I’d no idea a ’orspittle was such a jolly place

A photograph reportedly taken in August 1865 shows soldier patients inside Ward K at Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. During the war, patients deemed sufficiently healthy to rejoin their units would be summoned forth from hospitals. Nurse Louisa May Alcott described one such mass departure in her book “Hospital Sketches.”  (Library of Congress)

A sick or wounded Maine soldier could not evade the army’s bureaucracy forever; sooner or later he either returned to duty or went home “Discharged for Disability.”

The army preferred a soldier rejoin his unit; an experienced soldier back in the ranks was worth several angry draftees under guard while en route to the front. While serving for several months as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Washington, D.C., Louisa May Alcott witnessed convalescents returning to the front.

One of the lively episodes of hospital life” was “the frequent marching away of such [patients] as are well enough to rejoin their regiments, or betake themselves to some convalescent camp,” she recalled.

The ward master comes to the door of each room that is to be thinned, reads off a list of names, bids their owners look sharp and be ready when called for,” Alcott said.

Famous for her novels and other writings, abolitionist Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse in a Washington, D.C. military hospital in late 1862 and early 1863. Three times she watched her ward empty out as patients were returned to the front. Her letters home were published in the 1863 book “Historical Sketches.”

After the ward master left, “the rooms fall into an indescribable state of topsy-turvyness,” she expressed her indomitable humor.

The boys begin to black their boots, brighten spurs, if they have them, overhaul knapsacks, make presents” by giving items to patients remaining at the hospital, Alcott observed.

Nurses “fitted out” their discharged patients “with needfuls, and [the men] — well, why not? — kissed sometimes, as they say, good by; for in all human probability we shall never meet again, and a woman’s heart yearns over anything that has clung to her for help and comfort.”

Alcott described a mother’s love for her children, and many nurses (particularly older women) viewed their disparate patients often drawn from different states as their “boys.”

Nurse Sarah Sampson from Bath initially cared for 3rd Maine Infantry soldiers as soon as they arrived in Washington in spring 1861. She traveled with the regiment and her husband, Charles, to the capital from Augusta and spent the war (except for periods home) nursing Maine soldiers.

Many became her surrogate children, and the 3rd Maine boys never forgot Sampson.

I never liked these breakings-up of my little household,” said Alcott, adding that she witnessed only three such events during “my short stay” at the Union Hospital.

This particular time “the big Prussian rumbled out his unintelligible adieux, with a grateful face and a premonitory smooth of his yellow moustache,” she said. “But [he] got no farther, for some one else stepped up, with a large brown hand extended.”

Satisfied with his medical care at “our very faulty establishment,” the soldier said, “We’re off, ma’am, and I’m powerful sorry, for I’d no idea a ’orspittle was such a jolly place. Hope I’ll got another ball somewheres easy, so I’ll come back, and he took care on again.

Mean, isn’t it?” he asked.

I tried to look shocked, failed signally, and consoled myself by giving him the fat pincushion he had admired as the ‘cutest little machine agoin.’”

The soldiers “fell into line in front of the house” as Alcott watched. Some looked “rather wan and feeble … but trying to step out smartly and march in good order, though half the knapsacks were carried by the guard, and several [men] leaned on sticks instead of shouldering guns.”

The soldiers “all looked up and smiled, or waved their hands and touched their caps, as they passed under our windows down the long street, and so away, some to their homes in this world, and some to that in the next,” Alcott wrote.

For the rest of the day” her heart wept a little “when I saw the empty beds and missed the familiar faces,” she admitted.

Source: Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches, James Redpath, Boston, Massachusetts, 1863, pp. 95-96

Join Louisa May Alcott and a Maine soldier as they attend a dying comrade at Union Hospital in Washington, D.C. 

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 visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.