Louisa May Alcott’s Adult Short Stories: “My Contraband”

hospital sketchesLouisa May Alcott’s short stint as a Civil War nurse enabled to find her voice and provided her with numerous stories. Hospital Sketches was the first result of her service and it secured her future as a successful professional writer. Critics and readers alike showered praise on the book which first began as a series of installments for the Commonwealth, a Boston anti-slavery newspaper. Encouraged by the success of the book, Louisa mined her wartime experiences for more stories. One of these is titled “My Contraband.”

A familiar character

Once titled “The Brothers,” “My Contraband” is narrated by Faith Dane, an army nurse. If that name sounds familiar to you, she is also a key character in Louisa’s first adult novel, Moods. It could very well be that it is the same Faith Dane since Ms. Dane is a spinster in both stories as well as a serious woman of purpose.

Faith’s contraband

From an 1897 edition of Alcott's "Hospital Sketches" historicaldigression.com
From an 1897 edition of Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches”

The story opens with Faith’s supervising physician, Doctor Franck, requesting that she stay by the side of a young Rebel officer who was seriously ill with typhoid (which, by the way, is the illness Louisa suffered from). She is given a contraband, a freed slave who only goes by the name of Bob.  Bob is a mulatto whom Faith sees as a curious mixture of the submissive, spiritless black slave coupled with the high and haughty nature of his white heritage. Bob himself refused to be housed with those he regarded as “niggers” and so agreed to stay with Faith to nurse the Rebel commander.

Bob is keeping secrets

Right away Faith can see that Bob, whom she refers to as Robert since he has no last name (his own choice) has something on his mind:

“… the man was not dully brooding over some small grievance; he seemed to see an all-absorbing fact or fancy recorded on the wall, which was blank to me. I wondered if it were some deep wrong or sorrow …”

Faith takes an interest in him, noticing that despite the ugly gash across his face that there was a “comeliness” about him.

The secret is revealed

civil war rebel captainAs the Rebel officer, a captain, begins to turn the corner towards recovery, Bob makes his intentions known. After Faith dozes off he deliberately closes the window which had been open to give the captain fresh air. Bob intended that the room become warm lulling Faith to sleep so that he could kill the captain. Faith awoke before he could complete the task but the stage was set. The door was locked, he had the key and he had Faith in his grip.

Thwarting the deed

Faith struggles to find some way to convince Bob to abandon his plan. Bob hoped the captain would die on his own but if he did not, Bob planned to finish the job. In an attempt to divert Bob’s attention and keep him occupied, Faith uses her wits to discover the reason: the captain, known to Bob as “Marster Ned” was Bob’s brother and he had stolen and defiled Bob’s wife Lucy. In a fever-induced delirium, Marster Ned blurted out that Lucy eventually killed herself.

A woman’s power

Faith’s fear turns to sympathy towards Bob but she is still intent on preventing murder. At one point Bob determined that the captain was not suffering enough for his crimes towards Lucy and seizes him by the throat. What was she to do? “One weapon I possessed–a tongue,–often a woman’s best defence; and sympathy, stronger than fear, gave me power to use it.”

She used her one weapon to convince Bob that Lucy was alive:

“Do you believe, if I let Marster Ned live, the Lord will give me back my Lucy?”

“As surely as there is Lord, you will find her there or in the beautiful hereafter, where there is no black or white, no master and no slave.”

Faith’s belief

Louisa’s own deep faith in live after death injects hope into this story as in all of her stories that involve death. Faith believes that death is not the end but a passage to a more beautiful life. Her belief convinces Bob that he must too think of his eternal soul for if he commits murder, he will be barred from that beautiful life known as Heaven where Faith believes Lucy will be if in fact she is dead.

A new life

Louisa is also interested in justice. After Faith convinces Bob to spare the captain, she secures his freedom by giving him to means to get to Massachusetts to start a new life. It is eventually her sad duty to have to tell him that in fact, it was true that Lucy was dead and Bob acts on that by joining the army to fight the rebels.

Sweet justice

His name: Sgt. Powhatan Beaty. His photo from the Library of Congress, donated by W.E.B. DuBois, after it was put on display for an exhibition Paris. His Medal of Honor was earned at Chaffin's Farm (AKA Chapin's Farm) (AKA New Market Heights), a 2-day engagement, day 1: conquest of Richmond, decapitating the South; day 2: repulsing a rebel counter-attack (reminiscent of the Battle of the Bulge). We held firm. Lincoln was there as described, at the front the next day (a frequent target not only when visiting the front, but also in DC, his appearance being quite distinctive, even at a distance), having waited on board a ship with a stateroom built quickly by the ship's crew especially for him, because of his remarkable height (and sleeping length!). Sgt. Beaty's injuries included an eye injury (blinded by splinters from shelling of wooden fortifications, similar to injuries suffered by sailors from artillery damage to war-ships in battle), and later in the battle, a skull fracture. After all the officers were cut down, & an 80% casualty rate in his company(!), which pulled back with their wounded, not leaving wounded in the field of battle, he took charge, personally charging up-hill 600 yards (!!!) -- with extra-ordinary valor -- to retrieve the fallen flag, dropped earlier when the color-bearer (a common target) was shot down, leading what was left of the company back into battle, to take the hill, and hold it until relieved. The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 29 September 1864, while serving with Company G, 5th Colored Infantry, in action at Chapin's Farm, Virginia. First Sergeant Beaty took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it. The man who fought with mangled arm amputated on the field of battle & led his men at the top of the hill was Corporal Miles James; he was one of a dozen other men (all African American) who also received the highest military honor for their actions that day: the Congressional Medal of Honor, Awarded personally by the President of the United States (Cpl James survived the actions that day, and was alive to receive it from the grateful President of the United States. Noted by Chris Tiffany
Sgt. Powhatan Beaty FindaGrave memorial

Justice is then served as Bob meets his brother, Marster Ned, on the battlefield where he can kill him in the heat of battle. In Louisa’s mind, he can exact revenge legitimately without jeopardizing his future life in Heaven.

Transcending propriety

Faith and Bob meet again as he is dying from his wounds. The tenderness exchanged between them is non-verbal yet deep. Bob, who had no last name, has taken her name and is now known as Robert Dane. It is a simple gesture that is thought-provoking, signaling the bond between the two. It was not marriage and it was not legal, but it was a public statement to the world of the special relationship shared between two people caught in the drama of life and death. It was a relationship between a man and a woman, a Mulatto and a Caucasian that transcended all propriety and all boundaries.

Rich life experience

“My Contraband” is a rich short story that demonstrates just how profound Louisa’s short experience with down and dirty real life was. Eve LaPlante wrote in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother that Louisa experienced “a burst of creativity” as she recovered from her typhoid pneumonia, beginning with Hospital Sketches and continuing with short stories such as “My Contraband.” This was also the period just before Little Women, from 1863-68, when Louisa churned out the best of her thrillers.

I intend to get into one of those in the next post.

Have you read Louisa’s thrillers? What do you think of them? Are you sorry that the success of Little Women stifled that part of her writing?


2 Replies to “Louisa May Alcott’s Adult Short Stories: “My Contraband””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: