Pember, Phoebe Yates, “Reminiscences of A Southern Hospital. By Its Matron.” The Cosmopolite, Serialized: Vol. I., No. I. January 1866, pp.70-89; First page of memoir has it copyrighted 1865 by T. C. DeLeon in Maryland.



Soon after the battle of Manassas, the want of hospitals, properly organized and arranged, began to be felt; and buildings, adapted for the purpose, were secured by Government. Richmond, being nearest the scene of action, took the lead in this matter, and the former hastily contrived accommodations for the sick, were soon replaced by larger, more comfortable; and better ventilated buildings.

The expense of keeping up small hospitals had forced itself upon the attention of the Surgeon General, who afterwards gradually incorporated them into half a dozen immense establishments, situated around the suburbs. These were called Camp Jackson, Camp Winder, Chimborazo Hospital, Stuart Hospital, and Howard Grove; and were arranged so that fourteen or fifteen wards formed a division, and generally five divisions a hospital. Each ward accommodated from thirty to forty patients, according to the immediate need for space. Besides the sick wards, similar buildings were used for official purposes, for in these immense establishments every necessary trade was carried on. There was the carpenter's, blacksmith's, apothecary's, and shoemaker's shops; the ice house, commissary and quarter master's departments, offices for surgeons, stewards, baggage masters, and clerks. Each division was furnished with all these, and the whole hospital presented to the eye the appearance of a small village.

There was no reason why, with this preparation for the wounded and sick, they should not receive all the benefit of good nursing and food; but rumors began to be prevalent that there was something wrong in the hospital administration, and, soon after; Congress passed a law by which matrons were appointed. They had no official recognition, ranking even below stewards. The pay also was almost nominal, from the depreciated nature of the currency. There had been a great deal of desultory visiting and nursing, by the ladies, previous to this law being passed, resulting in more harm than good to the patients; and now that the field was open, a few, very few ladies, and a great many uneducated women, hardly above the laboring classes, applied and filled the offices.

The women of the South had been openly and violently rebellious from the moment they thought their State's rights touched. They incited the men to struggle for their liberties, and whether right or wrong, sustained them nobly to the end. They were the first to rebel, the last to succumb. Taking an active part in all that came within their sphere, and sometimes compelled to step beyond it, when the field demanded as many soldiers as could be raised; feeling the deepest interest in every man in the gray uniform of the Confederate service, they were doubly anxious to give comfort and assistance to the sick and wounded. In the course of a long and harassing war, with ports blockaded and harvests burnt, rail tracks constantly torn up, and supplies of food cut off, and sold always at exhorbitant prices, no appeal was ever made to the women of the South, individually or collectively, that did not meet with a ready response. There was no parade of generosity, no long lists of donations, inspected by public eyes. What was contributed was given unostentatiously, whether a bag of coffee or half of the only bottle of wine in the giver's possession.

About this time one of the large hospitals above mentioned was to be opened, and the wife of the then acting Secretary of War offered me the chief matron's place in one of the divisions-rather a startling proposition to a woman brought up in all the comforts of luxurious life. Foremost among the Virginia women, Mrs. R___ had given all her resources of mind and means to the sick, and, her graphic and earnest representations of the good an educated and determined woman could effect in such a place, settled the matter. The common idea that such a life would be injurious to the delicacy and refinement of a lady, that her nature would become deteriorated and her sensibilities blunted; was rather appalling. But the first step only costs, and that was taken very soon.

A preliminary interview with the surgeon-in-chief restored all necessary confidence-for, the first day as the last, he was the energetic, capable manager, the careful, liberal financier, the skilful, penetrating physician, and the kind, courteous gentleman. Always attentive and thoughtful, however harassed with business, he had the faculty of having oil always ready for troubled waters. Difficulties melted away beneath the warmth of his ready interest, and mountains became molehills after his quick comprehension had surmounted and leveled them. However troublesome daily increasing annoyances became, if they could not be removed, his few but ready words sent applicants home; satisfied to do the best they could. Wisely he decided to have only ladies at the head of the female departments of his division, and having succeeded, never forgot that fact.

The hour after my arrival in Richmond found me at headquarters, the only two-story building on hospital ground, occupied by the chief surgeon and his clerks. He had not yet arrived; arid while waiting in the office many of his corps, who had expected in horror the advent of female supervision, came and went. There was at that time blissful ignorance on all sides, except among hospital officials, of the decided objection to the carrying out of a law which they prognosticated entailed “petticoat government;” but there was no mistaking the stage whisper on the outside of the office that morning, as the little un-informed contract surgeon passed out and informed a friend at the door, in a tone of ill-repressed disgust, that “one of them had come!

