Saturday, September 17, 2022

They've Come! Louisa M Alcott -- Civil War Hospital Sketches

 What's it like to work among the wounded during the Civil War era?
        Tribulation Periwinkle, a woman who has volunteered to come and help in the medical crisis the war is causing, presents a vivid description of the demands confronting nurses working among the wounded after the battle of Fredericksburg in Hospital Sketches Chapter III – They’ve come! (part 1  pages 31-36).

"THEY'VE come! they've come! hurry up, ladies–you're wanted."
"Who have come? the rebels?"
This sudden summons in the gray dawn was somewhat startling to a three days' nurse like myself, and, as the thundering knock came at our door, I sprang up in my bed, prepared
"To gird my woman's form,
 And on the ramparts die,"
if necessary; but my room-mate took it more coolly, and, as she began a rapid toilet, answered my bewildered question,–
"Bless you, no child; it's the wounded from Fredericksburg; forty ambulances are at the door, and we shall have our hands full in fifteen minutes."
"What shall we have to do?"
"Wash, dress, feed, warm and nurse them for the next three months, I dare say. Eighty beds are ready, and we were getting impatient for the men to come. Now you will begin to see hospital life in earnest, for you won't probably find time to sit down all day, and may think yourself fortunate if you get to bed by midnight. Come to me in the ball-room when you are ready; the worst cases are always carried there, and I shall need your help."
So saying, the energetic little woman twirled her hair into a button at the back of her head, in a "cleared for action" sort of style, and vanished, wrestling her way into a feminine kind of pea-jacket as she went.
I am free to confess that I had a realizing sense of the fact that my hospital bed was not a bed of roses just then, or the prospect before me one of unmingled rapture. My three days' experiences had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diptheria on the other, five typhoids on the opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots, hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new "nuss," who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn't. Having a taste for "ghastliness," I had rather longed for the wounded to arrive, for rheumatism was n't heroic, neither was liver complaint, or measles; even fever had lost its charms since "bathing burning brows" had been used up in romances, real and ideal; but when I peeped into the dusky street lined with what I at first had innocently called market carts, now unloading their sad freight at our door, I recalled sundry reminiscences I had heard from nurses of longer standing, my ardor experienced a  sudden chill, and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again, with a quiet day before me, and no necessity for being hustled up, as if I were a hen and had only to hop off my roost, give my plumage a peck, and be ready for action. A second bang at the door sent this recreant desire to the right about, as a little woolly head popped in, and Joey, (a six years' old contraband,) [“contraband” was a Civil War era term for black slave escapees coming from the South] announced -- 
"Miss Blank is jes' wild fer ye, and says fly round right away. They's comin' in, I tell yer, heaps on 'em–one was took out dead, and I see him,–hi! warn't he a goner!"
With which cheerful intelligence the imp scuttled away, singing like a blackbird, and I followed, feeling that Richard was not himself again, and wouldn't be for a long time to come.
The first thing I met was a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted the human nose, and took it by storm. Cologne, with its seven and seventy evil savors, was a posy-bed to it; and the worst of this affliction was, every one had assured me that it was a chronic weakness of all hospitals, and I must bear it. I did, armed with lavender water, with which I so besprinkled myself and premises, that, like my friend Sairy, I was soon known among my patients as "the nurse with the bottle." Having been run over by three excited surgeons, bumped against by migratory coal-hods, water-pails, and small boys, nearly scalded by an avalanche of newly-filled tea-pots, and hopelessly entangled in a knot of colored sisters coming to wash, I progressed by slow stages upstairs and down, till the main hall was reached, and I paused to take breath and a survey. There they were! "our brave boys," as the papers justly call them, for cowards could hardly have been so riddled with shot and shell, so torn and shattered, nor have borne suffering for which we have no name, with an uncomplaining fortitude, which made one glad to cherish each as a brother. In they came, some on stretchers, some in men's arms, some feebly staggering along propped on rude crutches, and one lay stark and still with covered face, as a comrade gave his name to be recorded before they carried him away to the dead house. All was hurry and confusion; the hall was full of these wrecks of humanity, for the most exhausted could not reach a bed till duly ticketed and registered; the walls were lined with rows of such as could sit, the floor covered with the more disabled, the steps and doorways filled with helpers and lookers on; the sound of many feet and voices made that usually quiet hour as noisy as noon; and, in the midst of it all, the matron's motherly face brought more comfort to many a poor soul, than the cordial draughts she administered, or the cheery words that welcomed all, making of the hospital a home.
The sight of several stretchers, each with its legless, armless, or desperately wounded occupant, entering my ward, admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather "a hard road to travel" just then [“hard road to travel” – a phrase used a southern war song “Richmond is a hard road to travel” = won’t be an easy conquest, but a challenge]. The house had been a hotel before hospitals were needed, and many of the doors still bore their old names; some not so inappropriate as might be imagined, for my ward was in truth a ball-room, if gun-shot wounds could christen it. Forty beds were prepared, many already tenanted by tired men who fell down anywhere, and drowsed till the smell of food roused them. Round the great stove was gathered the dreariest group I ever saw–ragged, gaunt and pale, mud to the knees, with bloody bandages untouched since put on days before; many bundled up in blankets, coats being lost or useless; and all wearing that disheartened look which proclaimed defeat, more plainly than any telegram of the Burnside blunder. I pitied them so much, I dared not speak to them, though, remembering all they had been through since the route at Fredericksburg, I yearned to serve the dreariest of them all. Presently, Miss Blank tore me from my refuge behind piles of one-sleeved shirts, odd socks, bandages and lint; put basin, sponge, towels, and a block of brown soap into my hands, with these appalling directions:
"Come, my dear, begin to wash as fast as you can. Tell them to take off socks, coats and shirts, scrub them well, put on clean shirts, and the attendants will finish them off, and lay them in bed."
If she had requested me to shave them all, or dance a hornpipe on the stove funnel, I should have been less staggered; but to scrub some dozen lords of creation at a moment's notice, was really–really–. However, there was no time for nonsense, and, having resolved when I came to do everything I was bid, I drowned my scruples in my wash-bowl, clutched my soap manfully, and, assuming a business-like air, made a dab at the first dirty specimen I saw, bent on performing my task vi et armis [Latin meaning “by force of arms”] if necessary. I chanced to light on a withered old Irishman, wounded in the head, which caused that portion of his frame to be tastefully laid out like a garden, the bandages being the walks, his hair the shrubbery. He was so overpowered by the honor of having a lady wash him, as he expressed it, that he did nothing but roll up his eyes, and bless me, in an irresistible style which was too much for my sense of the ludicrous; so we laughed together, and when I knelt down to take off his shoes, he "flopped" also, and wouldn't hear of my touching "them dirty craters. May your bed above be aisy darlin', for the day's work ye ar doon! –Whoosh! there ye are, and bedad, it's hard tellin' which is the dirtiest, the fut or the shoe." It was; and if he hadn't been to the fore, I should have gone on pulling, under the impression that the "fut" was a boot, for trousers, socks, shoes and legs were a mass of mud. This comical tableau produced a general grin, at which propitious beginning I took heart and scrubbed away like any tidy parent on a Saturday night. Some of them took the performance like sleepy children, leaning their tired heads against me as I worked, others looked grimly scandalized, and several of the roughest colored like bashful girls.

