Louisa May Alcott began the year 1863 in as strange a place as she’d ever been. She was 500 miles from her home in Concord, Mass., alone, doing painful duties all day long and yet constantly excited.
She had volunteered as a Union nurse at Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown. She called it the ‘hurly burly hotel.’ It was cold, poorly ventilated and dirty, with no provisions for bathing. The staff tended 300 to 400 men in all stages of suffering, disease and death.
Louisa May Alcott kept a journal on which she partly based her first successful book, Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account of her time at the hospital. Two months after her arrival, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and was sent home.
During a typical day, she was up at 6 a.m. and dressed by gaslight. The first thing she did was to open the windows though the wounded soldiers grumbled and shivered. “The air is bad enough to breed a pestilence;” she wrote, “and as no notice is taken of our frequent appeals for better ventilation, I must do what I can.” The air was full of odors from wounds, kitchens, washrooms and stables.
Breakfast was ‘fried beef, salt butter, husky bread, and washy coffee.’ Her breakfast companions – eight women and a dozen men – she found both stupid and opinionated.
“Till noon I trot, trot, giving out rations, cutting up food for helpless “boys,” washing faces, teaching my attendants how beds are made or floors are swept, dressing wounds, taking Dr. F. P.’s orders (privately wishing all the time that he would be more gentle with my big babies), dusting tables, sewing bandages, keeping my tray tidy, rushing up and down after pillows, bed-linen, sponges, books, and directions, till it seems as if I would joyfully pay down all I possess for fifteen minutes’ rest.”
At noon the bell rang and the boys were served a dinner of soup, meat, potatoes and bread. It never entirely satisfies them. After dinner, some sleep, many read and others want letters written.
“This I like to do,” wrote Alcott, “for they put in such odd things, and express their ideas so comically, I have great fun interiorally, while as grave as possible exteriorally. “ Sometimes she had to answer letters from friends after someone died, “the saddest and hardest duty a nurse has to do.”
At 5 p.m. everyone who could run did run for supper. Then they sat down for the evening amusements: newspapers, gossip, the doctor’s last round, and, for such as need them, the final doses for the night.
At 9 p.m. the bell rings again, the gas is turned down and the day nurses go to bed. “Night nurses go on duty, and sleep and death have the house to themselves,” she wrote.
Her work changed to night watching, or half night and half day, from midnight to noon.
I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what I need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow.