By Trix Wilkins
In the opening chapter of Little Women, we discover that Mr March is away from his family whilst serving as an army chaplain. During the civil war, Washington became a repository for the wounded – a fact that is driven close to home for the March family when Mrs March receives a telegram urging, “Come at once.” For their daughters it seemed “the day darkened outside and how suddenly the whole world seemed to change.”
John Brooke is sent to Washington to escort Mrs March under the pretext of tending to James Laurence’s business affairs – and when Laurie is reprimanded by his grandfather for his prank on Meg, he impetuously suggests to Jo that they run off to visit her father. His conversation with Jo reflects how little either knew of the reality of life in the nation’s capital at the time.
“I’ll go to Washington and see Brooke; it’s gay there, and I’ll enjoy myself after the troubles.”
“What fun you’d have! I wish I could run off too!” said Jo, forgetting her part of Mentor in lively visions of martial life at the capital.
“Come on, then! Why not? You go and surprise your father, and I’ll stir up old Brooke. It would be a glorious joke; let’s do it, Jo! We’ll leave a letter saying we are all right, and trot off at once. I’ve got money enough; it will do you good, and be no harm, as you go to your father.”
For a moment Jo looked as if she would agree; for, wild as the plan was, it just suited her. She was tired of care and confinement, longed for change, and thoughts of her father blended temptingly with the novel charms of camps and hospitals, liberty and fun.
While Louisa May Alcott did go to Washington and write dispatches of her experiences in Hospital Sketches as a nurse named Tribulation Periwinkle, Jo does not in any shape or form run off with or without Laurie. On one hand this is a relief, for Jo shows a steadiness of character by refusing to act against her conscience, even when – especially when – the request comes from such a dear friend and so pointedly suited to her own desires for travel and adventure.
On the other hand this is disappointing – I suspect had Louisa written such an adjunct into Little Women, Jo would have taken on the brilliant name of Tribulation Periwinkle. She would not have been content merely to see the sights in the midst of war, rather partaking in the making of history and the care of souls.
Louisa’s description of Washington in Hospital Sketches might have fit seamlessly into the narrative of Little Women had Jo ventured to the bustling capital. “The Capitol was so like the pictures…that it did not impress me, except to recall the time when I was sure that Cinderella went housekeeping in just such a place, after she had married the inflammable Prince, though, even at that early period, I had my doubts as to the wisdom of a match whose foundation was of glass.”
Had Jo and Laurie run off to Washington in the midst of war, what might have been their trail?
“Earnest, brave and faithful; fighting for liberty and justice with both heart and hand, true soldiers of the Lord.” LMA, Hospital Sketches.
This was the hospital Louisa May Alcott had in mind when she sought to serve as a nurse during the war. One of the largest civil war hospitals, the 1,000-bed hospital complex was frequently visited by President Abraham Lincoln, who took care to shake hands with soldiers and offer a warm “God bless you,” and made the practical suggestion that flower beds be placed between the wards using plants from the government gardens.
Poet Walt Whitman also frequented the wards where the most severely wounded received treatment – Armory Square received some of the worst soldier casualties and recorded an unprecedented number of soldier deaths, “it contains by far the worst cases, most repulsive wounds…and most need of consolation.” While working as an unpaid delegate of the Christian Commission in early 1863 Whitman raised money to buy extra food and supplies.
I can imagine Jo and Laurie being incredibly moved by a visit to this hospital – and inevitably, repeated returns, driven by compassion to direct their combined energy and means to assist in the convalescence of the suffering.
Louisa had not been placed at the Armory Square Hospital as she had hoped, but at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown – which at one point had been in such poor condition that it was abandoned in 1861 and only reopened a year later due to high union casualties. Tiny windows bolted shut for fear of possible attack, narrow hallways, broken toilets and sinks, a lack of ventilation, decaying woodwork, shabby carpets and wallpaper were conditions through which Louisa pressed on to do the work she considered her privilege and duty.
It was at this hospital while she served as a nurse that she met a young soldier named John, who she described in Hospital Sketches as “bashful and brave, yet full of excellencies and fine aspirations, which, having no power to express themselves in words, seemed to have bloomed into his character and made him what he was.” Might he have partially served as an inspiration for Laurie – like Laurie, though John was unmarried, he wore a plain ring. Another soldier Louisa writes of, Sergeant B, also sounds suspiciously similar to the way Jo describes Laurie, “anything more irresistibly wheedlesome I never saw.”
I do wonder about the conversations that might have been, had Louisa chosen to have Jo and Laurie meet these men in Little Women!
The Freedmen’s Hospital (now known as Howard University Hospital)
Jo and Laurie might have had their pick of hospitals to volunteer in and visit in Washington – another being the Freedmen’s Hospital, established in 1862 for the thousands of African Americans who came to Washington during the civil war. It was the first hospital of its kind to provide medical treatment for former slaves. Had Louisa chosen to cross Laurie’s path with such a place, would he have thrown his hand to the work or merely his money? With Jo alongside him, I daresay he would have been compelled to do both!
After all the grueling work of the day, I’m just about certain Jo and Laurie would have sought some sort of respite in the theater. Ford’s was the theater in which President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 – but at the time of Laurie’s proposed jaunt to Washington, this had not yet occurred. They might have attended a comedy here as Lincoln had on that fateful Good Friday.
Conservatories were the preserve of Meg, but I doubt Jo and Laurie would have been dulled to the charms of a national garden. During the late 18th century George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison shared the dream of a national botanic garden – a garden was eventually established in 1820, and significantly expanded in the 1840s, when the Wilkes Expedition brought a collection of living plants from around the world to Washington. By the time of their potential visit in the 1860s, the garden had been moved into a new structure for viewing.
“I struggled through the State House, getting into all of the wrong rooms and none of the right.” LMA, Hospital Sketches.
The rotunda had been used as a military hospital for Union soldiers – but to its northeast, the Old Senate Chamber had been used by the Supreme Court. It was in this room that in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner (a strident abolitionist) with a cane – three days after the latter attacked pro-slavery politicians in a speech. The beating was so terrible that Sumner was absent from the Senate for nearly three years as he recovered. It would have been the sort of place to have fired Jo’s literary imagination with scenes of passionate politics and courageous morality.
What might have been
I cannot imagine Jo and Laurie returning from a Washington “adventure” unchanged, unmoved by all that they would have seen. Had Jo simply visited her own father in hospital, she would have been exposed to such wounds, suffering and death – I doubt that she could have left Washington without seeking to lend a hand for as long as her strength would hold, as long as she could see the need. The course of the entire novel would have followed an incredibly different trajectory – and would their health have survived such a journey, or been devastated as Louisa’s had?
As I’ve read more of what had actually occurred in history throughout the time they might have travelled, I look back at this episode in Little Women with mixed feelings – relief that Jo and Laurie were kept safe, and regret that both missed the opportunity to serve.
“Sometimes I stopped to watch the passers in the street, the moonlight shining on the spire opposite, or the gleam of some vessel floating, like a white-winged seagull, down the broad Potomac, whose fullest flow can never wash away the red stain of the land.” LMA, Hospital Sketches.