Phoebe Yates Levy Pember
Born on August 18, 1823. She was the fourth of six daughters of a prosperous and socially prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina. Her father was a successful merchant and her mother was a popular actress.
Members of Phoebe's family were quite active in public life during the war. Her sister, Eugenia Levy Phillips, a Confederate spy, and was banished to an island. Her brother, Samuel, was the highest ranking Jewish officer in Savannah.
The family's wealth enabled them to gain acceptance in the community, which wasn't easy for Jews. They moved among Charleston's elite until a series of financial setbacks sent them to Savannah, Georgia, in 1850.
Phoebe was then 27 years old and wanted a life of her own. She married Thomas Pember, a non-Jew, in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1856. Soon after the wedding, Thomas contracted tuberculosis, and the couple moved to the South, hoping his health would improve there.
On July 9, 1861, Thomas died of tuberculosis in Aiken, South Carolina. He was 36 years old. Widowed and childless, Phoebe returned to her family, who had fled to Marietta, Georgia, to escape the ravages of war.
In November 1862, Mrs. George Randolph, wife of the Confederate Secretary of War, offered Phoebe a position as a matron at the Chimborazo Hospital, a Confederate military hospital outside of Richmond, Virginia. Though Phoebe had no professional medical training, she believed that caring for her husband through years of illness qualified her for hospital work.
Chimborazo was said to be the largest military hospital in the world at that time. A complex of long, one-story whitewashed buildings sprawled atop a hill, the hospital began receiving patients in 1862 and was eventually expanded to 150 wards.
Each ward was a separate building, thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long, and housed approximately forty to sixty patients. Phoebe supervised 150 wards, and an estimated 15,000 soldiers were under her care during the Civil War.
On December 1, 1862, 39-year-old Phoebe Yates Pember became the chief matron of the Second Division at Chimborazo, which was one of five divisions in the hospital. Though she was confident in her abilities, she encountered much opposition, but she was not one to be pushed around.
In response to criticism that ladies should not see the horrors of a hospital, Phoebe replied: "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."
Though plagued by shortages of medicine and supplies, and having to contend with doctors who didn't approve of female nurses, Phoebe cared for sick and wounded Confederate soldiers for the balance of the war.
But her position seemed little more than that of a cook, until the surgeon-in-charge, Dr. James McCaw, found her peeling potatoes one day. McCaw made a thorough study of hospital rules and organized a full staff under Phoebe's jurisdiction. She was provided with an assistant matron, cooks and bakers, and two laborers to perform menial tasks.
She also made sure that the orders of surgeons were performed properly, and that the medical and dietary needs of her patients were fulfilled. She wrote letters for the soldiers and comforted the dying, and set a pattern of compassionate care for the terminally ill that served as a model for future generations of nurses.
She eventually found some respite from her duties by renting a room in town, to which she returned at night. Meanwhile, her patients taught her something about courage: "No words can do justice to the uncomplaining nature of the Southern soldier. Day after day, whether lying wasted by disease or burning up with fever, torn with wounds or sinking from debility, a groan was seldom heard."
As the war progressed, casualties multiplied and Phoebe's duties increased. Large numbers of incoming wounded caused shortages of medical supplies, surgeons and assistants, and hospital beds. She arranged for makeshift beds and continually washed and dressed minor wounds, preparing the more difficult cases for the surgeons.
Phoebe wrote in her memoir about Richmond: "The horrors that attended, in other and past times, the bombardment of a city, were experienced to a great degree in Richmond during the fighting around us. The close proximity to the scenes of strife; the din of battle, the bursting of shells, the fresh wounds of the men hourly brought in, were daily occurrences.
Walking home after the duties of the Hospital were over, often when evening had well set in, during this time, the pavement around the railroad depot would be lined with wounded men, laid there to wait for ambulances to take them to the receiving hospital; some on stretchers, others on the bare bricks, or a thin blanket, suffering from wounds hastily wrapped around with the coarse, galling, unbleached homespun bandages, in which the blood had stiffened till every crease cut like a knife.
Women, passing like myself, would put down their basket or bundle, and ringing at the bell of any neighboring house, ask for basin and soap, and a few soft rags, and going from one sufferer to another, alleviate, with what skill they had the pain of wounds, change the uneasy position and allay the thirst. Many passing, would stop and look on, till the labor appearing to require no particular skill, they too would follow the example set them, and asking occasionally a word of advice, do their part carefully and willingly.