To those not acquainted with hospital arrangements, some explanations are necessary. To each hospital is assigned a surgeon-in-chief; to each division of the hospital a surgeon-in-charge; to each ward of the division an assistant surgeon; but when the press is great, contract doctors are put also in charge of wards. The surgeon-in-chief of a large hospital can seldom attend to more than the financiering part, the proper supply of food and necessary articles, and a general supervision of everything under him. The surgeon-in-charge attended in the same way to his division, but went through his wards daily, consulting with his assistant surgeons and reforming abuses. He made his report, each day, to the surgeon-in-chief. The assistant surgeon had only his ward or wards to attend, seeing the sick and wounded twice a day, and prescribing for them. In case of danger, he called in the surgeon-in-charge for advice or to share responsibility. The contract surgeons performed the same duties as assistant surgeons, but were not commissioned officers, and received less pay. Each ward had its corps of nurses, unfortunately not practiced or perfect in their duties, as they were men convalescing after illness or wounds, and placed in that position till strong enough for field duty. This arrangement was very hard upon all interested; and harder on the sick, entailing constant supervision and endless teaching; but the demand for men in the field was too imperative to allow any of them to be detailed for nursing purposes.

Besides these mentioned, the hospital contained an endless horde of stewards' clerks, surgeons' clerks, commissary clerks, quartermasters' clerks, apothecaries' clerks, baggage-masters, forage-masters, wagon-masters, cooks, bakers, carpenters, shoemakers, ward inspectors, ambulance drivers, and many now-forgotten hangers-on, to whom the soldiers gave the name of “hospital rats,” in common with would-be invalids, who resisted being cured from a disinclination for field service. They were all so called, it is to be presumed, from the difficulty of getting rid of both species. A portion of the noncommissioned officials were men unfit for the field, but there were many exceptions.

Among these different elements, all belittled by long service away from the ennobling influences of the field, and all striving, with rare exceptions, to gain the little benefits and petty luxuries so scarce in the Confederacy, I was introduced, one day, by the surgeon of my division. He was a cultivated, gentlemanly man, kind-hearted, when he remembered to be so, and, very much afraid of any responsibility resting on his shoulders. No preparations had been made by him for his female department. He escorted me into a long, low, whitewashed building, open from end to end, called for two chairs, and with entire composure, as if surrounding circumstances were most favorable, commenced a conversation on belles lettres, female influence, arid the first, last, and only novel published in the Confederate States. A pretty compliment finished the interview, with a promise to see about getting the carpenter, to make partitions and shelves for the kitchen. The steward was sent for, and my small reign began.

A stove was unearthed, very small, very rusty, arid fit only for a family of six. There were then about three hundred men upon the diet list, which was to be sent daily to the matron's kitchen for food for the patients – the very sick ones being supplied from my kitchen and the convalescents from the steward's, called, in contradistinction to mine, the “big kitchen.” At that time my mind could hardly grope through the darkness that clouded it as to my special duties, but one spectrum always presented itself, and intuitively kept its place, - “chicken soup.”

Having heard of requisitions, I then and there made my first in very unofficial style-a polite request sent through “Jim,” a small black boy, to the steward, for “a pair of chickens.” They came ready dressed. Jim picked up some shavings, kindled up the stove, begged, borrowed, or stole, a large iron pot from the big kitchen; for the first time I cut up a raw bird – and the Rubicon was passed.

My readers must not suppose that this picture applies generally to hospitals, or that means and appliances for food and comfort were at that time so meagre in all such establishments. This state of affairs was only the result of accident and some misunderstanding. The surgeon naturally thought that I had some experience, and would use the power the law of Congress gave me to arrange my own department; and I, in reading the bill passed for the introduction of matrons into hospitals, could only understand that the position was one which dove-tailed the offices of housekeeper and cook nothing more.

In the meanwhile the soup was boiling, and was undeniably a success from the perfume it exhaled. Nature may not have intended me for a Florence Nightingale, but a kitchen proved my worth. Frying pans, griddles, stew pans and coffee pots became my household gods – the niches had been prepared years previously, invisible to the naked eye, but still there. Gaining courage from, familiarity with my position, a venture across the street brought me to a ward (they were all separate buildings, it must be remembered, with long low cabin windows that pushed back upon the wall,) and under the first I peeped in, extended on a bed, lay the shadow of a man, pale, wan and attenuated.

What woman's heart would not melt and make its home where so much needed.

His wants were inquired into, and (like almost all the commoner class of men who think, unless they have been living upon “hog and hominy,” they are starved) he complained of not having eaten anything for “three mortal weeks.”

In the present state of my kitchen larder, there certainly was not much of a choice, and I was yet ignorant of the capabilities of the steward's department. However, soup was suggested as a great soother of “misery in his back,” and a large supply of adjectives added for flavor – “nice, hot, strong, good chicken soup.” The suggestion was concurred in. If it was very good he would take some, “though he was never much of a hand for drinks.” My mind rejected the application of words; but matter, not mind, was the subject under discussion.

All a cook's experience revolted against soup without the sick man's parsley, and “Jim,” my acting partner, volunteered to get some at “the Dutchman's;” and at last, armed with a bowl full of the composition, duly salted, peppered and seasoned, I sought my first patient.

