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.