November 1863 Fiction The Civil War

The Brothers

Set in a wartime hospital, a short story about a family with a poisonous secret
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Louisa May Alcott (pictured here) belonged to a family of passionate abolitionists who occasionally sheltered fugitive slaves. In 1860, they hosted a reception for John Brown’s widow. (George Kendell Warren Studio/National Portrait Gallery)


When the Civil War erupted, Louisa May Alcott was nearing 30 and living at home with her parents in Concord, Massachusetts. In December 1862, feeling restless, she journeyed to Washington and reported for duty at the makeshift Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, where she was soon assisting with amputations, washing and comforting the wounded, and managing bed assignments. As she wrote in January 1863, she led “a life of constant excitement in this great house surrounded by 3 or 4 hundred men in all stages of suffering, disease, & death.”

A few years earlier, The Atlantic’s editor, James Russell Lowell, had published a couple of Alcott’s short stories. But James T. Fields, who assumed the editorship in 1861, rejected her work, admonishing her, “Stick to your teaching; you can’t write.” Alcott was undeterred, pledging, “I won’t teach. I can write, and I’ll prove it.”

Upon Alcott’s return from Washington, Fields evidently changed his mind, publishing her poetry and stories, including “The Brothers” (excerpted here). Five years later, the runaway success of Little Women would lay to rest any lingering doubts about Alcott’s true calling.

—Sage Stossel

Doctor Franck came in as I sat sewing up the rents in an old shirt …

“Miss Dane, I’m in a quandary,” began the Doctor, with that expression of countenance which says as plainly as words, “I want to ask a favor, but I wish you’d save me the trouble.”

“Can I help you out of it?”

“Faith! I don’t like to propose it, but you certainly can, if you please.”

“Then give it a name, I beg.”

“You see a Reb has just been brought in crazy with typhoid; a bad case every way; a drunken, rascally little captain somebody took the trouble to capture, but whom nobody wants to take the trouble to cure. The wards are full, the ladies worked to death, and willing to be for our own boys, but rather slow to risk their lives for a Reb. Now you’ve had the fever, you like queer patients, your mate will see to your ward for a while, and I will find you a good attendant. The fellow won’t last long, I fancy; but he can’t die without some sort of care, you know. I’ve put him in the fourth story of the west wing, away from the rest. It is airy, quiet, and comfortable there. I’m on that ward, and will do my best for you in every way. Now, then, will you go?”

“Of course I will, out of perversity, if not common charity; for some of these people think that because I’m an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should rather like to show them, that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am willing to take care of them.”

“Very good; I thought you’d go; and speaking of abolition reminds me that you can have a contraband for servant, if you like. It is that fine mulatto fellow who was found burying his Rebel master after the fight, and, being badly cut over the head, our boys brought him along. Will you have him?”

“By all means” …

“I think you’ll like him. He must have been a handsome fellow before he got his face slashed; not much darker than myself; his master’s son, I dare say, and the white blood makes him rather high and haughty about some things” …

In an hour I took possession of my new charge, finding a dissipated-looking boy of nineteen or twenty raving in the solitary little room, with no one near him but the contra-band in the room adjoining. Feeling decidedly more interest in the black man than in the white, yet remembering the Doctor’s hint of his being “high and haughty,” I glanced furtively at him as I scattered chloride of lime about the room to purify the air, and settled matters to suit myself. I had seen many contrabands, but never one so attractive as this. All colored men are called “boys,” even if their heads are white; this boy was five-and-twenty at least, strong-limbed and manly, and had the look of one who never had been cowed by abuse or worn with oppressive labor … He was more quadroon than mulatto, with Saxon features, Spanish complexion darkened by exposure, color in lips and cheek, waving hair, and an eye full of the passionate melancholy which in such men always seems to utter a mute protest against the broken law that doomed them at their birth … I wanted to know and comfort him; and, following the impulse of the moment, I went in and touched him on the shoulder.

In an instant the man vanished and the slave appeared. Freedom was too new a boon to have wrought its blessed changes yet, and as he started up, with his hand at his temple and an obsequious “Yes, Ma’am,” any romance that had gathered round him fled away, leaving the saddest of all sad facts in living guise before me. Not only did the manhood seem to die out of him, but the comeliness that first attracted me; for, as he turned, I saw the ghastly wound that had laid open cheek and forehead … By one of those inexplicable processes that often teach us how little we understand ourselves, my purpose was suddenly changed, and though I went in to offer comfort as a friend, I merely gave an order as a mistress.

“Will you open these windows? this man needs more air.”

He obeyed at once, and, as he slowly urged up the unruly sash, the handsome profile was again turned toward me, and again I was possessed by my first impression so strongly that I involuntarily said,—

“Thank you, Sir.”

