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Louisa on the Front Lines
Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War
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Louisa on the Frontlines is the first narrative nonfiction book focusing on the least-known aspect of Louisa May Alcott’s career — her time spent as a nurse during the Civil War. Though her service was brief, the dramatic experience was one that she considered pivotal in helping her write the beloved classic Little Women. It also deeply affected her tenuous relationship with her father, and inspired her commitment to abolitionism. Through it all, she kept a journal and wrote letters to her family and friends. These letters were published in the newspaper, and her subsequent book, Hospital Sketches spotlighted the dire conditions of the military hospitals and the suffering endured by the wounded soldiers she cared for. To this day, her work is considered a pioneering account of military nursing.
Alcott’s time as an Army nurse in the Civil War helped her find her authentic voice — and cemented her foundational belief system. Louisa on the Frontlines reveals the emergence of this prominent feminist and abolitionist — a woman whose life and work has inspired millions and continues to do so today,
Mr. March did not go to the war, but Jo did.
—Louisa May Alcott [Jo March], responding to fans wanting to know what is true in her beloved semiautobiographical book, Little Women
THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY
DURING THE HEIGHT OF THE HOLIDAY SEASON, IN December 1860, Louisa May Alcott and her neighbors in the tranquil town of Concord, Massachusetts, were buzzing with worry over the bitter divide of the United States. In November, Abraham Lincoln had won a contentious presidential election and had plans to prevent slavery in the westward-expanding nation. Shortly after he was elected, South Carolina was the first slave state to rebel and secede from the Union, and more Southern states were threatening to follow.
The Alcott family supported Lincoln, and if women had been allowed to vote, Louisa would have joined her father, Bronson, at the Concord Town Hall to cast her ballot. It was no secret that the Alcotts were red-hot abolitionists as well as feminists. They were outspoken and unwavering in their belief that men and women, regardless of race, deserved equal rights and opportunities.
Louisa was so passionate in her belief that when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, she wanted to be a soldier in the Union army. Since women weren’t allowed to join the military, Louisa resigned herself to any opportunity to help abolish slavery and focused on more ladylike, acceptable pursuits, such as sewing uniforms for soldiers.
But then the door of opportunity opened just a crack, and Louisa was eager to push her way through. The Union army announced it was allowing women to be paid nurses, an unheard-of development at a time when it was not considered respectable work for a woman. Even so, practicality and the needs of wartime won out in this particular gender fight. The fierce and bloody battles of the war had resulted in an overwhelming number of casualties. There were too many sick and wounded and not enough male nurses to help, convincing the military to relent. Despite this new opportunity, there wasn’t a mad rush of women signing up. Louisa, however, made the exceptional decision to enlist right away.
But Louisa wasn’t from a typical family, and she wasn’t a conventional woman. An avid runner—also unheard of for women at the time—and single still at age twenty-eight, her belief system had been shaped intellectually and emotionally by the environment she grew up in, and it was one of exceptional educational riches and desperate poverty. Her parents, who were friends with some of the greatest philosophers and reformers of the time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, embraced ideals and beliefs that remain progressive by today’s standards. Louisa had a front row seat watching her father and mother risk their livelihood, freedom, and lives hiding, teaching, and even living among freed and fugitive slaves.
But her father’s self-absorption in pursuing his philosophical dreams and his careless disregard for his family’s most basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter kept the Alcotts teetering on the brink of ruin. Louisa’s mother tried to find work to support the family, but there were few respectable and profitable job opportunities for women. Many times, Louisa’s mother felt like a beggar, having to ask her relatives again and again for money, writing, “My life is one of daily protest against the oppression and abuses of society.”
While her mother fought for the family’s survival, Louisa was writing her observations, thoughts, and feelings in her journals and letters. She was working on her plan to not only rescue her family from poverty but also to help drive change in the fight for human rights. Like her parents showed her, Louisa was going to lead by example.
