Pember, Phoebe Yates, “Reminiscences of A Southern Hospital. By Its Matron.” The Cosmopolite, Serialized: Vol. I., No. IV. April 1866, pp. 350-369; First page of memoir has it copyrighted 1865 by T. C. DeLeon in Maryland.



Though my health had withstood up to this time all the effects of exposure and exertion, the strain had become too great, and the constantly recurring agitation excited each day on receiving the returned prisoners, broke me down completely. A visit to the Surgeon-General, with a request for a month's leave of absence, met with a ready acquiescence. The old gentleman was very urbane, even making one or two grim jokes, and handed me not only permission to leave, but the necessary transportation. Very necessary in this case, as traveling expenses were enormously high at this time, and the Government had also seized, for the whole month of October, the railroad for military use, putting a complete stop to private travel.

It had been like tearing body and soul apart when necessity compelled me to leave the Hospital, from which I had not been separated but one day in three years; and when all the arrangements for departure had been completed; Miss G. urged, implored, entreated and commanded to keep a sharp look out on the whiskey, and be alike impenetrable to stratagems, feints or entreaties, my heart began to sink. A visit to the wards did not tend to strengthen my resolves. The first invalid to whom I communicated the news of my intended departure, burst into a passion of tears, and improved my wavering intentions by requesting me to kill him at once, for he would certainly die if left. Standing by his bedside, unsettled and irresolute, all the details of my daily life rose before me. The early morning visit to the sick, after their feverish, restless night, when, if even there was no good to be effected, every man's head would be uncovered as by one impulse, and jealousy evinced when a longer pause by one bed-side than another would arouse the feeling. Often has the ward-master of “A” recalled me when a quarter of a mile distant from his ward, at the request of a patient, and when going back to find out what was wanted, a hearty convalescent would explain that I had passed through and omitted to speak to him.

Farewells were exchanged at last, and the 6th of October found me at the railroad station. A search at the last moment for my keys, discovered that they, together with my watch, were still at the Hospital; while, as an equivalent, remained in the bottom of my basket half of a salt mackerel (a rare luxury in the Confederacy,) begged for a sick man the day before, and forgotten in the hurry of departure; so the start had to be postponed till the 7th.

There is some school day's reminiscence hanging around Hannibal, and the softening of a rugged journey by the use of vinegar, but what acid could soften the rigors of that trip to Georgia! They can hardly be recounted. With the aid of two gentlemen and every disengaged man on the road, a safe and happy termination was effected, and a delicious nineteen days passed in idleness and “Confederate” luxury, free from the wear and tear of feelings constantly excited; then came the stern reflection of Dr. Moore's face when he accorded but the soldier's furlough of thirty days. A useless search after an escort for immediate use, resulted in advice unanimously given, to “go alone,” on the grounds that “women had grown so independent during the war, and no man knowing the object of your return would fail to give you all the assistance in his power.”

Fired with this Quixotic sentiment, an early start was made. Finding that, in the confusion of adieu making, no checks had been given me for trunks, I ventured while the afflatus lasted to touch a man on the arm who sat in front of me, and request that he would call the conductor. “I am sorry that I am not acquainted with him,” was the answer; and down I went to zero, never rising again till my journey was accomplished.

Perhaps the details of my progress may give an idea of the state of the country. At West Point, which it took an hour and a half to reach, we had to sleep all night. There were no bed-rooms and no candles, and female travelers sat in the little bar of the tavern (the leading hotel being closed,) only brightened by a pine knot, and at what they had provided themselves with out of their baskets. Another two hours travel to Opelika the next day, and another detention of half a dozen hours. At Columbus, a rumor that the cars had been seized for Government transportation was very alarming; so, long before starting time, I was waiting in the depot, seated on my trunk, half amused and half mortified at the resemblance thus offered to an emigrant Irish servant woman. The depot was crowded with invalided soldiers, for the Government was moving the hospitals from upper Georgia and Tennessee, and passers-by seeing my evident alarm, volunteered all kinds of irrational advice. A suggestion was made, that by seeking the most helpless among the wounded, and passing .as his nurse, my object would be effected but every man to whom I opened my proposals seemed alarmed at the idea. The confusion became terrible towards .the last; everybody calling for the conductor, who having no power, the cars being under military control, first denied his identity and then hid himself. Help came at the last moment, in the shape of a red-faced, half-tipsy Irish porter. “Lit me put yer trunks on,” he said, “and thin go to Col. Frankland at the back of the ladies' car; sure he will help the faymales.”