He rose deliberately – so deliberately that I felt sensible of the great favor he was conferring; he smoothed his tangled locks with a weak hand, took a piece of well masticated tobacco from between three or four solitary teeth, but still the bowl was unappropriated, and it was evident that some other preliminaries were to be arranged. The novelty of my position and a lively imagination suggested fears that he might probably think it necessary to arise for compliment sake, and hospital clothing being made to suit the scarcity and expense of homespun, the idea was startling. But suspense did not continue long; it was only a brown covered tract he needed.

Did he intend to read a grace before meat? No, he simply wanted a pocket handkerchief; which cruel war had rendered almost a luxury; so without comment a leaf was abstracted from those left and applied to the nose. The result was satisfactory, for the next second the first spoonful of soup was transferred to his mouth.

It was an awful moment! My fate seemed to hang upon the fiat of that uneducated palate. A long painful gulp, a “judgmatical” shake of the head, not in the affirmative, and the bowl slowly travelled back to my extended hand.

“My mammy's soup was not like that,” he whined, “but I might worry a little down if it was not for them weeds in it!”

Well, why feel aggrieved? There may not be any actual difference between weeds and herbs!

After that first day improvements rapidly progressed. Better stores were put up, closets enclosed, china, or its substitutes, tin and pottery, supplied. The coffee, tea, milk and all the delicacies provided for the sick wards, turned over to the matron's department; also a co-laborer with Jim, whose disposition proved to be like our old horse, who pulled steadily and well in single harness, but when tried in double, left all the work to the last comer. However, honor to whom honor is due. He gave me many hints which my higher intelligence had overlooked; comprehended by him more through instinct than, reason, and was as clever at gathering trophies for my sick as Gen. Butler was – for other purposes.

Still my office did not rise above that of chief cook, for I dared not leave the kitchen unattended, till Dr. M., passing the window one day, and seeing me seated on a low bench, peeling potatoes, appeared much surprised and inquired where my cooks were? Explanations followed, a copy of hospital rules were produced, and instructions found to supply the matron's kitchen with necessary attendants. A gentle, sweet tempered lady, extremely neat and efficient, was appointed as assistant matron; as well as two cooks and an experienced baker. Jim and his companion were degraded into “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” that is to say, these were to have been their duties, but their occupation became that of walking gentlemen. With their out-door work their allegiance ceased, and the “trophies” which formerly swelled my list of dainties, were afterwards nightly, carried off down the hill.

Then began the proper routine of hospital life. Breakfast at seven in summer and eight in winter. Coffee, tea, milk, breads of two or three kinds and butter, (towards the end of the war we were not able to be so luxurious,) and also whatever could be saved from the dinner of the day before. The relishes would be impartially divided among the fifteen wards, so that each could furnish from five to ten sick men with some delicacy.

The Ward Masters, attended by their nurses, gathered three times a day around the little office window, adjoining the kitchen, with their large wooden trays and supplies of plates, waiting to receive the food, each being helped in turn to a fair division. If an invalid craved any particular dish, the nurse mentioned the want, and if not contrary to the surgeon's orders, it, or its nearest approximation, was given to him.

After breakfast the assistant surgeons visited their wards, making out diet lists for each, or rather filling them up, for the form had already been printed, and only the invalid's name, number of his bed and diet – light, half or full – were required to be specified. Also the quantity of whiskey desired for each.

Dinner and supper were served in a similar way. At one o'clock the nurses came for the dinner or the very sick, denominated the light diet, supposed to mean tea and toast, beef soup, eggs, etc., as well as nutriment concocted from those tasteless and starchy compounds of wheat and corn which are so thick and heavy to swallow and so little nutricious. They were served hot from the fire, or congealed from the ice, (for after the deprivation of ice during the first summer of the war, had been felt, each hospital was provided by the next season with a full ice house.) By two o'clock the regular dinner of poultry, beef, ham, fish, vegetables and salads was distributed. Supper, like beakfast, at five. The chief matron sat at her table, with the diet lists arranged before her each day, so that no particular ward should invariably be first served, and then read out to her assistant the necessary directions of the surgeon's, making sometimes, it is true, very imprudent observations, not always complimentary towards the assistant surgeons.

The orders ran somewhat in this fashion – “chicken soup for five – beef tea for eight – tea and toast for one.” A certain Mr. Jones, who had expressed his abhorrence of that diet. So I asked the nurse why it was ordered?

He did not know. Jones said he would not touch such food, he never ate slops, and therefore had been without nourishment for nearly two days.

“What does he wish?”

“The doctor says tea and toast.”

“Did you tell the doctor that he would not eat it?”

“I told the doctor and he told the doctor.”

“Perhaps he did not hear, or understand you?”

“Yes, he did, but he only said he wanted that man particularly to have tea and toast, though I told him Jones threw it up regularly; but lie put it down again and said, Jones was out of his head, and Jones says the doctor's a fool.”

My remark on this was, that Jones could not be very much out of his head, an observation that entailed consequences afterwards. That habit so common among the surgeons of insisting upon particular kinds of diet to be taken, irrespective of the patient's tastes, was a peculiar grievance which no complaint for four years ever remedied.

