, as if entirely forgetful of his own.” She describes his eyes as “child’s eyes . . . with a clear, straightforward glance.” He “seemed to cling to life, as if it were rich in duties and delights, and he had learned the secret of content.”

She asked the doctor which man in her ward suffered the most, and was shocked to hear him name John. Because he was so strong, the doctor predicted a long and painful death. “There’s not the slightest hope for him; and you’d better tell him so before long,” he instructed. “Women have a way of doing such things comfortably, so I leave it to you.” Charged with this awesome responsibility, Louisa stayed close by as the doctor carelessly dressed the terrible wound. For the first time she saw tears slipping down John’s cheeks, his silent endurance of pain, and his terrible loneliness: “Straightway my fear vanished, my heart opened wide and took him in, as, gathering the bent head in my arms, as freely as if he had been a little child, I said, ‘Let me help you bear it, John.’ Never, on any human countenance, have I seen so swift and beautiful a look of gratitude, surprise and comfort, as that which answered me more eloquently than the whispered—‘Thank you, ma’am, this is right good! This is what I wanted!’ ”

The next time his wounds were dressed, Louisa held John, and he squeezed her hand to relieve his pain. When the ordeal was done, she eased him back against the pillows, cleansed his face, smoothed his brown hair, and spent a full hour by his bedside. When she stood to arrange his tray and his sheets, she felt his hand graze her skirt. Another day she put a sprig of heath and heliotrope on his pillow. Finally he said, “This is my first battle; do they think it’s going to be my last?” “I’m afraid they do, John.” It was the hardest question I had ever been called upon to answer; doubly hard with those clear eyes fixed on mine, forcing a truthful answer by their own truth. . . . To the end [he] held my hand close, so close that when he was asleep at last, I could not draw it away. Dan [the orderly] helped me, warning me as he did so that it was unsafe for dead and living flesh to lie so long together; . . . my hand was strangely cold and stiff, and four white marks remained across its back, even when warmth and color had returned elsewhere.

She helped prepare John’s body for burial, removing the wedding ring his widowed mother had given him to wear in battle and cutting a few locks of his hair to enclose when she sent the ring home to Virginia. A last letter from his family arrived at the hospital an hour before John’s death, but was not brought until an hour after it. Louisa placed the unread letter in the blacksmith’s calloused hand to bury with him as a signifier of loved ones at his bedside. Farewells were essential to a good nineteenth-century death.

Louisa had always considered herself immune to illness. When she developed a bad cough, she continued her daily runs in the dead of winter, despite colleagues warning her that she risked pneumonia. After three weeks of nonstop rounds, bad food, fetid air, and constant exposure to infection, Louisa’s fierce physical defenses gave way to typhoid pneumonia. A staff doctor found her on a staircase, too dizzy to stand, coughing uncontrollably, her forehead so hot she was trying to cool it on the iron banister. When the doctor ordered her to bed, she didn’t argue. “Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever & dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home,” she commented before she succumbed, expecting neglect. But nurses ascended to her room to lavish Louisa with the same tenderness they showed their patients. Male attendants she knew from long nights on the ward kept her woodbox full, and a succession of doctors dosed her with calomel, the mercury compound that was used to treat just about everything; she revised her opinion of them sharply upward. Louisa understood their concern. The matron, Mrs. Ropes, had also been diagnosed with typhoid pneumonia and was not expected to survive.

Amid bouts of feverish delusion and constant pain, Louisa tried to “keep merry” by sewing for the soldiers and writing letters home, but felt worse every day. “Hours began to get confused; people looked odd; queer faces haunted the room, and the nights were one long fight with weariness and pain.” Though at times she was incoherent, even in sleep she never lost sight of the peril she was in. “Dream awfully, & awake unrefreshed, think of home & wonder if I am to die here as Mrs. Ropes…is likely to do.” Before collapsing, Mrs. Ropes wondered the same of Louisa . She sent the Alcotts an urgent telegram asking that someone come immediately to take Louisa home. She had served for six weeks.

Bronson left Concord that same day on the noon train to Boston and traveled straight through to Washington to arrive on January 16. Louisa, determined to serve out her three-month stint, had rejected every suggestion that she go home. Her father’s appearance made real her grave condition and the impact on her family if she were to die.

The room was swarming with people making recommendations. One of them was Dorothea Dix, who wanted Louisa taken to her own quarters for personal care. Louisa wanted to stay where she was. Bronson doubted that his daughter could regain either “strength or spirits” in Washington, but her doctors felt she was not strong enough to travel. Restless and anxious, but forbidden to stay at his daughter’s bedside, Bronson made the rounds of Louisa’s patients and was disabused of any romantic ideas about the struggle. “Horrid war,” he wrote in his journal, “and one sees its horrors in hospitals if anywhere.” On the nineteenth, he visited the Senate, and finding a seat near President Lincoln, studied his face at close range and found him “comelier than the papers and portraits have shown him,” and his manner impressive. “I wished to have had an interview, but am too anxious about Louisa, and without time to seek it or he to give.”

On the twentieth of January, Mrs. Ropes died. The next day Louisa agreed to let her father take her home.

Excerpted from Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. Copyright © 2009 by Harriet Reisen. Published in 2009 by Henry Holt. All rights reserved.