Enlisting as Army Nurse by Louisa M. Alcott


I  WANT something to do."—This remark being addressed to the world in general, no one in particular felt it his duty to reply; so I repeated it to the smaller world about me, received the following suggestions, and settled the matter by answering my own inquiry, as people are apt to do when very much in earnest.

"Write a book," quoth my father.

"Don't know enough, sir. First live, then write."

"Try teaching again," suggested my mother.

"No, thank you, ma'am; ten years of that is enough."

"Take a husband like my Darby, and fulfil your mission," said Sister Jane, home on a visit.

"Can't afford expensive luxuries, Mrs. Coobiddy."

"Turn actress, and immortalize your name," said Sister Vashti, striking an attitude.

"I won't."

"Go nurse the soldiers," said my young neighbor, Tom, panting for "the tented field."

"I will!"

Arriving at this satisfactory conclusion, the meeting adjourned; and the fact that Miss Tribulation was available as army nurse went abroad on the wings of the wind.

In a few days a townswoman heard of my desire, approved of it, and brought about an interview with one of the sisterhood I wished to join, who was at home on a furlough, and able and willing to satisfy inquiries.

A morning chat with Miss General S.—we hear  no end of Mrs. Generals, why not a Miss?—produced three results: I felt that I could do the work, was offered a place, and accepted it; promising not to desert, but to stand ready to march on Washington at an hour's notice.

A few days were necessary for the letter containing my request and recommendation to reach head-quarters, and another, containing my commission, to return; therefore no time was to be lost; and, heartily thanking my pair of friends, I hurried home through the December slush, as if the Rebels were after me, and, like many another recruit, burst in upon my family with the announcement,—"I've enlisted!"

An impressive silence followed. Tom, the irrepressible, broke it with a slap on the shoulder and the grateful compliment,—"Old Trib, you're a trump!"

"Thank you; then I'll take something,"—which I did, in the shape of dinner, reeling off my news at the rate of three dozen words to a mouthful; and as every one else talked equally fast, and all together, the scene was most inspiring.

As boys going to sea immediately become nautical in speech, walk as if they already had their sea-legs on, and shiver their timbers on all possible occasions, so I turned military at once, called my dinner my rations, saluted all new-comers, and ordered a dress-parade that very afternoon.

Having reviewed every rag I possessed, I detailed some pieces for picket duty while airing on the fence; some to the sanitary influences of the wash-tub; others to mount guard in the trunk; while the weak and wounded went to the Work-basket Hospital, to be made ready for active service again.

To this squad I devoted myself for a week;  but all was done, and I had time to get powerfully impatient before the letter came. It did arrive, however, and brought a disappointment along with its good-will and friendliness; for it told me that the place in the Armory Hospital that I supposed I was to take was already filled, and a much less desirable one at Hurly-burly House was offered instead.

"That's just your luck, Trib. I'll take your trunk up garret for you again; for of course you won't go," Tom remarked, with the disdainful pity which small boys affect when they get into their teens.

I was wavering in my secret soul; but that remark settled the matter, and I crushed him on the spot with martial brevity,—"It is now one; I shall march at six."

I have a confused recollection of spending the afternoon in pervading the house like an executive whirlwind, with my family swarming after me,—all working, talking, prophesying, and lamenting while I packed such of my things as I was to take with me, tumbled the rest into two big boxes, danced on the lids till they shut, and gave them in charge, with the direction,—"If I never come back, make a bonfire of them."

Then I choked down a cup of tea, generously salted instead of sugared by some agitated relative, shouldered my knapsack,—it was only a travelling-bag, but do let me preserve the unities,—hugged my family three times all round without a vestige of unmanly emotion, till a certain dear old lady broke down upon my neck, with a despairing sort of wail,—"O my dear, my dear! how can I let you go?"

"I'll stay, if you say so, mother."

"But I don't; go, and the Lord will take care of you."

Much of the Roman matron's courage had gone into the Yankee matron's composition, and, in spite of her tears, she would have sent ten sons to the war, had she possessed them, as freely as she sent one daughter, smiling and flapping on the door-step till I vanished, though the eyes that followed me were very dim, and the handkerchief she waved was very wet.

My transit from The Gables to the village depot was a funny mixture of good wishes and good-bys, mud-puddles and shopping. A December twilight is not the most cheering time to enter upon a somewhat perilous enterprise; but I'd no thought of giving out, O, bless you, no!

When the ingine screeched "Here we are!" I clutched my escort in a fervent embrace, and skipped into the car with as blithe a farewell as if going on a bridal tour,—though I believe brides don't usually wear cavernous black bonnets and fuzzy brown coats, with a hair-brush, a pair of rubbers, two books, and a bag of gingerbread distorting the pockets.

If I thought that people would believe it, I'd boldly state that I slept from C. to B., which would simplify matters immensely; but as I know they wouldn't, I'll confess that the head under the funereal coal-hod fermented with all manner of high thoughts and heroic purposes "to do or die,"—perhaps both; and the heart under the fuzzy brown coat felt very tender with the memory of the dear old lady, probably sobbing over her army socks and the loss of her topsy-turvy Trib.

At this juncture I took the veil, and what I did behind it is nobody's business; but I maintain that the soldier who cries when his mother says  "Good by" is the boy to fight best, and die bravest, when the time comes, or go back to her better than he went.