Louisa May Alcott’s Little History Thread

Welcome to this week’s History Thread! Today we’ll return to our recent looks at famous authors through their political views, personal relationships or lesser-known exploits. Our subject will be Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, albeit a different Alcott that you might be familiar with.

By the time the American Civil War broke out, Alcott was 28 years old and already well-acquainted with the writing world. Her father Amos Bronson Alcott was involved in abolitionist circles in Boston (on one occasion, he faced down an angry mob of anti-abolitionist ruffians who threatened to disrupt a speech by William Lloyd Garrison); both Bronson and his wife, Abby May Alcott, also took part in the Underground Railroad. Bronson also introduced Louisa to the circle of modern American writers (Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson) which played a major role in shaping her own career. Not all of them shared her parents’ political views, which accommodated not only abolition but then-radical support for women’s suffrage; but the combination redoubled Louisa’s decision to become a writer.

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Louisa May Alcott

Frustrated by the lack of success in her early work – a series of pieces for The Atlantic, along with a short story collection called Flower Fables – Alcott decided that she, as a “red hot Abolitionist,” could not ignore the Civil War. “As I can’t fight,” she told a friend, “I will content myself with working with those who can.” In December 1862, she volunteered as a nurse for service at the Union Hospital in Washington, DC. Her tenure there would be short (just six weeks) but highly eventful, as she arrived just after the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), which left 12,000 Union soldiers dead or wounded and left her and her fellow nurses to deal with a seemingly endless flow of human misery.

The result, initially captured in private diaries and letters home, became Alcott’s first major work, Hospital Sketches (1863). Originally serialized in the abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth in May 1863, Sketches depicts the efforts of Tribulation Periwinkle (Alcott’s wonderfully-named author avatar) to adjust to life as a nurse. After a few uneventful days at the hospital, obtaining medical supplies and getting used to its stern matron Miss Blank, Tribulation receives a rude awakening to the realities of war when a young black child runs down the road calling that ambulances are coming. From here, we’ll allow Alcott to speak for her character:

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, every one 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, like my friend, Sairy, 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 tea-pots, 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 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. 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 and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on; the sound of many feet and voices made that usually quiet hour as noisy as noon; and, 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.

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 my ward was in truth a hall-room, if gun-shot 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 route at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all.

The book’s short narrative is devoted to Tribulation’s care for these soldiers. Appalled by inadequate supplies, the limited nature of 19th Century medicine and the unbending routine of her superiors, Tribulation nonetheless serves with commendable fortitude. She witnesses amputations and gruesome surgeries, cleans bed pans and cauterizes wounds, and tries to provide whatever comfort she can to the wounded soldiers.

The story’s most affecting strand involves a soldier she calls Private John, “a large, fair man, with a fine face, and the serenest eyes [she] ever met.” John has been shot in the chest, and the no-nonsense Miss Blank quickly realizes that he doesn’t stand a chance of survival. Tribulation, taken somewhat aback by her superior’s coldness, nonetheless devotes herself to this “prince of patients,” spending an hour a night tending to him. She provides what comfort she can, playing cards, writing letters home and engaging him in conversation, not having the heart to tell the young soldier about his terminal prognosis until John guesses for himself.

“Do you ever regret that you came, when you lie here suffering so much?”

“Never, ma’am; I haven’t helped a great deal, but I’ve shown I was willing to give my life, and perhaps I’ve got to; but I don’t blame anybody, and if it was to do over again, I’d do it. I’m a little sorry I wasn’t wounded in front; it looks cowardly to be hit in the back, but I obeyed orders, and it don’t matter in the end, I know.”

Poor John! it did not matter now, except that a shot in front might have spared the long agony in store for him. He seemed to read the thought that troubled me, as he spoke so hopefully when there was no hope, for he suddenly added:

“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. He seemed a little startled at first, pondered over the fateful fact a moment then shook his head, with a glance at the broad chest and muscular limbs stretched out before him:

“I’m not afraid, but it’s difficult to believe all at once. I’m so strong it don’t seem possible for such a little wound to kill me.”

For years, literary historians and Alcott biographers had to make due with her description of John as a “Virginia blacksmith” which seems incongruous with a soldier serving in the Union officer. In 2015 Alcott’s biographer, John Matteson, uncovered correspondence showing Private John as one John F. Suhre. No Virginian, Suhre was in fact the son of German immigrants from Somerset, PA who had enlisted in the 133rd PA the previous August. His regiment, part of the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps, took part in the disastrous assaults on Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, where the bulk of Fredericksburg’s casualties fell.

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According to a letter from Suhre’s commanding officer, Major Edward Schrock, Private John survived the initial assault; his regiment reached within 50 yards of the stone wall which marked the center of the Confederate line. Suhre fought until he ran out of his ammunition; then, with the rest of his regiment, was pinned down by close-range fire and forced to hug the freezing ground for nearly an hour. During this agonizing wait, with Burnside and his corps commanders not daring to break off the assault, Suhre was wounded twice by Rebel sharpshooters. Both bullets struck his chest, one piercing his lung; by the time Suhre was finally evacuated from the field, it was clearly too late. He died in hospital on December 27th, with Alcott by his side.

Alcott only spent six weeks of the planned three months in the hospital; she contracted scarlet fever and was forced to leave early. Though she reportedly didn’t think much of Hospital Sketches‘ literary merits (her main reason for publishing them, she claimed, was “I wanted money”), her father disagreed, and persuaded her to publish them. Hospital Sketches became Alcott’s first major success, and she learned to take great pride in her brief but eventful service in the Union Army.