By three all the food has been distributed, the nurses returning for a larger supply if necessary, or for some dish the patient had craved.

Although visiting my wards in the morning for the purpose of speaking words of comfort to the sick, and remedying any apparent evils which had been overlooked or forgotten by the surgeons in their rounds, the fear that the nourishment furnished had not suited the taste of men debilitated, to an extreme, not only by disease or wounds, but also by the privations and exposure of camp life, would again take me there during the afternoon. Then would come heart sickness and discouragement, for out of twenty invalids, six on an average would not allow that they had taken any nourishment whatever. This was partly habit and imitation of others, and partly the human desire to enlist sympathy. The common soldier has a horror of a hospital, and with the rejection of food comes the hope that weakness will increase and a furlough become necessary. Besides this, the human palate requires education as well as any other organ. Who knows a good painting till the eye is trained, or fine harmony till the ear is taught, and why should not the same rule apply to tongue and taste? Men, who never in their lives before had been sick, or swallowed those starchy, flavorless compounds young surgeons are so fond of prescribing, repudiate them invariably, besides being suspicious of the terra incognita from which they spring, and suspicion always engenders disgust.

Daily inspection convinced me that great evils yet existed. The barrel of whiskey was still kept at the dispensary under the charge of the apothecary and his clerks, or rather assistants; and pints or quarts were issued according to the orders of attending surgeons. There were many suspicious circumstances connected with this institution, for the monthly barrel of whiskey is an institution, and a very important one in a hospital. If it is necessary to have a hero for this bare narrative of facts, the whiskey barrel will have to advance and make his bow.

A further reference to the bill passed by Congress proved that liquors, as well as luxuries, belonged to the matron's department, and in an evil moment such an impulse as tempted Pandora to open the fatal casket assailed me, and I despatched the bill with a formal requisition for the barrel. An answer came in the form of the head surgeon. He courteously told me that I would “I find the charge very onerous;” that “whiskey was required at all hours, sometimes in the middle of the night,” and he would not like me to be disturbed – “it was constantly needed for medicinal purposes” – “he was responsible for its proper application;” but I was not convinced and withstood all argument. Dr. A. was proverbially sober himself, but there were reasons why both commissioned as well as non-commissioned officers opposed so violently the removal of the liquors to my quarters. However, the printed law was at hand for reference; it was like nailing my colors to the mast; and that evening all the liquor was locked up in my own pantry, and the key in my own pocket!

The first restraints of a woman's presence had now worn away, and the thousand petty miseries of my position began to make itself felt. The young surgeons (not all gentleman, though their profession should have made them aspirants to the name,) and the nurses played into each others hands. If the former were off on a frolic, the latter would conceal the absence of necessary attendance by erasing the date of the diet list of the day before, substituting the proper one, duplicating the prescription also, thus preventing inquiry. In like manner the assistant surgeons, to whom the nurses are alone responsible, would give leave of absence and conceal the fact from the surgeon-in-charge, which could easily be effected; the patients would suffer, and complaints from the matron be not only obnoxious and troublesome, but entirely out of her line of business. She was to be cook and housekeeper; nothing more. Added to other difficulties was the dragon-ship of the Hesperides, the guarding of the golden fruit to which access had been open to a certain extent before her arrival; and for many, many months the petty persecution exercised and endured from all the small fry around, almost exceeded human patience. What the surgeon-in-charge could do, he did; but with the weight of a hospital on his mind, and very little authority delegated to him, he could hardly reform or punish silly annoyances: so small in the abstract, so great in the aggregate.

The eventful evening that Mr. Jones revolted against tea and toast, my unfortunate remark, intended for one ear alone, but caught by the nurse – to the effect that the patient could not be confused in his intellects if he said his surgeon was a fool – brought forth a recriminating note to me. It was from that maligned and incensed gentleman, and proved the progenitor to a long series of communications of the same character, a family likeness pervading them all, commencing with “the chief matron and Dr. ____,” continuing with “Mrs. ____ and I,” and ending with “you and him.” They were difficult to understand and more difficult to submit to. Accustomed to be treated with extreme deference and courtesy by the highest officials connected with the Departments, moving in the same social grade I always occupied when beyond the hospital bounds, the change was appalling.

The inundation of notes that followed for many months could not have been sent back unopened, the last refuge under such circumstances; for some of them might have related to the well-being of the sick. My pen was ready enough, but could I waste my thunder in such an atmosphere?

The depreciated currency, which purchased only at fabulous prices; the poor pay the government (feeling it necessary to keep up the credit of its paper) gave to its officials; the natural craving for luxuries that had been but common food before the war, caused appeals to be constantly made to me, sometimes for the applicant, oftener for his wife, family or sick friend, so that even if I had given one-tenth demanded, there would have been nothing left for the patient.

