“Children, I said to her. For the first little while, they not exactly human, you don't find?”
Nalo Hopkinson

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

In an earlier post I wrote about the free Civil War and Reconstruction class I'm taking from Yale Open Courses.  The class is taught by Professor David Blight.  It is available on Itunes and here.

During the past few days I've tried to get through Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott.  Alcott wrote some books for adults.  Alcott told of her experiences as a volunteer nurse in 1862.  She served in Washington, D.C. and at the beginning of her term Union soldiers from the battle of Fredericksburg filled the hospital.

The battle of Frederickburg took place in Virginia from December 11-15, 1862.  There were many more Union casualties than Confederate.  

Wounded Soldiers outside hospital

Hospital Sketches is really hard to read because the young men that Alcott took care of were full of holes, missing limbs, had parts of their heads and faces blown off, and emotionally traumatized.  Mercifully some of them died.  Yes, it was that bad.  600,000 men were killed in the war and that is not counting the injured.  Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott

Alcott looked for something self-sacrificing and important to do after she taught, worked as a seamstress, housemaid, and tried to advance her writing career.  She caught the train from Boston to D.C. and was impressed and amazed by the size of the District.  She was also surprised by the scope of her duties as a nurse.

She started out washing the soldiers' filthy, stinky, and feverish bodies.  She went around splashing lavender water that made the stench a bit more bearable.  Then Alcott volunteered to became the night nurse because she was a nocturnal and wanted to see the sleeping soldiers' mumblings and facial expressions.  

Before reading Hospital Sketches I never knew Alcott had worked as a nurse in the Civil War.  The story she tells is very sad and hard to think about. Hopefully she embellished some of it.  The book does give a person more knowledge about and insight into the war between the states.

I think it's sad and pitiful that the United States chose to destroy one another rather than abolish the establishment of holding of people as property from the beginning.


  1. Hospital Sketches moved me too, especially the part about John Suhre the blacksmith. This book is pretty tame though in comparison with March by Geraldine Brooks. Although historical fiction based on the character of Mr. March from Little Women, her descriptions of the ravages of war and the hospital too were pretty gruesome. Alcott manages to inject grace and hope into her narrative (some would call that being sentimental which is typical for that period) while Brooks, a current writer, paints the whole thing as gray, pointless and hopeless.

    1. While reading Alcott I tried not to think about the many, many other John S's who died away from their families.

      I read March by Doctorow and that book made me think about the African captives and their struggles to figure what to do with the limited freedom they received, and the civilians who lost everything, and the wives and mothers left to carry on. There were so many wives and mothers.

      Then the pictures of the bodies laying on the fields and the starved POWs. And those sawbones doctors who could cut a limb off in 12 seconds, ether or no ether.

      I'm learning a lot about this war. I think we all need to know, but it's hard to throughly ponder.

      I agree that Alcott is sentimental. I guess to try to veil the horror a little like she did with the perfume. The March sounds depressing. The whole damn thing is depressing.

  2. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.


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