Friday, September 11, 2009

Alcott's Brief, but Impressionistic Stay in Georgetown

"Beds to the front of them,
Beds to the right of them,
Beds to the left of them,
Nobody blundered.
Beamed at by hungry souls,
Screamed at with brimming bowls,
Steamed at by army rolls,
Buttered and sundered.
With coffee not cannon plied,
Each must be satisfied,
Whether they lived or died;
All the men wondered."

It was to this song that matrons and nurses at the Union Hospital in Georgetown (at right) marched to. Among them was Louisa May Alcott, authoress of Little Women. When the hackney coach carrying Alcott to the northeast corner of M and 30th, NW arrived, the driver announced it as the “Hurley-Burley House.” The Union Hospital was a converted hotel, built originally in 1796. A three story building, with two parallel wings running in to the block, with a slave quarter and stable in the rear, the Hotel was one of the larger establishments in Georgetown. The building functioned as a hotel briefly in the Civil War, when nearby battles in Virginia created an influx of wounded soldiers in to Washington.

Arriving December 12, 1863 Louisa saw action a just three days later, when the first casualties from the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia arrived by ambulance. Over 40 ambulances arrived and, the Union Hotel had 80 beds made up for the wounded. The worst cases were treated in the hotel ballroom. By Christmas there were over 1,000 wounded Union troops convalescing in Georgetown. Alcott noted that it was not uncommon to see them hobbling on the muddy streets on crutches and peg-legs. At the makeshift hospital Alcott worked as a night nurse, where she cleaned wounds, administered medicine, changed beds, and fed soldiers. The saddest sight she saw “was the spectacle of a grey-haired father, sitting hour after hour by his son, dying from the poison of his wound. The old father, hale and hearty; the young son, past all help…I saw the son's eyes fix upon his face, with a look of mingled resignation and regret, as if endeavoring to teach himself to say cheerfully the long good bye.”

Working as a nurse in the Civil War was arduous work. Apart from long hours, in poorly ventilated conditions, nurses ate the same rations as the soldiers. Alcott dryly noted that the beef at dinner was, “evidently put down for the men of ’76.” When food was scarce, nurses at the Union Hospital often passed their rations on to the wounded men. Louisa May Alcott lasted just six weeks that winter before succumbing to typhoid fever. When she was well enough, he father collected her and brought her back to Massachusetts, her nursing days at an end.

For more on Louisa May Alcott:

Sources: Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches (1869).

Mary Mitchell, Divided Town: A Study of Georgetown, DC During the Civil War, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1968.
Picture Source: The Whitman Archive.