It was hard to refuse, for the plea that it was not mine, but merely a charge confided to me, was looked upon as a pretext, and outsiders calculated upon the quantity issued to my Department, losing sight of the quantity consumed.

Half a dozen men missed their poor dinner at the steward's table daily, and sent for “anything,” which generally meant turkey and oysters. Others had “been up all night and craved a cup of coffee,” and as for diseases among both commissioned and non-commissioned men, caused by entire destitution of whiskey, and only to be cured by it-their name was legion. Every pound of coffee, every ounce of whiskey, bushel of flour, or basket of vegetables, duly weighed before delivery, was intended for their particular consumers, who, if they could not eat or drink what was provided for them, watched their property zealously and claimed it too: - so how could I give?

The necessity of refusing the live-long day to naturally generous tempers, makes them captious and uncivil, and the soft answer to turn away wrath becomes an impossibility. Demands amounted soon to persecution, when the refusals became the rule instead of the exception, and the breach thus made grew wider, day by day, till I began to feel like Ishmael, “my hand against every man and every man's hand against me.”

There is little gratitude felt in a hospital, and none expressed. The mass of patients are uneducated men, who have lived by the sweat of their brow, and gratitude is an exotic, planted in a refined atmosphere, kept free from coarse contact and nourished by unselfishness. Common natures look only with astonishment at great sacrifices, and cunningly avail themselves of them, but give nothing in return, not even the satisfaction of allowing one to suppose that the care exerted has been beneficial; - that would entail compensation of some kind, and in their ignorance they fear the nature of the equivalent which might be demanded.

Still pleasant episodes often occur to vary disappointments and lighten duties.

“Could you write me a letter?” drawled a whining voice from a bed in one of the wards, a cold winter day in '62.

The speaker was a Georgian, lean, yellow; attenuated, with wispy strands of hair hanging over his high thin cheek bones. He put out a hand to detain me, and I noticed the nails were like claws.

“Why do you not let the nurse cut your nails?”

“Because I aint got any spoon, and I use them instead.”

Will you let me have your hair cut then? You can't get well with all that dirty hair hanging about your ears and eyes.”

“No, I can't git my hair cut, kase as how I promised my mammy that I would let it grow 'till the war be over. O, it's onlucky to cut it.”

“Then I can't write for you. If you will do what I want I will do what you want.”

This was plain talking. The hair being cut, I brought in my portfolio, and sitting by the side of the bed, waited for further orders. They came without more formal introduction, “for Mrs. Marshy Brown.”

“My dear Mammy -
            “I hope this finds you well, as it leaves me well, and I hope I shall get a furlough Christmas and see you, and I hope you will keep well and all the folks be well by that time as I feel well myself. This leaves me in good health as I hope it will finds you and –”

But here I made a pause, as his mind seemed to be going around in a circle, and asked him a few questions as to his home, his position during the last summer's campaign; how he got sick, and where his brigade was then stationed, etc. Thus furnished with some material to work on, the letter proceeded rapidly. Four sides were filled up, for no soldier would think a letter worth sending home which had any blank paper. Transcribing his name – the number of his ward and proper address, so that an answer might reach him safely, the composition was read to him. Gradually his pale face brightened; a sitting posture was assumed with evident interest. I folded it and directed it, contributed the expected five-cent Confederate stamp, and handed it over.

“Did you write all that,” he said with great emphasis.


“Did I say all that.”

“I think so.”

A dead pause ensued of undoubted admiration - astonishment. What was working in that poor mind? Could it be that Psyche had stirred one of the delicate plumes of her wings, and the dormant soul was-touched?

“Are you married.” The harsh voice dropped very low. “No.”

He rose still higher in bed, pushed desperately away the tangled hay on his brow; a faint color fluttered over the hollow cheek, and stretching out a long bone with a talon attached, he touched my arm, and with mysterious voice whispered imperiously – “You wait!

And readers, I am waiting; and I here caution the male portion of creation who may love through their mental powers, to respect my confidence and not seek to shake my constancy.

Sometimes the compliments paid were pretty from their novelty and originality, but they were rare. Expression was not a gift with the common class of soldiers. “You will run them little feet of you'rn off – they aint much to boast of any way,” said a rough Kentuckian. Was not this as complimentary as the lover who compared his mistress' foot to a dream; and much more comprehensible?

At times the lower wards would be filled with rough men from camp, who bad not seen a female face for months, and though too much occupied by business to notice it much, their partly concealed, but determined regard, would become embarassing. One day while talking with a ward master, my attention was attracted by the pertinacious staring of a rough-looking Texan. He walked round and round me, examining every detail of my dress, face and figure; his eye never fixing upon any particular part for a moment, but travelling incessantly all over me. It was the wonderment of the mind at the sight of a new creation. I moved my position; he shifted his to suit the new arrangement – again a change was made, so obviously to get out of his range, that with a delicacy the roughest men treated me with always, he desisted from his inspection so far, that though his person made no movement, his neck twisted round to accomodate his eyes, till I supposed some progenitor of the family had been an owl. The men began to titter, and patience became exhausted.