Idle boys passing, would get a pine knot, or tallow candle, and stand quietly as torch bearers, till the scene, with its gathering accessories, formed a strange picture, not easily forgotten. Persons passing in vehicles would sometimes alight, and, choosing the patients most in want of surgical aid, put them in and send them to the Seabrook Hospital, continuing their way on foot. There was very little conversation carried on, no necessity for introductions, and no names ever asked."
Phoebe remained at Chimborazo until the Confederate surrender in April, 1865. She stayed with her patients after the fall of Richmond and until the facility was taken over by Federal authorities. During that time, she cared for both Confederate and Union soldiers. A total of 76,000 patients had been cared for at Chimborazo by the end of the Civil War.
She suddenly found herself alone in Union-occupied Richmond, without prospects, and with just a silver 10-cent piece and a box of useless Confederate money to her name. Laughing at her lot, she spent her paltry remaining funds on "a box of matches and five cocoa-nut cakes."
When her responsibilities in Richmond were completed, Phoebe returned to Savannah, Georgia. There, she maintained her elite social status, and traveled extensively in the United States and Europe. She was honored by Confederate veterans' organizations during her later years.
Phoebe also wrote her memoirs, A Southern Woman's Story: Life in Confederate Richmond. First published in 1879, it is rated by Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman as "the most realistic treatment of the war" ever published.
Phoebe Yates Pember died on March 4, 1913, at the age of 89, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery in Savannah. An obelisk was later erected there in her memory.
In 1995, her portrait appeared on a sheet of 20 stamps issued by the United States Postal Service, which commemorated important persons and events during the Civil War.
From atop Chimborazo Hill on the western outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, Phoebe Yates Pember, matron of Chimborazo Hospital Number Two, looked down upon 'a scene of indescribable confusion.' A few months earlier, the collapse of the Confederacy had been only a whispered rumor. Now, on the afternoon of April 2, 1865, that depressing prospect had become a shocking reality. With Federal troops fast on their heels, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and other government officials were scampering out of town by train, carriage, and any other available form of transportation.
Surgeons, nurses, and stewards followed their example and skedaddled from the Chimborazo complex. After bidding her fleeing friends farewell, Pember turned away from the turbulent scene and walked through her nearly empty wards. Night was setting in. As she later wrote, 'Beds in which paralyzed, rheumatic, and helpless patients had laid for months were empty. The miracles of the New Testament had been re-enacted. The lame, the halt, and the blind had been cured.'
Pember had arrived at Chimborazo Hospital, a complex of long, single-story, whitewashed buildings sprawled atop Chimborazo Hill, on December 18, 1862. Chimborazo was at the time said to be the largest military hospital in the world, and Phoebe would be its first matron. She had accepted the job from Mrs. George Wythe Randolph, wife of the Confederate secretary of war, mainly to escape unhappiness and inactivity at the Yates homestead in Marietta, Georgia, where she had gone to live after the death of her husband the previous year.
In a November 29, 1862, letter to her sister, Eugenia, Pember admitted she was a little anxious about her decision: 'You may imagine how frightened and nervous I feel concerning the step I am about to take and how important in this small way it will be to me, for I have too much common sense to underrate what I am giving up.' In the same letter she also wrote proudly that she was to have 'entire charge of my department, seeing that everything is clean, orderly and all prescriptions of physicians given in proper time, food properly prepared and so on.'
Though she had no professional medical training, Pember had run a large household and cared for her husband, who had suffered from tuberculosis. She considered herself an efficient and educated woman well up to the challenge of heading one of Chimborazo's five hospital divisions. Nevertheless, the conditions she encountered at the hospital would challenge her efficiency and her patience. The challenge began with her living space. The surgeon-in-charge had made no preparations for his female nurses, so Phoebe set to work converting a vacant building into her own quarters, an office, parlor, laundry area, pantry, and kitchen.
As Pember's confidence grew so did her use of authority. She was responsible for procuring supplies and food for her patients' special diets and she soon insisted upon total control of luxuries such as coffee, tea, and milk. Still, her position seemed little more than that of a chief cook until the surgeon-in-charge, Dr. James B. McCaw, found her peeling potatoes one day. McCaw initiated a thorough study of hospital rules that resulted in the organization of a full staff under Pember's jurisdiction. She was provided with an assistant matron, cooks and bakers, and two laborers to perform menial tasks.
Pember soon had her first major skirmish with traditional male authority at the hospital, over a problem that nearly proved her undoing. Each hospital division received its own monthly barrel of whiskey for medicinal purposes. Pember noted that 'the monthly barrel of whiskey which I was entitled to draw still remained at the dispensary under the guardianship of the apothecary and his clerks, and quarts and pints were issued through any order coming from surgeons or their substitutes, so that the contents were apt to be gone long before I was entitled to draw more, and my sick would suffer for want of the stimulant.'