Louisa Alcott does have an interesting way of describing the challenges women faced as they stepped up to help in the hospitals during this national crisis doesn't she?  She was born Nov.29, 1832 in Philadelphia, Pa. died March 6, 1880 in Boston, Mass.  She is known for books such as Little Women (1868) and Little Men (1871).  Her book Little Women was first published in a series of short stories, then eventually complied into one book.
        Due to pressures and family struggles as she grew up, writing became for her a creative and emotional outlet as her family struggled to support themselves.  Her family served as station masters for the underground railroad in the late 1840s.  She was also involved with the woman suffrage movement during her lifetime.
 In December 1862 she volunteered to be a nurse to aid the wounded in the Union Hospital in Georgetown, DC.  The demands of the war led to the acceptance of women serving in the hospitals as nurses (a role previously restricted in the military to male Stewards).  She intended to serve three months, but half way through she contracted typhoid and became deathly ill.  Though she eventually recovered, she would struggle with the after affects of the medicine (which included mercury) used to help her recover.
        Alcott edited and fictionalized letters she had written home about her nursing experience into the story of nurse "Tribulation Periwinkle" which were first published in the Boston anti-slavery paper Commonwealth and then later printed as a book entitle Hospital Sketches in 1863 (republished with additions in 1869) — which brought her recognition for her observations and humor.

        Union casualties at the battle for Fredericksburg, Dec.11-15, 1862:  1,180 killed; 9,028 wounded, 2,145 missing (Combat: The Civil War ed by D. Congdon p.315). Other sources have numbers of around 1,200 killed, around 9,600 wounded, around 2,000 missing or captured.  Exact stats vary with sources.  But clearly there were a great many wounded who were needing medical help from this battle when Alcott came on duty.

        What is in the name "Tribulation Periwinkle"?  I do not claim to have figured out why Alcott chose this name for her fictional character.  I looked for suggestions of reasons on other sites, but really didn't find many ideas.  Some suggested that "Tribulation" was chosen since the nurse was facing many challenges in getting accepted into the role of nursing and then as she did her work in the medical system of that time.  Seems reasonable.  Didn't find much on the last name of "Periwinkle".  When I did research on the word, it's a name for a grouping of flower types, some of which are poisonous.  There seem to be two themes of meaning attached to the flower type from European folklore. One is that periwinkle symbolizes hope/ love/ affection/ protection.  The flower was often given to someone who had suffered loss as an act of comfort.  The second theme is that it is the flower of death, because its vines were woven into headbands placed on dead children in burial or by criminals on their way to execution.  Also periwinkle was a popular folk medicine component in various herbal treatments from the Middle Ages on.  Given the mixed messages themes associated with periwinkle, I can see maybe why Alcott chose the name tag.  She, as a nurse, was both offering hope and comfort in the midst of suffering and death.  Again, I am not claiming this is the correct interpretation of Alcott's reasoning.  I offer this as a suggestion that you might find interesting.

Children’s Project:
        Discuss with them how they would feel to be in a room full of wounded men and be working on cleaning them up from the grim and dirt of battle along with the blood stains of wounds and surgery.  Explain to them how she tried to deal with bad odors of the place through the perfume bottle she carried.  Explore why they think she was willing to endure such tough circumstances to be at this hospital.  Would they be willing to do the same?
        For background on the "contraband" tag see the post on September 2018 "Southern Contraband of the War Fleeing North -- Gen. Butler's Account of the Contraband Tag being Applied to Runaway Slaves".