The Civil War offered Louisa the opportunity to go to the front lines, where she would push the boundaries for women and test her beliefs, while gaining life experiences that would translate into an influential and lasting literary contribution—Little Women.
When it was first published in 1868, Little Women was a “radical manifesto.” Louisa expertly wove her progressive beliefs and empathetic insights into her novel, creating original and unforgettable characters. Little Women was an instant best seller and has never been out of print. Millions of copies later (and counting), the trials and tribulations of the March sisters are still relatable, speaking universally to the hearts and minds of readers worldwide. Reading Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age story is a rite of passage for most young girls, many of whom find themselves reading it again and again throughout their lifetime and passionately recommending it to the next generation of little women.
THE WAR AT HOME
December 1860–February 1861, Concord, Massachusetts
A few months before the start of the Civil War
CHRISTMAS WASN’T CHRISTMAS WITHOUT PRESENTS. OR merrymaking. But twenty-eight-year-old Louisa May Alcott was, unfortunately, all too familiar with the grim reality of being “poor as rats” and nearly forgotten by everyone.
“We are used to hard times, and, as Mother says, ‘while there is a famine in Kansas we mustn’t ask for sugar-plums,’” Louisa, who was affectionately called Lu (or Louy) by her family and friends, noted in her journal.
Despite the crackling fire in the parlor, Christmas had been quiet and cheerless in the drafty clapboard house, which Lu jokingly called “Apple Slump”—much to the chagrin of her father. He preferred the name Orchard House, in honor of the apple trees he lovingly nurtured.
Even so, there had been fewer apples in the harvest this year, and, without the luxury of a furnace, it was impossible to stay warm inside Orchard House. The uncomfortable draft was just another reminder of Lu’s situation.
But, several days later, when New Year’s came around, Lu received a welcome surprise in the form of gifts from friends and acquaintances.
“A most uncommon fit of generosity seemed to seize people on my behalf,” she wrote. “And I was blessed with all manner of nice things, from a gold and ivory pen to mince-pie and a bonnet.”
When the holidays ended, though, the bleakness of winter settled in even further, and for the next several weeks Lu and the residents in her sleepy village of Concord, Massachusetts, experienced relentlessly frigid temperatures with a deep blanket of snow covering the ground. Those who dared to brave the cold were rewarded with the jingling of sleigh bells as horses trudged through the snow and seeing the children ice skating on Goose Pond.
The first slight thaw of the winter occurred on February 2, 1861, and, on that morning, Lu woke up at dawn and took her daily run. Even though most women were forbidden to run—it was considered unladylike and downright dangerous—Lu threw caution to the bitter wind. She loved running, and her parents encouraged physical exercise. For Lu, not only did running make her feel free but it was a spiritual experience, making her feel closer to God.
So Lu wasn’t worried about what her neighbors would think. By now, they were used to seeing her run with the deftness of a deer through the open meadow near Orchard House and into Walden Woods, with only the sound of her feet pattering and her petticoat ruffling. When Lu was a child, no boy could be her friend until she outran him in a race. Lu’s physical strength and endurance made her seem different from other women, but she was considered the most beautiful and fastest runner in Concord.
After her run, Lu sat down at her desk, which was shaped like a half moon and positioned between two windows. Her father, who was an accomplished carpenter, had made the writing desk especially for her.
Lu was working feverishly on a novel, a love-triangle romance she called Moods. She was using her new gold and ivory pen, dipping it carefully into her inkstand and trying not to get too much ink on her fingers. She didn’t want to accidentally stain her red merino dress.
New clothes were hard to come by, and most of her dresses were hand-me-downs from her wealthy cousins and friends. Lu had worn her last silk dress for six years, mending it so many times it was “more patch and tear than gown.”
When Lu finally had a little extra money, she bought some wine-colored wool and sewed the red gown herself. The dress was nice but not nice enough for all occasions. Just before Christmas, Lu turned down an invitation to the one-year anniversary meeting of John Brown’s death because she didn’t have a “good gown” to wear.
