Charlotte Bradford vs. Louisa May Alcott

Charlotte Bradford (1813-1890)

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

During the Civil War Charlotte Bradford of Duxbury traveled to the South to become a nurse.  She worked for a time aboard the Transport Ships (“Floating Hospitals”) organized by the United States Sanitary Commission and later worked in Washington, D.C. area hospitals under Dorothea Dix.  During her tenure as a nurse she kept a daily journal and wrote numerous letters home.

One of her most interesting letters is to the Editors of The Commonwealth (c. 1863), a Massachusetts newspaper.  In it she describes her feelings toward Louisa May Alcott’s recently published serial, “Hospital Sketches.”  Charlotte was none too pleased with Alcott’s description of life in a Union Hospital.

What is particularly interesting about this critique is the fact that Charlotte most probably knew Miss Alcott, or at least of her.  One of Charlotte’s cousins was the Transcendentalist, George Partridge Bradford, who was a great friend of Broson Alcott.  Her other cousin was Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley, the owner of the Old Manse in Concord and Alcott neighbor.  Perhaps Charlotte did not know that Tribulation Periwinkle, Louisa’s pseudonym in Hospital Sketches, was actually Alcott.

The copy of the letter in the Drew Archival Library is incomplete.  There is at least one page missing.  I have not verified if the letter was actually sent or whether the Editor’s chose to publish it.  Charlotte’s description her hospital work, soldiers and diet is a bit different from what we read in her diary.  Although she claims to have a good appetite in her letter, it was, in fact, not very good.  She was a vegetarian and dispised the Army rations she was forced to eat.  She also came up against surgeons on more than one occassion and was dismissed from the Armory Square Hospital for insubordination.  Her time in Washington was difficult and often times far from the rosy description she gives to the Editors. Despite her own tribulations, however, Charlotte obviously did not like anyone anyone speaking ill of the conditions publicly.

The following is Charlotte’s copy or rough draft of her letter to The Commonwealth.

Mr. Editor,

Your paper of the 19th was handed me today and it is so seldom that I see one from Mass. that I greeted it as a friend from home.  “Hospital Sketches” on the first page caught my eye, but I read it with no little pain and was tempted to give you a sum of my own experiences, it has been so different from the feeling expressed there.  I have been a nurse in hospitals in and near Washington for nearly a year and have heard much said about self denial and sacrifice, but I have had no sympathy with that at all.  My motives for coming and here were not, I am sorry to say, of the self denying sort.  I had no great idea of the good that I could do for I have no doubt there is many a woman at the North who would be glad of the privildge of coming who could do more and better than I can.  I came simply from the love of taking care of the sick and my interest in the war and so perhaps was better prepared to offer [?].  I must say that I cannot recall a year of my life that I have passed more pleasantly.  It is not, I think, that I have ben favored in the choice of hospitals for I have served in six different ones, including some of the worst as well as the best.  I have eaten off tin plates nothing but army rations and sometimes without a knife or fork but what of that?  I fared the same as the soldier and preferred that to partaking of the nicer victuals from the surgeon’s and stewards tables.  But I am blessed with a good appetite and it was rather and amusement and difficult to realize that I was sitting in the cellar of the Capital eating off an unwashed table or eating in this primitive style in its magnificent rooms above stairs.  Let no one criticize even that hospital too severely.  It was a temporary one in a building entirely unsuited to the purpose excepting in its fine and spacious rooms for the beds, but when it comes to perparing food for 1000 men best no one find fault untill he has been behind the scenes and seen what it invovles.  A hospital is a vast machine that requires a great many springs to be put in motion before it works evenly and smoothly.  In Armory Square Hospital which Miss seems to consider a model I have not a year since had the better part of many a meal from not going a the first sound of the bugle. I have eaten after the surgeons as well as before an found how essential it was to my comfort that they should be punctual at their meals.  A word in regard to the bread.  I know that the aeratated bread is used somewhat and that, when a day or two old is certainly much like sawdust but the army bread that we get in Washington is certainly excellent and superior to most homemade bread.  But what are such petty annoyances to one who has the priviledge of going into a ward in the morning and meeting the smile of welcome that greets her.  I have always heard it said that men did not know how to be sick, had no patience, but I was soon convinced of the fallacy of that doctrine.  I never saw such patience and fortitude as shown by our soldiers indeed the cheerfulness and even fine spirits of the soldier is almost proverbial.  I have in my mind’s eye a young man who had lost altogether the use of his lower limbs, could not even sit up in bed, but as he lay on his back or leaned on his elbow, his face was radiant with smiles.  I at first thought he must have heard some pleasant news.  I shall never see him again but if ever I am sick and inclined to be impatient I believe that face will be a lesson to me.  Then how pleasant to go round with the dressing tray and as one after another receives the refreshment of clean water and bandage to watch from day to day the gradual healing of the wound and listen to their kindly, pleasant talk for they are all your friends.  The sorrow is  that of the hundreds that I have watched and tended I shall probably never see ten again but I have met some curious instances showing that the smallest act of kindess is appreciated.  A young man came one day and spoke to me whom I did not recognize “you may perhaps remember” said he “I am the one whom you gave 2 soda crackers one day ’cause I could not eat my dinner.”  And let me say that though I do not doubt there is a great profanity in the Army yet in hospital I have rarely, except in delirium, heard a soldier utter an oath and in these few instances it was always followed by “I beg your pardon I did not know you were there” showing the respect of our people for women.  I must not forget the pleasant though sadder task of administering to the wants of the sick.  To bathe the aching head and moisten the fevered lips or even to speak a kind word are trifles but they are a solace to the weary, worn out soldier.  I have seen the tears glisten in more than on manly eye…

Charlotte Bradford’s diaries and letters are part of the Bradford Family Collection.  She lived her entire life, other than her three years in Washington, DC, in her family’s home on Tremont Street (The Gershom Bradord House).

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