When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Louisa found a new purpose, reporting to Concord’s town hall to sew Union uniforms and bandages. As soon as she turned thirty, old enough to enlist as an army nurse, she prevailed upon family friend Dorothy Dix to waive the ban on admitting single women. Within days of her arrival at a makeshift hospital in war-torn Washington, she was tending victims of the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, assisting at amputations performed without anesthesia, and holding the hands of soldiers enduring long, painful deaths.
The impact of Louisa’s nursing experience upon her own health was devastating. She contracted typhoid fever and pneumonia, and was treated with calomel, a mercury derivative poisonous to the nervous system. She was plagued by illness, pain, and periodic frailty for the rest of her life.
Although she lost her health in the war, Alcott won her reputation as a writer. Hospital Sketches, adapted from letters home, became her first bestseller. A different kind of literary product boosted her earnings from writing – anonymous or pseudonymous “thrillers” bought by editors of popular national magazines. Despite her burgeoning literary career, Louisa still needed to supplement her income by sewing.
A job offer to travel as companion to an invalid allowed Louisa to fulfill her lifelong desire to see Europe. In Switzerland she became enchanted with a younger man, a recent Polish freedom fighter, Ladislas Wisniewski. She nicknamed him “Laddie,” and later used him as the model for “Laurie” in Little Women. Louisa would leave her job and travel alone to meet Wisniewski in Paris, where she spent two weeks, unchaperoned. “A little romance with Laddie,” she wrote in her journal at the time, but scratched out the rest of the passage so firmly she tore the paper – the only such instance in all her journals. Over what remained of the paper she later wrote “couldn’t be.”
Laddie was one of a number of flirtatious friendships Louisa had with men considerably younger (and Emerson and Thoreau were two of several attachments she had to men considerably older). Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, a younger male friend, speculated about Louisa in a reminiscence. “Did she ever have a love affair? We never knew; yet how could a nature so imaginative, romantic and passionate escape it?” In an undated poem toward the end of her life, Alcott writes of herself as a woman whose romantic lover never appeared. The anonymous thrillers appear to have been an important emotional outlet; she wrote them in what she called a “vortex,” where time, food, and rest seemed not to exist. In an era when marriage was the only sanctioned framework for the fulfillment of romantic love, Louisa faced a dilemma. As a wife she could have no economic or legal identity. Motherhood she thought incompatible with earning a living. She decided bravely to “paddle my own canoe,” but her many lonely responsibilities made for a heavy cargo.