The radical abolitionist Brown had been a close family friend of the Alcotts, who were themselves active and outspoken abolitionists. Lu and her family believed in complete racial equality, including interracial marriage. They attended antislavery meetings and put their own freedom on the line as participants in the secret and illegal Underground Railroad. For as long as Lu could remember, her family had harbored fugitive slaves.
When Lu was fourteen years old, a runaway slave stayed with them for a week and ate his meals at their table before leaving for Canada. Her father recorded in his journal, “We supplied him with the means of journeying, and bade him a good god-speed to a freer land.… His stay with us has given image and a name to the dire entity of slavery, and was an impressive lesson to my children, bringing before them the wrongs of the black man and his tale of woes.” Throughout her life, Lu had met many of the legendary leaders who were risking their lives to abolish slavery—from Harriet Tubman, who stayed at the Alcott home, to Frederick Douglass.
So, when John Brown was executed for trying to arm a slave rebellion, the Alcotts considered him a martyr and saint. “Glad I have lived to see the Antislavery movement and this last heroic act in it,” Lu wrote after Brown led the Harpers Ferry raid. “Wish I could do my part in it.”
To honor the one-year anniversary of John Brown’s death, Lu decided to write a poem in the midst of working on Moods. But she couldn’t find the right words to express her feelings, and she didn’t think it was any good, lamenting, “I’m a better patriot than poet.” Even so, she sent it out anyway, and, according to her notes from the time, it was published in a newspaper.
Whenever Lu sat down at her desk to write, she liked to wear an old green and red party shawl, which she called her “glory cloak.” It kept her warm and helped protect her dress from ink stains. It matched the brimless green silk hat that her mother, Abba (later known as Marmee), had made for her and adorned with a red bow.
Lu’s hat covered her long, chestnut-colored hair, which, when it wasn’t pinned up in a simple, becoming style, nearly touched the floor. It was her favorite, and, in her opinion, best feature. “If I look in my glass, I try to keep down vanity about my long hair, my well-shaped head, and my good nose,” Lu revealed in her journal. She could remember a time when her family was so desperate for money that she had seriously considered cutting off her hair and selling it to a wigmaker. “I went to a barber, let down my hair, and asked him how much he would give me for it,” she said to a friend. “When he told me the sum, it seemed so large to me that I then and there determined I would part with my most precious possession if during the next week the clouds did not lift.”
But on that particular occasion, a family friend came to the rescue. “That was not the first time he had helped father, nor was it indeed the last,” Lu said. That friend was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and his family lived down the road from the Alcotts, not far from Henry David Thoreau, another one of their good friends. Like Emerson and Thoreau, Lu’s father was a transcendentalist.
Although the most influential philosophers of the transcendentalist movement at the time lived in the small village of Concord, most of the townspeople didn’t really understand what the term “transcendental” meant. But they did consider it completely unorthodox. It was a radical notion at that time to believe in a direct relationship with God and a oneness with nature, and that a divine spirit is present in every human and in all of nature. As a transcendentalist, Bronson stuck fiercely to his principles, not caring about money or material things, even if it meant that his family went hungry.
“Philosophers are always poor,” Lu wrote. “And too modest to pass round their own hats.”
Although Bronson was not as famous as Emerson and hadn’t attended Harvard University like Emerson (and Thoreau), his loyal and well-respected friend looked up to him and considered him “the most transcendental of the Transcendentalists.” Bronson’s ideas had influenced Emerson in his defining essay, Nature, which launched Emerson’s career. He had paraphrased passages from Bronson’s journals, and considered him a genius and half god. Emerson believed that Bronson was the one philosopher who could have held a conversation with Plato. But he also likened Bronson to Don Quixote—a naïve and impractical idealist. Unlike Emerson, others looked down on Bronson, calling him a fool, a madman, pompous, and, perhaps even worse, a bore.
