Louisa May Alcott was escorted in the gray December twilight to the train depot in Concord, Massachusetts by her sister May and their friend Julian, who was the son of their neighbor, author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was 1862, and she was on her way to nurse Union soldiers.
The Civil War was a chance to test the idealism instilled by her parents and their Transcendentalist community, as well as a challenge to her own physical stamina and courage. Unexpectedly, it represented a turning point in her fledging writing career. Her identity as a writer, more than as a nurse, was forged during a traumatic taste of war in a Washington hospital.
One day in her classic novel Little Women, Alcott wrote of the war, “very few letters were written in those hard times that were not touching, especially those which fathers sent home.” Her own letters home to her family at this time formed the basis for a slim book called Hospital Sketches. With its detail of everyday events in the hospital, the book became a forerunner for her style used in Little Women, also set during the Civil War.
In “Little Women”, she drew the portraits of the four March sisters, their selfless mother and idealistic father from her own close family. The first part of that book was written in this house in Concord, called “Orchard House.” She had not grown up in the home; her family moved here when Louisa was already a young woman. It remains closely identified with the home of the fictional March sisters. It is an interesting contradiction that Alcott could not in the book which became her most important work, reveal the intensity of her war experience.
She arrived at her post time to help care for the mostly Union, though a few Confederate, wounded from the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She tended wounds, assisted at amputations, comforted soldiers in agony during long hours on night duty.
Miss Alcott caught typhoid there, and was treated with calomel, a mercury compound whose side effects were debilitating. She left her nursing post in January 1863, a delirious invalid, as her father brought her home on the train. Her mother met her here at the Concord station. Unlike many other nurses and soldiers who contracted typhoid, Miss Alcott lived, though suffered from ill health the rest of her life and died at 55 years old.
This is the grave of Louisa May Alcott. The flag holder by the headstone is marked GAR, denoting her service to the Union in the Civil War, from which she could be considered a delayed casualty.
For more information on Orchard House, see this website.
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