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Profiles in Nursing
Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, Civil War Nurse and Diarist
Nursing during the Civil War, in her own words
Although she practiced before the era of licensing and registration, Phoebe Pember was what every modern credentialed nurse would want to be: compassionate, courageous, diligent, and efficient. Historians regard the book she wrote about her experiences, A Southern Woman’s Story, as the finest first-person account of life inside a Confederate hospital and as a landmark work in women’s history.
Pember was born in Charleston, South Carolina to a wealthy family of seven children. Her sister was the Confederate spy Eugenia Phillips. There are no records of any formal schooling, but the grace and style of her writings indicate a well-educated person. She married Thomas Pember of Boston, and when he died almost immediately after of tuberculosis, she returned, widowed and childless, to her parents’ home in Savannah, Georgia.
Patient Capacity: 76,000
The Civil War was underway, and the Confederacy had just passed the Matron Law, which was intended to give administrative responsibility to women in order to free doctors for medicine and men for soldiering. (This action predated the American military by over 100 years; it also marks a transition for nursing, until then a “profession” dominated by men.)
Ever the maverick, restless and anxious to make some contribution to the war, Pember lobbied for the post of matron at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Chimborazo was the largest Confederate hospital, and for a short time, the largest hospital in the world, serving over 76,000 patients. Sprawling over a large area on the outskirts of town, it had 150 wards, each 30 feet wide and 100 feet long and housing anywhere from 40 to 60 patients. Pember was assigned to one of five divisions.
Although the Confederate Congress had clearly delineated the duties of the matron, most of the care was still carried out by men. She encountered considerable opposition, not only from those whose role she usurped but also from men who felt women should be protected from the horrors of war. Pember persevered:
In the midst of suffering and death, hoping with those almost beyond hope in this world; praying by the bedside of the lonely and heart stricken; closing the eyes of the boys hardly old enough to realize man’s sorrows, much less suffer man’s fierce hate, a woman must soar beyond the conventional modesty considered correct under different circumstances. (A Southern Woman’s Story)
Not Letting Go
Her personal care of the soldiers was a model for future generations. The battlefield injuries were compounded by a lack of supplies, infectious disease, and lack of adequate personnel. Pember wrote letters for the dying and dispensed her specialty, chicken soup. Procuring food and supplies, along with guarding the liquor, were all part of her responsibilities. At one time she guarded the alcohol supply with a gun.
She assisted surgeons, applied dressings and sometimes merely sat with the dying; in short, she did everything she could to help her patients. In this she was like many, but her frank and unsparing descriptions of the work have made a lasting impression. Of the final hours of a soldier with a severed artery in his leg she wrote:
He turned his questioning eyes upon my face. “How long can I live?” “Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery.” A pause ensued. God alone knew what thoughts hurried through that heart and brain, called so unexpectedly from all earthly hopes and ties. He broke the silence at last. “You can let go.” But I could not.
(A Southern Woman’s Story)
Caring for Both Sides
After the South’s defeat, Pember remained at the hospital even as it was invaded by Federal troops and cared for the wounded of both sides. During the course of the war, 15,000 troops came under her direct care.
When the hostilities were over, she went home with a dime and a box of useless Confederate money. She spent the rest of her life traveling and writing for the Atlantic Monthly and Harpers. Her book is still in print today, or you can read it online at www.archive.org.
Today the hospital at Chimborazo houses the Confederate Medical Museum and is part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park, while Pember’s birthplace continues as a luxurious bed and breakfast in Charleston, South Carolina. The United States government honored her with a postage stamp in 1995.
Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.