BRONSON’S CONNECTION to the transcendentalists ran so deep that Emerson even had a hand in the family’s geography. In 1845, when the Alcotts were living forty-five miles west of Boston near the rural town of Harvard and Bronson found himself out of work, Emerson urged him to move to Concord, closer to Boston, and even helped him buy a home. When the Alcotts moved into their house on Lexington Road, the villagers were atwitter with worry, casting a suspicious eye and shunning the Alcotts. Bronson’s reputation as “a fanatic in belief and habit” had preceded him.
Early in his career, he had made a name for himself as a schoolteacher—and not always in a good way. Bronson, who was the oldest son of an illiterate farmer, lacked a high school and college degree. But when he wasn’t working with his father on the family farm, his doting mother had taught him to read and write. The only formal education he received was when he earned a scholarship to Cheshire Academy, a private prep school that admitted boys and girls. Although he yearned to learn, when he found himself surrounded by better-dressed students from more privileged backgrounds, Bronson didn’t feel worthy, more like a country bumpkin, and left after a short time. Despite dropping out of school, he would later earn his teaching certificate and spend his lifetime feeding his intellect—and prove to be a trailblazer with his ideas of education reform.
But, like many trailblazers, his progressive ideas would also be his undoing. Bronson’s teaching methods were considered radical at a time when children learned by rote memorization and strict discipline. Bronson believed that education should inspire the mind and awaken the soul. He came up with the idea of recess, and, in the classroom, instead of encouraging memorization, he tried to engage his students in discussions and draw out their ideas.
Instead of using physical punishment, Bronson handled discipline problems by discussing them as a group with his pupils. Sometimes Bronson would extend his hand and tell the misbehaving student to strike it because it was he who had failed as a teacher. Bronson believed this instilled shame and triggered feelings of guilt, so the behavior would, in theory, stop.
Many people thought his teaching ideas were ridiculous. Regardless, the school he opened in Boston in 1834 was successful for six years. Defying the common belief that girls didn’t need an education, half of his twenty students were girls (two of whom were his daughters Anna and Lu). But Bronson was ahead of his time, and when he allowed an African American child to enroll in the all-white school, the parents quickly withdrew their children. Soon after, Bronson’s school closed, leaving his family thousands of dollars in debt.
Bronson took an active part in caring for his daughters, which was also unheard of at the time. He carefully observed their behavior and kept detailed records of their development, believing that children were born into the world morally perfect, “trailing clouds of glory.” His wife, Abba, agreed.
Unfortunately for Lu, her parents’ high ideals meant that they expected perfection from her. Any flaw must be fixed. They didn’t see people for who they were but for how far they fell short of who they should be. Lu did not fit neatly into her father’s ideas. Rebellious, willful, and short tempered, Lu was all action, tearing through the house, making noise, pulling her older sister Anna’s hair, climbing and falling out of trees, and running away from home.
When Lu was three and a half years old, he recorded her behavior in his journal: “Father, mother, sister, objects all are equally defied, and not infrequently the menace terminates in blows.… Sitting with me today Louisa held my hand in hers, and while enjoying the sense of bodily contact, she seemed to be instinctively tempted to pinch me.”
To tame Lu’s “wild exuberance of a powerful nature,” Bronson used “discipline mingling severity and kindness.” This meant Lu received spankings—even though her father said he didn’t believe in corporal punishment. But, instead of making him question his pious self-image as a child-rearing expert and his unrealistic expectations of his daughter, he blamed his wife. “I do not believe in its [spanking] efficacy except as a corrective discipline,” he explained in his journal. “Had the children been under my supervision continually… I do not believe it would have been necessary to resort to such methods.”
