In 1862, Louisa May Alcott decided she would do her duty for the Union effort on the Civil War and volunteered to become a nurse. She eventually found herself at an army hospital in Georgetown, part of Washington, D.C. She wrote letters to her family in Massachusetts, describing her experiences. And eventually, the letters became the basis for Hospital Sketches, published in 1863.
You would expect an account of Civil War hospital experiences to be extremely serious. And for the most part, Hospital Sketches is. But it is also laugh-out-loud funny, especially in the early chapters.
Alcott turned her experiences into a fictional account. While Massachusetts is the same starting place and Washington, D.C. the destination, the account of traveling from one to the other is close to hysterical. But nothing will dampen the enthusiasm of our intrepid heroine, Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle (Alcott might have been reading too much Charles Dickens to come up with a name like that). Known affectionately to her family as Trib, she will conquer railroads, shipping lines, army bureaucracy, and hospital assignment changes as calmly as the most dedicated Stoic. Well, sort of.
An example is the sailing part of the journey. It is a brand-new ship. Nurse Periwinkle, having two close drowning calls as a child, is convinced that the ship will inevitably pick her journey as the occasion to sink. Sharing a large sleeping room with several other women, and realizing there are no life preservers, she determines that one of the ladies has the best chance for floating on the open sea, and her plan is to latch on to her when the boat sinks. The poor woman doesn’t understand why Nurse Periwinkle becomes so attached to her.
The account of the journey to Washington is filled with anecdotes like that. Once our heroine arrives, however, she will do her duty for her country. It takes her a while to get used to the sights and smells of a Civil War hospital, not to mention the needed washing of the patients. But here the story takes a serious turn, because Nurse Periwinkle will face men dismembered, disfigured, and dying.
Alcott (1832-1888) is best known for her novels and short stories. Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys are American classics. She grew up associating with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a well-known adherent of Transcendentalism. She was an abolitionist and a feminist. She also wrote numerous gothic thrillers under a pen name.
Hospital Sketches is funny, sad, and poignant. Alcott had more latitude in adapting her letters into a fictional account rather than a non-fiction memoir, but the work still provides insights into the hospital experiences of doctors, nurses, and patients in the Civil War years.
Top photograph: A Civil War nurse, about 1864.