Book Review Hospital Sketches by Louisia May Alcott

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James N.

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Feb 23, 2013
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This is a Civil War classic I recommend on several levels but with the caveat that it is, after all, the product of a novelist. Therein lies my only criticism, that the account is written in the conventional style of the day, in a sometimes annoying, sometimes charming, almost third-person manner in which the writer assumes the name Tribulation (Trib for short!) Perriwinkle. This is somewhat understandable, considering that in April, 1863, when it first appeared, the writer was not yet the famous authoress of Little Women or Little Men, but instead the thirty-year-old spinster daughter of a noted New England crackpot and failed socialist, Bronson Alcott. Once one accepts the assumed identity, things move smoothly enough.

Somewhat oddly, the first two of the six chapters in this slim volume of a mere 96 pages are devoted to the writer's decision to "enlist" and then the bureaucratic and travel snarls she encountered before finally arriving at her duty post in Arlington, Virginia, which she dubs Hurly-Burly House. This establishment will be immediately familiar to viewers of the recent PBS series Mercy Street, a converted hotel pressed awkwardly into service as a hospital for Union, and the occasional Rebel, wounded. Her adventures in negotiating both the rail and subsequent river transportation are told in a highly ironic and amusing manner that nevertheless communicate the difficulties and hazards of mid-Nineteenth Century travel.

It is of course in the third chapter entitled A Day that the action really begins, with the arrival of wagonloads of wounded from the Battle of Fredericksburg. Here and in subsequent chapters I couldn't help but wonder to what degree Alcott had combined or condensed events or people, though in the long run it really doesn't matter - her obvious powers of observation allow her to convincingly relate things she no doubt witnessed personally. The following chapter A Night reveals the depth of her involvement with the suffering wounded and in particular a young soldier she calls simply John. These two chapters especially convey the tragedy of the war as well as anything I've read, although there are also glimmers of humor, as when she describes the antics of her Irish hospital steward. She also very briefly mentions an encounter she had with a person she identifies only as D D or Doctor of Divinity who is obviously Dorothea Dix, head of nurses.

Unfortunately for her, Alcott's tenure at Hurly-Burly House was a short one; she contracted typhoid which nearly killed her, and this is when she met Miss Dix. Subsequently, her father Bronson came to retrieve her and bring her back to Concord, Massachusetts in early 1863. She obviously spent only a few weeks at most, but her keen powers of observation and ability to relate what she experienced make Hospital Sketches worthwhile reading for students of women's issues, medicine, and other aspects of the war apart from battles and leaders. She never really recovered from the effects of her illness even though she went on to write her best-known works after the war; today she is buried in the Alcott family plot on Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in her hometown Concord, where her grave is marked with a roundel in tribute to her wartime service as a nurse.

James N.

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