Perhaps it was fancy, but I thought that in the look of mingled surprise and something like reproach which he gave me there was also a trace of grateful pleasure. But he said, in that tone of spiritless humility these poor souls learn so soon,—

“I a’n’t a white man, Ma’am, I’m a contraband.”

“Yes, I know it; but a contraband is a free man, and I heartily congratulate you.”

He liked that; his face shone, he squared his shoulders, lifted his head, and looked me full in the eye with a brisk—

“Thank ye, Ma’am; anything more to do fer yer?” …

“By what name shall I call you?”

“Bob, Ma’am.”

Every woman has her pet whim; one of mine was to teach the men self-respect by treating them respectfully … To address men often old enough to be my father in that style did not suit my old-fashioned ideas of propriety …

“What is your other name?” I asked. “I like to call my attendants by their last names rather than by their first.”

“I’ve got no other, Ma’am; we have our masters’ names, or do without. Mine’s dead, and I won’t have anything of his about me.”

“Well, I’ll call you Robert, then, and you may fill this pitcher for me, if you will be so kind” …

We spent a curious week together. Robert seldom left his room, except upon my errands; and I was a prisoner all day, often all night, by the bedside of the Rebel …

On the seventh night, Dr. Franck suggested that it would be well for some one, besides the general watchman of the ward, to be with the captain, as it might be his last. Although the greater part of the two preceding nights had been spent there, of course I offered to remain …

Away went the Doctor; and, devouring a whole mouthful of g[r]apes, I lowered the lamp, wet the captain’s head, and sat down on a hard stool to begin my watch. The captain lay with his hot, haggard face turned toward me, filling the air with his poisonous breath, and feebly muttering, with lips and tongue so parched that the sanest speech would have been difficult to understand. Robert was stretched on his bed in the inner room, the door of which stood ajar, that a fresh draught from his open window might carry the fever-fumes away through mine …

“Lucy!”

It was the captain, and some new terror seemed to have gifted him with momentary strength.

“Yes, here’s Lucy,” I answered, hoping that by following the fancy I might quiet him …

“That’s a lie! she’s dead,—and so’s Bob, damn him! … I swore I’d whip the Devil out of her, and I did; but you know before she cut her throat she said she’d haunt me, and there she is!”

He pointed behind me with an aspect of such pale dismay, that I involuntarily glanced over my shoulder and started as if I had seen a veritable ghost; for, peering from the gloom of that inner room, I saw a shadowy face, with dark hair all about it, and a glimpse of scarlet at the throat. An instant showed me that it was only Robert leaning from his bed’s-foot, wrapped in a gray army-blanket, with his red shirt just visible above it, and his long hair disordered by sleep. But what a strange expression was on his face! …

“Do you know him, Robert? Does he mean you?”

“Lord, no, Ma’am; they all own half a dozen Bobs: but hearin’ my name woke me; that’s all.”

He spoke quite naturally, and lay down again, while I returned to my charge …

I dropped my heavy head on my arms, and, drowsily resolving to look up again in fifteen minutes, fell fast asleep.

The striking of a deep-voiced clock woke me with a start. “That is one,” thought I, but, to my dismay, two more strokes followed; and in remorseful haste I sprang up to see what harm my long oblivion had done. A strong hand put me back into my seat, and held me there. It was Robert. The instant my eye met his my heart began to beat, and all along my nerves tingled that electric flash which foretells a danger that we cannot see …

Holding me with one hand, with the other he took up the glass in which I had left the draught, and showed me it was empty.

“Has he taken it?” I asked, more and more bewildered.

“I flung it out o’ winder, Ma’am; he’ll have to do without.”

“But why, Robert? why did you do it?”

“Because I hate him! … Don’t yer be frightened, Ma’am; don’t try to run away, fer the door’s locked an’ the key in my pocket; don’t yer cry out, fer yer’d have to scream a long while, with my hand on yer mouth, before yer was heard. Be still, an’ I’ll tell yer what I’m goin’ to do” …

The captain moved, and feebly muttered, “Water!” Instinctively I rose to give it to him, but the heavy hand came down upon my shoulder, and in the same decided tone Robert said,—

“The water went with the physic; let him call.”

“Do let me go to him! he’ll die without care!”

“I mean he shall;—don’t yer interfere, if yer please, Ma’am.”

In spite of his quiet tone and respectful manner, I saw murder in his eyes, and turned faint with fear; yet the fear excited me, and, hardly knowing what I did, I seized the hands that had seized me, crying,—

“No, no, you shall not kill him! it is base to hurt a helpless man. Why do you hate him? He is not your master?”

“He’s my brother” …

“Robert, tell me what it means? Do not commit a crime and make me accessory to it. There is a better way of righting wrong than by violence;—let me help you find it” …

“I will tell you, Ma’am; but mind, this makes no difference; the boy is mine. I’ll give the Lord a chance to take him fust; if He don’t, I shall.”