There was a wide discrepancy between Confederate law, which dictated that all spirituous liquors required by hospitals should be entrusted to the matrons, and how whiskey was actually dispensed at Chimborazo. Thoroughly familiar with the hospital bill passed by Congress, Pember made a formal request to Dr. McCaw for total jurisdiction over the monthly whiskey ration. The surgeon-in-charge protested, but then reluctantly released the barrel to the matron's care. Flushed with victory, Pember wrote, 'I nailed my colors to the mast, and that evening all the liquor was in my pantry and the key in my pocket.'
Pember's triumph heralded the beginning of trouble. She soon felt what she called 'the thousand miseries of my position.' Staff members flooded her office with countless petty requests. Pember's all-consuming passion-the care of the sick, wounded, and dying-kept her going. 'My duty prompted me to remain with my sick, on the ground that no general ever deserts his troops,' she wrote. She eventually found some respite from her responsibilities by renting a room in town, to which she returned at night.
Meanwhile, her patients taught her something about courage. 'No words can do justice to the uncomplaining nature of the Southern soldier,' she wrote. 'Day after day, whether lying wasted by disease or burning up with fever, torn with wounds or sinking from debility, a groan was seldom heard.' In her war memoir, A Southern Woman's Story, Yates described a particularly remarkable example of a young soldier named Fisher.
Fisher had suffered a severe hip wound. One night, after months of hard and diligent nursing, he turned over in bed and cried out in pain. Pember examined him and discovered that a sharp edge of splintered bone had severed one of his arteries. She immediately placed her finger in the tiny hole to stop the gush of blood, and summoned the surgeon. After looking at Fisher's injury, the doctor shook his head and declared sadly that the poor man was beyond help.
Pember faced what she later considered 'the hardest trial of my duty at Chimborazo.' She told Fisher there was no hope for him, and the gravely injured man gave her directions on notifying his mother of his death.
'How long can I live?' he asked.
'Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery,' Pember replied.
Then, she later wrote, '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,' Fisher said. Pember froze, unable to obey. The horror of the situation overcame her, and for the only time during her days at Chimborazo, she fainted.
As the war progressed, casualties multiplied and Pember's duties increased. Massive numbers of incoming wounded caused shortages of medical supplies, surgeons and assistants, and hospital beds. Pember arranged for makeshift beds and continually washed and dressed minor wounds, preparing the more difficult cases for the surgeons. Soon, however, trouble began anew, and as Pember wrote, 'if it is necessary to have a hero for this matter-of-fact narrative, the whiskey barrel will have to step forward and make his bow.'
It was the spring of 1864 when the ongoing whiskey problem escalated into a confrontation between Pember and a determined ward surgeon. Every day, each ward's officer of the day ordered a quart bottle of whiskey in case a patient needed a stimulant during the night. The following morning Pember would inquire why the bottles were empty when no patients had required the elixir. The answer would invariably be that rats must have tipped the bottle over during the night.
The mystery of the disappearing whiskey rations might have continued for the duration of the war if not for a complaint lodged by a patient in a distant ward, who wondered why the liquor ration had not reached his building. Pember marched over and questioned the other patients, who all said that they had not received any whiskey. The men hinted that several champagne bottles hidden behind a certain vacant bed might easily be spirited away in the night.
Pember searched and discovered the stowed champagne bottles filled with the missing whiskey. Incensed, she tracked down and confronted the ward master, but he indicated that another party was guilty. Pember was unsympathetic; in looking the other way the ward master had failed his charges, and the matron informed him that when she took 'the matter to the proper authorities he would be sent to the field.'
An hour later the ward surgeon accosted Pember in her office. He swore that his ward master did not drink. Pember replied, 'I know he does not, and I also know who does.' The doctor's fiery flush revealed him as the true culprit. Despite his subsequent efforts to discredit Pember, it was the surgeon who soon left Chimborazo, never to return. It was a hollow victory for Pember, who soon realized that the whiskey barrel was not just a source of contention, but a troubling institution she would someday have to deal with once and for all.
That day came on the Monday following the evacuation of Richmond. The hospital was in enemy hands and Pember spent the day discharging orders given by Federal surgeons. She cleared one hospital division to make room for incoming Union patients, who were laid alongside the remaining Confederates. Exhausted at the end of the day, she entered her quarters and tumbled onto her straw mattress.
