The first death that Louisa May Alcott witnessed as a Civil War nurse likely involved a Maine soldier — and the other witness was a Mainer by way of Ireland.
We remember Alcott as an extraordinary writer and poet, and the recent movie Little Women recalled her probably best-known novel. Alcott, an abolitionist, “and her family,” according to her Wikipedia page, “served as station masters on the Underground Railroad.”
Volunteering as a nurse in Union Hospital in Washington, D.C., Alcott planned to stay three months either side of the 1862-1863 New Year’s transition, but got typhoid fever “halfway through” that period, Wikipedia indicates.
Her service overlapped with Fredericksburg, which poured many broken soldiers into federal hospitals.
While at Union Hospital, Alcott wrote letters home and, via the character “Tribulation Periwinkle,” detailed hospital life and personalities. Initially published in an antislavery newspaper, the letters (along with a postscript) coalesced as the book Hospital Sketches in 1863.
In chapter 6, the postscript, Alcott answered questions posed by people who had read her newspaper-printed letters. “Are there no services by hospital death-beds, or on Sundays?” a reader asked.
“In most Hospitals I hope there are,” Alcott responded. However, in the Union Hospital, “the men died, and were carried away, with as little ceremony as on a battlefield.”
The first death she witnessed “was so very brief, and bare of anything like reverence, sorrow, or pious consolation, that I heartily agreed with the bluntly expressed opinion of a Maine man lying next to his comrade.”
Not indicating the cause of death, Alcott recalled her patient — probably a Mainer, given her referring to him as a “comrade” of another Mainer — “died with no visible help near him, but a compassionate woman [likely herself] and a tender-hearted Irishman” named McGee.
Identified by his accent, the Irishman belonged to a Maine regiment; this we know because it’s his “bluntly expressed opinion” to which Alcott referred. He was Catholic; he knew his comrade was not.
As the patient died — nurses involved in direct patient care recognize the signs — the Irishman “dropped upon his knees, and told his [prayer] beads, with Catholic fervor, for the good of his Protestant brother’s ’parting soul:
“If, after gettin’ all the hard knocks, we are left to die this way, with nothing but a Paddy’s prayers to help us, I guess Christians are rather scarce around Washington,” the Irishman said.
The patient died.
Death’s novelty soon wore off at “Hurlyburly House,” as Alcott called Union Hospital. She noticed “the presence, however brief, of relations and friends by the bedsides of the dead or dying … always a trail to the bystanders.”
The nurses were “not near enough to know how best to comfort, yet too near to turn their backs upon the sorrow that finds its only solace in listening to recitals of last words, breathed into [a] nurse’s ears, or receiving the tender legacies of love and longing bequeathed through them.”
Alcott recalled watching “a gray-haired father, sitting hour and hour by his son, dying from the poison [gangrene] of his wound.”
She worked in another ward, “but I was often in and out, and, for a day or two, the pair were much together, saying little, but looking much.” When the patient slept, his father stood watch, “the rough hand, smoothing the lock of hair upon the pillow.”
His boy died, and he escorted the embalmed body home.
“My boy couldn’t have been better cared if he’d been at home,” the father told the attending nurse, “and God will reward you for it, though I can’t.”
And one day a weary Alcott went to her room for “a five minutes’ rest after a disagreeable task.” She saw “a stout young sitting on my bed, wearing the miserable look which I had learned to know by that time.”
Alcott thought the woman was the sister of a patient who had died the previous night. She had arrived too late.
“Having known a sister’s sorrow myself” and “feeling heart-sick, home-sick, and not knowing what else to do,” Alcott sat beside the woman, “put my arms about her, and began to cry in a very helpless and hearty way.
“It so happened I could not have done a better thing,” she realized. Without speaking, the women “felr each other’s sympathy; and, in the silence, our handkerchiefs were more eloquent than words.
“She soon sobbed herself quiet; and, leaving her on my bed, I went back to work,” Alcott said.
Sources: Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches, James Redpath, Boston, Massachusetts, 1863, pp. 86-87, 90-93
For more reading enjoyment about Nurse Louisa May Alcott, join her as the Army hauls her patients back into service.
If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.