“Oh, no! remember, he is your brother” …

“I’m not like to forget that, Ma’am, when I’ve been thinkin’ of it all this week. I knew him when they fetched him in, an’ would ’a’ done it long ’fore this, but I wanted to ask where Lucy was; he knows,—he told to-night,—an’ now he’s done for.”

“Who is Lucy?” I asked hurriedly, intent on keeping his mind busy with any thought but murder …

“My wife,—he took her”—

In that instant every thought of fear was swallowed up in burning indignation for the wrong, and a perfect passion of pity for the desperate man so tempted to avenge an injury for which there seemed no redress but this … Words seemed so powerless I offered none, only put my hand on his poor head, wounded, homeless, bowed down with grief for which I had no cure, and softly smoothed the long neglected hair, pitifully wondering the while where was the wife who must have loved this tender-hearted man so well …

“Yer see, Ma’am, his father,—I might say ours, if I warn’t ashamed of both of ’em,—his father died two years ago, an’ left us all to Marster Ned,—that’s him here, eighteen then. He always hated me, I looked so like old Marster: he don’t,—only the light skin an’ hair. Old Marster was kind to all of us, me ’specially, an’ bought Lucy off the next plantation down there in South Car’lina, when he found I liked her. I married her, all I could, Ma’am; it warn’t much, but we was true to one another till Marster Ned come home a year after an’ made hell fer both of us. He sent my old mother to be used up in his rice-swamp in Georgy; he found me with my pretty Lucy, an’ though young Miss cried, an’ I prayed to him on my knees, an’ Lucy run away, he would n’t have no mercy; he brought her back, an’—took her, Ma’am.”

“Oh! what did you do?” I cried, hot with helpless pain and passion …

“I half murdered him, an’ to-night I’ll finish.”

“Yes, yes,—but go on now; what came next?” …

“They whipped me till I could n’t stand, an’ then they sold me further South. Yer thought I was a white man once;—look here!”

With a sudden wrench he tore the shirt from neck to waist, and on his strong brown shoulders showed me furrows deeply ploughed, wounds which, though healed, were ghastlier to me than any in that house …

“That’s all, Ma’am. I’ve never seen her since, an’ now I never shall in this world,—maybe not in t’ other.”

“But, Robert, why think her dead? The captain was wandering when he said those sad things; perhaps he will retract them when he is sane. Don’t despair; don’t give up yet.”

“No, Ma’am, I guess he’s right; she was too proud to bear that long” …

He put his hand upon his brother’s throat, and, watching the white face before him, muttered low between his teeth,—

“I’m lettin’ him go too easy; there’s no pain in this; we a’n’t even yet. I wish he knew me. Marster Ned! it’s Bob; where’s Lucy?” …

In the whirl of thoughts that went on in my brain, only one was clear enough to act upon. I must prevent murder, if I could,—but how? What could I do up there alone, locked in with a dying man and a lunatic? … Strength I had not, nor much courage … But one weapon I possessed,—a tongue,—often a woman’s best defense; and sympathy, stronger than fear, gave me power to use it. What I said Heaven only knows, but surely Heaven helped me; words burned on my lips, tears streamed from my eyes, and some good angel prompted me to use the one name that had power to arrest my hearer’s hand and touch his heart. For at that moment I heartily believed that Lucy lived, and this earnest faith roused in him a like belief …

When I paused, breathless, Robert turned to me, asking, as if human assurances could strengthen his faith in Divine Omnipotence,—

“Do you believe, if I let Marster Ned live, the Lord will give me back my Lucy?”

“As surely as there is a Lord, you will find her here or in the beautiful hereafter, where there is no black or white, no master and no slave … I have listened to you, Robert; now hear me, and heed what I say, because my heart is full of pity for you, full of hope for your future, and a desire to help you now. I want you to go away from here, from the temptation of this place, and the sad thoughts that haunt it. You have conquered yourself once, and I honor you for it, because, the harder the battle, the more glorious the victory; but it is safer to put a greater distance between you and this man. I will write you letters, give you money, and send you to good old Massachusetts to begin your new life a freeman,—yes, and a happy man; for when the captain is himself again, I will learn where Lucy is, and move heaven and earth to find and give her back to you. Will you do this, Robert?”

Slowly, very slowly, the answer came; for the purpose of a week, perhaps a year, was hard to relinquish in an hour.

“Yes, Ma’am, I will” …

I slipped the bolt across his door, and unlocked my own, flung up the window, steadied myself with a breath of air, then rushed to Doctor Franck. He came; and till dawn we worked together, saving one brother’s life, and taking earnest thought how best to secure the other’s liberty.


Read the full text of this story here.

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