New Book by Samantha Lumby Seiple ’85 Explores Louisa May Alcott and the Civil War

Louisa May Alcott is best known as the author of Little Women, but during the Civil War, she held a different role when she served as a nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. In her latest book, Louisa on the Front Lines: Louisa May Alcott in the Civil War, Samantha Lumby Seiple ’85 dives deeply into Alcott’s role as a nurse and its influence on her life and writing. Seiple’s work, which came out February 26 and is now available at many major retailers, is the first nonfiction book to focus on this lesser-known aspect of Alcott’s career.
“What struck me with [Louisa’s] story was that the Civil War was a huge influence on her life,” says Seiple. “It was what she stood for. She was very much for human rights, and not a lot of people really know about her time in the Civil War, or that she was a nurse. It was different back then because women weren’t nurses. So it was very unusual for her or any woman to volunteer to go off and fight in the war through the only opportunity available to her at the time: becoming a nurse.”

For her book, Seiple read through Alcott’s work Hospital Sketches, her diary entries, and numerous unpublished letters from Alcott and other nurses at the time. As she researched, she discovered “a stark comparison between the sunny Little Women and what [Alcott] experienced in her life and what she witnessed during her time as a nurse, tending to the wounded,” Seiple says. Although Alcott’s service in the war was cut short when she contracted a near-fatal case of typhoid fever—she worked as a nurse for just six weeks—her experiences shaped and defined her relationship with her family and her commitment to human rights and proved invaluable in helping her ultimately write Little Women.

“What I loved about Louisa was that she really is Jo, the character that everyone loves and wants to be from Little Women,” Seiple continues. “What surprises me the most is that the issues she was dealing with like women’s rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity are things that we still deal with today. She took a stand and tried to make change, and she did. But these are still issues that we are dealing with. That makes her relevant, and what we would consider ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ by today’s thinking.”

Seiple discovered these little-known aspects of Alcott’s story while researching her book Lincoln’s Spymaster: America’s First Private Eye, a Junior Library Guild Selection. Louisa on the Front Lines is Seiple’s first adult nonfiction book, but she has written six books for young adults, including Ghosts in the Fog: The Untold Story of Alaska’s WWII Invasion, a YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Nominee. She is currently working on Nazi Saboteurs, a book due out this December that explores the Nazi agents Adolf Hitler sent to Florida and New York to undermine America’s World War II efforts. According to Seiple, this lesser-known aspect of history laid the groundwork for how the U.S. treats terrorists today.

“I look for overlooked stories, forgotten stories, people overcoming great odds,” says Seiple. “Those are the stories I’m attracted to: giving a voice to people who maybe have been forgotten. What happened? What’s the truth? And if I’m interested, then other people are probably interested if they have not heard of it before.”

While Seiple has always loved reading (her English class taught by Chip Vink ’73 was her favorite at Mercersburg), she says she didn’t consider writing as a career until later. Instead, during her time at Mercersburg, she enjoyed track & field and cross country under the direction of Frank Rutherford ’70, and she formed strong connections with her classmates. “I just remember having the best time making terrific friends,” Seiple says. “The friendships are really what I remember most fondly as I look back. That was the best part.”

Following her graduation from Mercersburg in 1985, Seiple went on to the University of Denver, where she earned degrees in English and journalism. She then received a degree in library and information sciences from the University of Tennessee. Seiple lives in Asheville, N.C.

Learn more about Seiple on her website. 

Founded in 1893 in the heart of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic, Mercersburg is a private, coed, college preparatory boarding school with approximately 435 students (15 percent are day), grades 9-12 and postgraduate.
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