Bronson rarely had to punish Anna, whom he favored. He thought fair-haired, blue-eyed Anna resembled and acted more like him, while dark-haired Lu looked and acted more like her mother. Anna was a “good girl”; she was delicate and listened to her father, trying to please him and complying with his rules. Bronson noted in his journal, “She listened to what I was saying, and after I had finished, putting her arms around me, she said, ‘I like you!’”
Unlike Lu, who defiantly broke the rules and expressed her frustration with a fiery temper, just like her mother. Bronson complained further about Lu in his journal, “She only looks toward the objects of her desires and steers proudly, adventurously… toward the heaven of her hopes. The stronger the opposing gale, the more sullenly and obstinately does she ply her energies.”
Viewing his children as an extension of himself and focusing on his need to mold them into his idea of perfection, Bronson was unable to see that Lu’s fierce determination in the face of opposition wasn’t a flaw. It was in fact the perfect trait to nurture the seed of her ambition and help it bloom. Bronson’s disapproval and rejection of Lu caused her to look back on her childhood and think that she was “the worst child ever known,” especially when he called her a “demon.”
Always known for her quick wit and humor, Lu tried to make light of the criticism by signing her letters to her father “Ever your loving demon.” But the constant criticism and rejection emotionally wounded her, making her believe she wasn’t good enough. Lu wanted her father’s approval and love, as well as her mother’s. It wouldn’t be until after her father’s next failed experiment that Lu would figure out how she was going to get it.
In 1843, her father had decided to cofound a utopian society, a new Eden, based on transcendental beliefs when Lu was ten years old, following the failure of his school in Boston. He moved the family to a run-down farmhouse in Harvard and named the communal farm Fruitlands even though, as Lu wryly noted, there was no orchard. But the name Fruitlands reflected the strict rule that no one on the premises was allowed to eat meat or dairy products of any kind. “No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies,” wrote a member of Fruitlands. The only acceptable fruits and vegetables where those that grew above ground, toward heaven, such as apples. Root vegetables, such as potatoes, which grew underground and, in Bronson’s mind, toward hell, were forbidden.
The members weren’t allowed to use animals for farm labor or manure for fertilizer. Although Bronson grew up on a farm, he couldn’t see that his strict ideals were impractical and unrealistic. Without oxen or horses to help plow the fields, there weren’t enough laborers to grow the food needed to become self-sufficient.
At one time, there was a total of fourteen members at Fruitlands, but Bronson and the other philosophers were often gone, traveling around trying to recruit more members. He left his wife behind with the burden of caring for their four young daughters along with the labor-intensive farming and housework. Isolated and overworked with no source of income, Abba was miserable and afraid she was losing her mind, writing in her journal, “Circumstances most cruelly drive me from the enjoyment of my domestic life.… I am almost suffocated in this atmosphere of restriction.… I hope the experiment will not bereave me of my mind.… [T]his [is an] invasion of my rights as a woman and a mother.”
Young Lu also hated Fruitlands and poured her heart out in her journal. “More people coming to live with us; I wish we could be together, and no one else. I don’t see who is to clothe and feed us all, when we are so poor now. I was very dismal, and then went to walk and made a poem.”
Bronson’s experiment lasted for six months before it failed. Besides the Alcott family, the number of members had dwindled to two. “He was very strict, indeed rather despotic, in his rule of community.… They were nearly starved to death… [and] would have perished with hunger if they had not furtively gone among the surrounding farmers and begged for food,” ex-members told a reporter.
The unforgiving New England winter was upon them, and they were running out of firewood. They were not allowed to use fabric made from animals or harvested with slave labor, but their linen clothes were not warm enough for them to survive the winter. Still, Bronson stubbornly clung to his ideals and considered joining the nearby Shaker settlement, a religious community with a communal farming system and profitable woodworking business. The only caveat was the Shakers separated family members by gender and age, so the Alcotts would be required to live separate lives, seeing their children only once a year.
“I was very unhappy, and we all cried.… I prayed God to keep us all together,” Lu wrote at the time in her journal. (Years later, she would comment, “Little Lu began to feel the family cares and peculiar trials.… She never forgot this experience, and her little cross began to grow heavier from this.”)