“Well, my man, did you never see a woman before?”

“Laws sake!” he ejaculated, making no move towards withdrawing his determined notice, “I never did see such a nice one; you's pretty as a pair of red shoes with green strings.”

These were the two compliments laid upon the shrine of my vanity during four years contact with thousands of patients, and I commit them to paper, to give some idea of the portrait wanting for a frontispiece, and to prove to all readers that a woman, with a face like a pair of red shoes with green strings, must have some claim to the apple of Paris.

Scenes of pathos occurred daily-scenes that wrung the heart and forced the summer rain of pity from the eyes. But feeling or sentiment that enervated the mind and body was a luxury that could not be indulged in. There was too much work to be done, too much active exertion required, and both mental and physical energies were severly taxed each day. Perhaps they balanced and so kept each other from sinking. Besides, there was not sufficient leisure time to think, the necessity for action being ever present.

After the battle of Fredericksburg, while waiting in a sick ward for brandy for a dying man, a low, pleasant voice said, “Madame.” It came from a youth looking very ill, but so placid. He had that earnest, far away gaze, so common to the eyes that are looking their last in this world. Perhaps God in his mercy gives a glimpse of coming peace, past understanding, which reflects itself in the dying eyes into which we look with such strong yearning to fathom what they see. He shook his head in negative to all offers of food or drink, or suggestions of a softer pillow, or lighter covering.

“I want Perry,” was all he said.

On inquiry I found that Perry was the friend and companion who had marched by his side in the field, and slept nearest him in camp, but whose present whereabouts he was ignorant of. Armed with a requisition from our surgeon, I sought and found his name at the receiving hospital, from which he bad been transferred to Jackson. He was soon seated by my side in my ambulance, and on arrival at our hospital, we found my patient had dropped asleep. A bed was brought and put by his side, and Perry, only very slightly wounded, laid upon it. Just then the sick man awoke wearily, turned over and the half unconscious eye fixed itself. He must have been dreaming of the meeting, for he still distrusted the reality. Illness had spiritualized the poor boy's face; the transparent forehead, the delicate brow so clearly defined, looked more like heaven than earth. As be recognized his comrade, a lovely smile curved his lips, heretofore so wan and expressionless; the angel of death had brought the light of summer skies to that pale face. “Perry,” he cried, “Perry!” and throwing himself into his friend's arms with an effort, the radiant eyes closed, but the smile still lingered around the lips-the golden bowl was broken.

There is little sensibility exhibited by soldiers for their comrades in a hospital, and whatever feeling might have yet lingered in my heart was dispelled by a drawling voice from a neighboring bed – “I say there, could you give me such a thing as a sweet per-r-rta-a-a-tu-ur; I b’long to the twenty second Nor Ka-a-a-li-i-na regiment.” I told the nurse to remove his bed away from proximity to his dead neighbor, thinking that in the low state of his health it might affect him, but he treated the suggestion with contempt. “Don't make no sort of difference to me, they dies all around me a fighting in the field, - don't trouble me.”

The complaints of wounded men still continued as to the theft of the liquor issued, and no vigilance on my part could check the appropriation, or discover the thieves in the wards. There were so many drawbacks to having proper precautions taken. Lumber was so high that closets were out of the question, and locks not to be found for any money. The liquor, therefore, when it had left my kitchen, was open to any passer-by who would watch his opportunity; so although I had the strongest objection to female nurses, the supposition that whiskey would not be a temptation to them, and would be more liable to reach its proper destination through their hands, determined me to try them.

Unlucky thought, born in an evil hour!

There was no lack of applications for the office, but my choice hesitated between ladies of the best rank in the Confederacy and the commonest class of respectable servants. The latter suited better, because it was to be supposed they would be more amenable to authority. Three were engaged and taught that the fifteen wards were to be divided among them, five to each matron. They were to keep the bed clothing in order, receive and dispense the liquor, carry any little delicacy of food to their respective wards for their sick, and do anything they were told, that was reasonable. The last was an express stipulation.

The next day my new corps were in attendance, and the bottle of whiskey, the egg-nogg, and different stimulants for her ward delivered to No. 1. She was a cross-looking woman from North Carolina, painfully ugly, or rather what is termed “hard featured,” and very taciturn, the last rather an advantage. She had hardly left my kitchen when she returned with all the drinks, and a very indignant face.

In reply to inquiry made, she proved her taciturnity was not chronic. She said she was a decent woman, and “was not going anywhere in a place where a man sat on a bed in his shirt and the rest laughed – she knew they laughed at her.” The good old proverb that talking is silver but silence is gold had impressed itself on my mind long since, so I silently took her charge from her, and told her a hospital was no place for a person of her delicate sensibilities, at the same time bringing forward Miss G. and myself, who were almost young enough to be her daughters, as examples for her imitation.

She said very truly that we did as we pleased, and so would she; and that was the last we saw of her.

What her ideas of hospital life were, I never enquired and perhaps will never know.

