A Day in the Life of Louisa May Alcott, Civil War Nurse

Louisa May Alcott, Civil War nurse, 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.’ Alcott described it as 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.  She first published them as articles on the abolitionist magazine Commonwealth, later as a book. Two months after her arrival, she contracted typhoid pneumonia and had to go home.

Illustration from a later edition of Hospital Sketches depicting John, a Virginia blacksmith

During a typical day, she rose at 6 a.m. and dressed by gaslight. She then opened 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.” Odors from wounds, kitchens, washrooms and stables filled the air.

For breakfast she had ‘fried beef, salt butter, husky bread, and washy coffee.’ Her breakfast companions – eight women and a dozen men – she found both stupid and opinionated.

Louisa May Alcott, Civil War Nurse

Georgetown's Union Hotel. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Georgetown’s Union Hotel. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“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. She called it “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. Those included newspapers, gossip, the doctor’s last round, and, for such as need them, the final doses for the night.

Louisa May Alcott as a Civil War Nurse

Louisa May Alcott, Civil War nurse

Sleep and Death

At 9 p.m. the bell rings again, the gas turned down and the day nurses go to bed, she wrote. “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.

This story about Louisa May Alcott Civil War nurse was updated in 2022.

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