But, in the end, Lu’s mother refused to join the Shaker community. She planned on leaving her husband and taking her daughters with her. “The arrangements here [at Fruitlands] have never suited me, and I am impatient to leave all behind.… My duties have been arduous, but my satisfaction small,” Abba wrote.
For Bronson, it was a difficult decision. He didn’t want to compromise his principles, but he ultimately decided not to join the Shakers in order to keep his family together.
However, Bronson was so overwhelmed with disappointment and grief over his failed utopia that he went on a hunger strike and refused to get out of bed. For months, his wife had been questioning her husband’s mental state and confided to her brother in a letter, “I do not allow myself to despair of his recovery, but oh, Sam that piercing thought flashes through my mind of insanity, and a grave, yawning to receive his precious body, would be to me a consolation compared to that condition of life.”
All the same, Abba was left scrambling, trying to figure out how to make money. She didn’t want to sell her silver teapot and spoons, but her extended family was tired of her asking for money to pay off their mounting debts. The seemingly never-ending cycle of indebtedness to family members began years ago when Bronson’s own father, a hardworking farmer, sold off part of his farm to settle his son’s first big debt. Abba’s father, an enterprising merchant, stopped giving them money after it was evident Bronson didn’t intend to pay him back.
When Abba’s brother, Samuel, asked why Bronson thought a paying job was beneath him, Abba explained that Bronson didn’t believe he should accept wages—only donations—which limited his job prospects. “No one will employ him in his way,” she told her brother in a letter. “He cannot work in theirs, if he thereby involve his conscience. He is resolved in this matter that I believe he will starve or freeze before he will sacrifice principle to comfort.” Despite her misgivings, the relentless strain on their marriage, and her impulse to leave him because of the Fruitlands debacle, Abba was loyal and supportive of her “visionary” husband. She not only considered him a genius and morally superior but also her savior.
WHEN SHE first met the tall, blond, blue-eyed teacher, with a polished gentlemanly manner and a penchant for beautiful clothes, she was twenty-six years old, a spinster at the time, living with her brother. Although she’d been engaged previously, her fiancé had died unexpectedly. Abba wanted to find love and have a family of her own, and she was immediately taken by the quiet and charismatic budding philosopher. But Abba May came from a prominent Boston family, a descendent of the distinguished Quincys and Sewalls, which included John Hancock, the signer of the Declaration of the Independence, in its extended family. This made Bronson painfully aware of his humble beginnings, growing up a poor country boy whose mother was known to enjoy an unwomanly corncob pipe. He had worked hard over the years educating himself and refining his rough edges.
- "Louisa on the Front Lines is a lively account of a critical moment in Alcott's life, her time working as a nurse in the Civil War -- a moment that reverberates, sometimes in surprising ways, in her most beloved work."—Louisa Thomas, Author of Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams
- "Bravo to Samantha Seiple for her sensitive portrayal of the difficulties and the successes of Civil War nurses, as seen through the clear eyes of Louisa May Alcott."—Dr. Patricia Brady, Historian and Biographer
- "Louisa on the Front Lines tells the story of a powerful period in Louisa May Alcott's life--her brief occupation as a Civil War nurse. Samantha Seiple, with her lively, well-researched narrative, captures Alcott at a pivotal time in the history of our country and in her own career as a young writer. Readers will discover the story both engaging and informative. Alcott herself would have marveled at how Seiple's biographical and historical account reads like a novel!"—Daniel Shealy, UNC Professor of English and editor of The Journals of Louisa May Alcott
- "There's a beautiful humanness in Seiple's descriptions of Alcott...Readers will discover in these pages an author as vibrant as her writings, and find themselves returning to her work with fresh eyes. Alcott scholars will encounter a liveliness if not substantive new information."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Feb 26, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Seal Press