No. 2 came gallantly forward. She was a plausible light-haired, light-eyed and light-complexioned Englishwoman; very small, with a high nose! She had arrived at the hospital with seven trunks, which ought to have been a warning tome, but she brought such strong recommendations that they weighed down in the balance. She received the pitcher of punch with averted head, and nose completely turned aside, held it at arms length with a high disdain mounted on her high nose, Her excuse was that the smell of liquor was “awful,” she “could not abear it and it turned her stomach.” This was suspicious, but we waited for further developments.

Dinner was given out, and No. 2 was vigilant and attentive, carrying her portion with the assistance of the nurses to her wards. No. 3, an inoffensive woman, did the same and all was well.

That afternoon as I sat in my little sanctum, adjoining my office, Miss G. put her head in with an apprehensive look and said, “the new matrons wanted to see me.” They came in, and my high-nosed friend, after a few preliminaries, said with a toss of her head and a sniff, that I was very comfortable. I thought so too! She continued the conversation, saying that “other people were not, who were quite as much entitled to be so.” This was also undeniable. She said, “they were not satisfied, for I had not invited them into my room, and they considered themselves quite as much of ladies as I was.” I rejoined, “I was very glad to hear that and hoped they would always behave in a way suitable to that title.” There was an evident desire on her part to say more, but what was it to be? They finished by requesting me to inspect their quarters, which they were not satisfied with. An hour later I did so, and found them all sitting around a sociable spittoon, with a friendly box of snuff-dipping!

It was almost impossible to persuade these people that the government alone was answerable for their not being provided with other and better quarters; they persisted in holding me responsible.

The next day on entering No. 2's ward, I found a corner of the building of about eight feet square portioned off, a rough plank partition dividing this temporary room from the rest of the ward.

Seated comfortably within was the new matron, entrenched behind her trunks. A neat little table and chair, abstracted from my kitchen added to her comforts. Choice pieces of crockery, remnants of more peaceful times, that had remained for ornament of my shelves, were placed tastefully around, and the drinks issued for the patients were at her elbow. She explained that she kept them there to prevent theft. Perhaps the nausea arising from their neighborhood had tinted the high nose higher, and there was a defiant look about it as if she had sniffed the bottle afar.

It was very near though, and had to be fought, however disagreeable, so my explanation was short but polite. Each patient being allowed a certain amount of space, every inch taken therefrom was so much ventilation lost, and the abstraction of eight feet of ground for improper purposes was a serious matter, contrary to the laws of the hospital. Besides this, no woman could be allowed to live in the wards for many reasons. She was a sensible person, for she did not waste her breath in talking; she merely kept her place. An appeal made by me to the surgeon of the ward did not result favorably; he said I had engaged her, and she belonged to my corps and was under my supervision; so I sent for the steward.

The steward of a hospital cannot tell you exactly what his duties area the difficulty being to find out what they are not. Whenever it has to be decided who has to perform a disagreeable office, the choice invariably falls upon the steward. So to his quarters a message was sent to request him to make No. 2 evacuate her hastily improvised premises. He hesitated long, but engaging at last the services of his assistant, a broad-shouldered, fighting character, proceeded to eject the new tenant.

His polite explanations were met in a startling manner. She arose and rolled up her sleeves, advancing upon him as he receded down the ward. The sick and wounded men roared with laughter and cheered her on, and soon she remained mistress of the field. Dinner preparations served as an interlude, and, calm as summer seas, she made her entree into the kitchen, received the food for her ward and vanished. In half an hour the ward master of the ward in which she was domiciled made his report, and indeed recounted a pitiful tale. He was a neat, quiet manager, and kept his ward beautifully clean. No. 2, he said, “divided the dinner, and whenever she came across a bone, in hash or stew, she became displeased and dashed it upon the floor.” With so little to make a hospital gay, this peculiar episode was a god-send to all lookers on except myself. The surgeons stood in groups laughing, the men crowded around the window of the belligerent power, and a coup d'etat was necessary.

“Send me the carpenter.” (I felt the courage of Boadecia.) The man stepped up; he was always quiet, civil and obedient.

“Come with me to ward E.”

A few steps brought us there.

“Knock down that partition instantly, and carry those boards out.”

It was un fait accompli.

But the victory was not gained, only the fortifications stormed and taken, for almost hidden by flying splinters and dust, No. 2 sat among her seven trunks, enthroned like Rome upon the seven hills.

The story is not interesting enough to dwell on longer, but the result was very annoying. She was put in the ambulance with all her baggage, and sent away, very drunk by this time. The next day, decently dressed, she managed to get an interview with the medical director, enlisted his sympathy with a plausible tale she trumped up of her desolate condition, “a refugee who was trying to make her living decently,” and receiving an order to report again at our hospital, was back there by noon, Explanations had to be written, and the surgeon-in-chief to interfere with his authority before we could get rid of her. About this time an attack on Drewry's Bluff was expected, and was made before the hospital was in readiness to receive the wounded. The cannonading could be distinctly, heard in the city, and the dense smoke seen rising above the battle field. The Richmond people bad been too often, if not through the wars, at least within sight and sound of their terrors, to feel any great alarm.