Suddenly, the sound of a door crashing down jolted her to her feet, and Pember found herself face to face with a threatening mob. She recognized the ringleader, a long-time hospital resident named Wilson. 'We have come for the whiskey!' he declared.
'You cannot, and shall not have it,' the matron answered, undeterred by the angry 'hospital rats' at Wilson's back.
'It does not belong to you,' Wilson said. In this, Wilson was mistaken. Pember had remained at Chimborazo to execute her duties, and those duties included insuring the safety and disposition of 30 gallons of whiskey that had arrived the day before. Pember was determined to do her duty.
'Boys!' Wilson bellowed, 'Pick up that barrel and carry it down the hill. I will attend to her!'
For nearly three years, Pember had given orders and the men had taken them. Now they backed away, leaving their leader to confront the defiant matron by himself.
'Wilson,' Pember said, 'you have been in this hospital a long time. Do you think from what you know of me that the whiskey can be taken without my consent?'
That said, she stepped solidly between her foe and the whiskey barrel. She watched as Wilson's 'fierce temper blazed up in his face, and catching me roughly by the shoulder, he called me a name that a decent woman seldom hears and even a wicked one resents.' The bully was about to shove Pember out of his way when he heard a telltale click - the sound of a pistol being cocked, barely muted by the folds of the matron's homespun skirt. Pember told him to leave. 'If one bullet is lost,' she warned, 'there are five more ready, and the room is too small for even a woman to miss six times.'
Wilson backed down, but left with a threat: 'You think yourself very brave now, but wait an hour; perhaps others may have pistols too, and you won't have it entirely your way after all.' Wilson's hateful words were chilling, and after the men retreated Pember nailed the head of a flour barrel across the back door and sat down on the whiskey barrel, her pistol within easy reach. Fortunately, the men did not return. 'Warm with triumph and victory gained,' Phoebe slept undisturbed, if uncomfortable, through the rest of the night.
On the morning of April 4, 1865, Federal authorities took possession of Chimborazo's stores, and the troublesome whiskey was no longer Pember's concern. The matron remained on duty until all her patients had convalesced, died, or been removed to another hospital. Then, after more than two years of selfless duty, Pember suddenly found herself alone in Union-occupied Richmond, without prospects, and with just a silver 10-cent piece and a box of useless Confederate money to her name. Laughing at her lot, she spent her paltry remaining funds on 'a box of matches and five cocoa-nut cakes.'
Pember eventually made her way back to Georgia, and spent many of her remaining years traveling. She died in 1913, an eternity removed from her trials and triumphs at Hospital Number Two.
This article was written by Mary C. Meskauskas and originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Civil War Times magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!
Born on August 18, 1823, Phoebe Yates Levy grew up as the fourth of six daughters of a prosperous and cultured Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina.
Immediately after the outbreak of the Civil War, Phoebe's husband, Thomas Pember, died of tuberculosis. Moving form South Carolina to the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, Phoebe received an offer to serve as matron of the Chimborazo Military Hospital from Mrs. George W. Randolph, wife of the Confederate Secretary of War. Phoebe reported for duty in December 1862.
Chimborazo military hospital, where Phoebe Pember spent her war years. The Chimborazo Hospital was reputed to be the largest military hospital in the world at that time. A sprawling institution located on the western boundary of Richmond, Chimborazo began receiving patients in 1862 and was eventually expanded to 150 wards. Each ward was a separate one story building thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long housing approximately forty to sixty patients. Only one surgeon was assigned to each division. A total of 76,000 patients had been treated at Chiborazo by the end of the Civil War.
The pain, suffering and death at Chimborazo from battlefield casualties was greatly compounded by severe shortages of personnel, medicine, food, and equipment. Primitive facilities, unsanitary conditions, and undeveloped scientific knowledge of medical treatments added to the tragedy and pathos.
Operating in this atmosphere of misery and despair, Phoebe Yates Pember dedicated herself to doing everything possible to relieve the suffering of the soldiers, administering medication, assisting surgeons in operations (frequently without anesthetic), patching wounds and caring for patients. Often, Phoebe simply served as a final companion to the dying - writing letters, reading stories, playing cards, holding hands, praying, talking.
At the conclusion of the war, Phobe Yates Pember wrote her memoirs of the hardships of life in Confederate Richmond, including her experiences as matron of Chimborazo Hospital. First published in 1879, In her war memoir, A Southern Woman's Story, is rated by Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman as "the most realistic treatment of the war" ever published. A Southern Woman's Story also became a landmark work in women's history through Phoebe Pember's vivid descriptions of the difficulties encountered by one of the first women to enter the previously all male domain of nursing. biography/phoebepember