Louisa May Alcott was the first Civil War army nurse to publish an account of her service. Not yet famous at the author of "Little Women," the appearence of "Hospital Sketches" in the summer of 1863 was the also the first of her works to win her widespread attention.
Bored with life at home and wanting to contribute something to the war effort, Alcott volunteered to serve as an nurse. After a wait of several months, she was assigned to the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington DC.
She arrived in mid-December, and her very first day brought her responsibility for forty patients when another nurse fell ill. It was a sign of things to come. Three days after her arrival, the hospital was flooded with wounded from the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Initially horrified at the idea of giving the wounded sponge baths, Alcott quickly overcame this misplaced modesty and became accoustomed to the sights and sounds of the the ward. By the end of her brief service, she had learned how to feed, bathe and comfort the wounded, change dressings and administer medicine. . .even watch amputations without revulsion.
It was as the night nurse on a three-room ward that she found the vivid charachters she would bring to life in "Hospital Sketches." There was a little Ohio sargent she called "Baby B," who had lost his right arm in battle and was teaching himself to write left handed. (He would later become one of her faithful correspondents) There was a 12-year old drummer mourning the loss of a buddy, a helpful Prussian who spoke no English, and a nameless man so addled by war that he was given to running up and down the aisles yelling all night long. Most poingant was the story of John, a Virginia blacksmith whose death was a model of the 19th Century Christian ideal.
Only six weeks after she arrived in Washington, Alcott fell dangerously ill with typhoid fever. Doctors wrote her parents, and before long her father had arrived to take her home. She would spend months recovering. Given a mercury-based compound common in the treatment of typhoid, she would suffer the effects of mercury poisioning for the rest of her life.
She was still confined to bed when she began writing "Hospital Sketches." As "Nurse Tribulation Periwinkle" -- a name adopted under the dictum that a lady's name should not appear in print -- the short book illustrated the flair for charachterization and the delightful sense of humor that would make her later works so popular.