In 1863, Louisa May Alcott horrified a Virginia woman by kissing a baby. The woman was white, the baby was black.
Alcott had volunteered as a Civil War nurse at Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, D.C. She called it the “hurly burly hotel.” The cold, poorly ventilated, dirty space had no provisions for bathing. The staff tended as many as 400 men in all stages of suffering, disease and death.
Louisa May Alcott, a dyed-in-the-wool abolitionist, had lived in New England all her life. She was warned not to talk too ardently on the subject of slavery, so as not to offend Southern sympathizers in the nation’s capital. But she just couldn’t help herself.
The Fanatical Louisa May Alcott
In Washington, she was intrigued by her “colored brothers and sisters,” so unlike the people she knew in “moral Boston.” In her Civil War Memoirs, she wrote,
I had not been there a week before the neglected, devil-may care expression in many of the faces about me, seemed an urgent appeal to leave nursing white bodies, and take some care for these black souls. … I liked them… The girls romped with their dusky sweethearts, or tossed their babies, with the tender pride that makes mother-love a beautifier to the homeliest face. The men and boys sang and whistled all day long; and often, as I held my watch, the silence of the night was sweetly broken by some chorus from the street, full of real melody, whether the song was of heaven, or of hoe-cakes.
As she listened, she wrote, she felt, “that we never should doubt nor despair concerning a race which, through such griefs and wrongs, still clings to this good gift, and seems to solace with it the patient hearts that wait and watch and hope until the end.”
She expected people to accuse her of prejudice against African-Americans, but the opposite happened.
She “daily shocked some neighbor by treating the blacks as I did the whites,” she wrote. “The nurses were willing to be served by the colored people, but seldom thanked them, never praised, and scarcely recognized them in the street; whereat the blood of two generations of abolitionists waxed hot in my veins, and, at the first opportunity, proclaimed itself, and asserted the right of free speech as doggedly as the irrepressible Folsom herself.”
She happened to catch up a little black baby toddling around the nurses’ kitchen one day when she went to make gruel for some of her patients. A Virginia woman standing by stuck her nose in the air and sniffed disparagingly. “How can you?” she said. “I’ve been here six months and never so much as touched the little toad with a poker.”
“More shame on you, Ma’am,” replied Louisa May Alcott, and then kissed the baby with ardor.
She didn’t get the hoped-for reaction.
“This rash act, and the anti-slavery lecture that followed, while one hand stirred gruel for sick America, and the other hugged baby Africa, did not produce the cheering result which I fondly expected; for my comrade henceforth regarded me as a dangerous fanatic, and my protege nearly came to his death by insisting on swarming up stairs to my room, on all occasions, and being walked on.”
Louisa May Alcott came down with typhoid after a few weeks at the hospital and nearly died. All her hair fell out and her father brought her back to Concord. The book she wrote about her experience, Hospital Sketches, brought her first critical acclaim.
This story last updated in 2023.