The hospital people, lying in groups, crowded the eastern brow of the hill, discussing the probable results of the struggle, while the change from the dull boom of the cannon to the sharp rattle of musketry could be easily distinguished. The sun set among stormy, purple clouds, but when low upon the horizon sent long slanting rays of yellow light athwart the battle scene which, with its black outline of clouds, was thrown in strong relief. The shells were bursting in the air above the fortifications at intervals, and with the aid of glasses, dark blue uniforms could be seen moving in bodies, though how near the scene of action could not be guessed.

About seven o'clock the slightly wounded commenced to straggle in, with a bleeding hand, or contused arm, or head bound up with a scrap of cloth, or pocket handkerchief.

Their accounts were meagre, for men in the ranks never know anything of general results – but they all concurred in the fact that “we druv em nowhere.”

By half-past seven vehicles of all kinds crowded in, and yet no orders had been sent to make preparations for the wounded. Few surgeons were in the hospital, the proximity of the battle field inducing them to accompany the ambulance committee, or ride to the scene of action, and the single officer left in charge naturally objected to receive a large body of men when no arrangement had been made for their comfort; and but himself in attendance. I was just preparing to leave for my home, to which I returned every night, when the pitiful sight of wounded soldiers in ambulances, carts, drays, furniture wagons, carriages, and every kind of vehicle that could be impressed, met my sight. To keep them suffering while sent from hospital to hospital was useless torment, and the agonized outcry of a wounded man to take him in “for God's sake, or kill him,” decided me to countermand the order of the chief clerk, to the effect that they must find other accommodations, as we were not prepared to receive them.

I sent for the officer of the day. He was a kind-hearted, indolent man, but efficient in his profession and a gentleman, and seeing my extreme agitation, tried to reason with me, saying the wards were full, except the vacant and unused ones, for which we had no comforts till we made requisitions. Besides being the only surgeon on the place, he could not possibly attend to all the wounds at that hour of the night. I proposed, in reply, that the convalescent men should be placed upon the floor on blankets, and the wounded take their place, and construing his silence into consent, gave the nurses the proper orders, eagerly offering my services to dress simple wounds, and extolling the strength of nerves (which had never been tried.) He allowed me to have my own way (may his ways be of pleasantness and his paths of peace) and so, giving Miss G. directions to have an unlimited supply of toddy and hot coffee – armed with lint, bandages, castile soap and a basin, I made my first essay in the surgical line. The doctor was engaged in ward A; so entering ward B, the first object that needed care was an Irishman. He was seated upon a bed with his hands crossed, wounded in both arms by the same bullet. The blood was soon washed off, wet lint applied, and no bones being broken, the bandages speedily arranged.

“I hope that I have not hurt you much,” was my apology; “these are the first wounds that I ever dressed.”

“Sure and they be the purtiest pair of hands that iver touched me and the lightest, and I'm all right now.”

From bed to bed, till long past midnight, the work continued. Fractured limbs were bathed, washed free from blood, and left for the surgeon's care. The men were so exhausted by forced marches, lying in entrenchments and want of sleep, that few awoke during these operations. If even roused to take nourishment, they received it with closed eyes, and a speedy relapse into unconsciousness. The next morning but very few had any recollection of the night before.

There were not as many desperate wounds among those brought in that night as usual. Strange to say, the ghastliness of wounds varied very much in the different battles, perhaps from the distance or nearness of contending parties. One man attracted my attention, and enlisted my warmest sympathy. He was a Marylander, though serving in a Virginia company. There was such calm resignation in his large, mild blue eye!

“Can you wait a moment on me?” he said.

“What can I do for you?”

“Give me something to strengthen me, that I do not die before the doctor attends to me.”

His pulse was strong, but irregular, and telling him that stimulants might produce fever, and ought only to be administered by a surgeon's directions, I enquired where he was wounded. Right through the body. Alas!

The doctor's opinion was “no hope ; give him anything he asks for,” but for five days and nights I struggled against this decree, fed my patient myself, using freely from the small store of brandy in my pantry, and cheering him by words and smiles. The sixth morning on my entrance he turned an anxious eye on my face – the hope had died out of his, for the cold sweat stood there in beads useless to wipe off, so constantly was it renewed.

What comfort could I give? Only silently open his Bible and read to him, without comment, the ever-living promises of his Maker – glimpses of that abode where “the weary are at rest.” Tears stole down his cheek, but he was not comforted.

“I am an only son,” he said, “and my mother is a widow. Go and see her if you ever get to Baltimore, and tell her I died in what I consider the defense of civil rights and liberties. Say how kindly I was nursed, and that I needed nothing. I cannot thank you, for I have no breath, but I will meet you up there.”

    He pointed to the sky and seemed to fall asleep, but he never woke in this world.

[To be continued.]

Page last updated on 02/12/2008