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Little Women in the Civil War

The carded service record for Louisa May Alcott notes her service as a nurse at the U.S. Army hospital at the Union Hotel in Washington, D.C. Such cards abstract the information found on the original hospital records. Entry 535A, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Record Group 94.

About 20,000 women volunteered in military hospitals during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the majority of them left little or no written evidence of their sacrifice in the war.

Louisa May Alcott, renowned 19th-century author of Little Women, was one of them, and her service is documented in a Washington, D.C., hospital’s muster roll.

Alcott was an abolitionist from an early age and eager to give her share, however small, to the war effort. She began sewing Union uniforms and badges before serving as a nurse at the age of 30.

As her muster roll indicates, she was stationed at the “Union Hotel U.S.A. General Hospital,” a makeshift military hospital in “Georgetown, D.C.” She served under the superintendent of Union Army nurses, Dorothea Dix, as a “female nurse” for November and December 1862 and received ten dollars pay.

“My greatest pride is in the fact that I lived to know the brave men and women who did so much for the cause, and that I had a very small share in the war which put an end to a great wrong,” Alcott wrote.

A bout with typhoid ultimately ended her short career as a nurse. Alcott never fully recovered from her illness, and for the rest of her life, she suffered from mercury poisoning as a result of her treatments with calomel.

Her time as a nurse later served as the foundation for her novel Hospital Sketches (1863). The novel, a fictionalized account composed from letters written home during the war, was her first bestseller.

Today’s post was written by Ashley Diaz and originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Prologue magazine.

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