Literary nurses

In conjunction with the opening of the Florence Nightingale exhibit on Floor 3 of the HBLL, which features a number of rare books and manuscripts from Special Collections,  I’d like to highlight the work of  several authors who served as nurses in the American Civil War.

Clara Barton was a Civil War nurse who was instrumental in organizing the American Red Cross.  Under her leadership, the Red Cross became involved in disaster relief efforts as well as war-related humanitarian efforts.  She published a history of the organization’s first two decades: The Red Cross, In Peace and War (Washington, DC: American Historical Press, 1899).  A copy of this book can be found in the Rare Book Collection.

hsketches 003Author Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse at the Union hospital in Georgetown for six weeks in 1862-63 before contracting typhoid fever.  After she recovered, the editors of the antislavery magazine the Commonwealth asked Alcott to publish a series of sketches based on her letters home.  These four articles were collected and published several months later as the book Hospital Sketches (Boston: James Redpath, 1863).  Special Collections owns several first edition copies of Hospital Sketches, including one presented by Alcott to the widow of antislavery activist John Brown (shown here).

Poet Walt Whitman also volunteered as a nurse in the Union hospitals in Washington, DC.  In 1863, Whitman proposed to write a book-length account of his experiences for the publisher of Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, but his offer was turned down.  He did not publish his narrative until 1874, in a series of articles in the New York magazine Weekly Graphic.  Whitman gathered these articles into book form, publishing them as Memoranda During the War (Camden, NJ: author, 1875-76) the following year.  Whitman later republished the text of Memoranda During the War in subsequent publications: Two Rivulets (Camden, NJ: author, 1876) and Specimen Days and Collect (Philadephia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882-83).  Copies of these books, including first editions, can be found in the Walt Whitman Collection.

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