The forlorn hope, Col. Frankland, was standing on the platform at the extreme rear of the cars, surrounded by a semi-circle below, about twenty-five deep, all pressing on to get seats which were already too full, he screaming and gesticulating like a madman. The lame, the halt and the blind stood around-crutches, splints, huge sticks – green blinds over eyes, faces peeled from erysipelas, and still leaving variegated hues of iodine, gave picturesqueness to the scene; had he borne Caesar and his fortunes he could not have been more in earnest. For four hours he had been stemming this living tide.

I had met and fraternized with a lady and gentleman who appeared as anxious as myself to get forward, so telling her not to move until I had achieved my object and then join me, I essayed a first faint call upon the Colonel. The sound died away in my throat, but my Irish friend (I am sure he took me for one of his countrywomen) was by my side and repeated the call; a hundred voices took up the refrain – “A lady wants to speak to the Colonel,” and universal curiosity as to the subject of my business being exhibited by a dead silence, I raised my voice, as Manse Headrigg said, “like a pelican in the wilderness.”

“Col. Frankland, I must get on to-night. Government business requires me to be in Richmond by the 30th.”

“Impossible, madam. I would like to oblige you, but it is against my orders, the cars are for the use of the wounded and sick alone.”

“But, Col. Frankland, seven hundred men are waiting for their dinner, breakfast and supper in Richmond. I am the matron of a hospital.”

“Cannot help it, madam. – If you men do not keep off I will put the front rank under arrest.”

“Cannot you let me stand on the platform, if there are orders against our using the cars?”

“No, madam-very sorry to refuse.”

“Let me go in the freight train?”

“There is no freight train, madam.”

“Well, in the box cars?”

“They are crowded, madam, crowded. – Keep off, men! keep off, there!”

The steam whistled fearfully and the bell clanged an uproar of sound.

“Oh! Col. Frankland, let me go in the mail car, I won't even open my eyes to look at the letters!”

“Against the law, cannot be done; you must not expect me to infringe on my orders. - Will no one keep those men off?”

I will, Col. Frankland, if you will let me stand by you on that platform. I wear very long hair pins.''

“Thank you, madam, thank you. Now, men, this lady wears long hair-pins, so you had better keep off.”

My friend, the red-nosed Irishman, had never left my side. He whispered that the trunks were all right, and helped me to get on the stand. Another moment and my female companion was by my side.

“This is not fair,” said the Colonel, “you promised that you would not let any one come in.”

“Oh, no, I promised that not a single man should do so; this is a woman. Will you let her husband join her? He is not a single man for he has a wife and nine children.”

The result may be imagined; our party, very much relieved, were soon inside, where we found four comfortable seats reserved for Gen. Beauregard and staff, which were unoccupied, those gentlemen being detained at Macon.

At that city, where we were compelled to pass the night, the same state of things existed, and with depressed spirits I drove to the cars to see if any arrangement could be made by which I could still get further. As the road would not be thrown open-to the public for a month, an effort had to be made. An appeal to the authorities resulted in defeat, so I tried the former manoeuvre of appealing to subordinates.

Baffled in all my attempts, and again seated emigrant-like on my trunk, the mail agent caught my eye, as he stood in the door-way of his car. Improving the opportunity, I commenced a conversation, ending in an insinuating appeal to be taken in the mail box. Success and installation in his little square domicile followed and my friend passing out immediately locked the door on the outside. There were no windows and no light whatever; the hour six o'clock. Seated in loneliness and darkness till the town clock struck eight, every fear that could arise in the brain of a silly woman assailed me. Did the train I was in go to Augusta, and if not, would I be where I was all night? Was the man who locked me in really the mail agent? If he came back and robbed and murdered me, would any one ever miss me? Having eaten nothing but a biscuit or two for twenty-four hours, my brain being proportionably light, imagination seized the reins from common sense, which fled in the presence of utter darkness and loneliness.

At last the lock turned, and a lantern dispelled some of my terrors. The cars started, and the agent commenced sorting his letters, first locking us in securely. A couple of hours passed, and my mind was gradually losing its tone of unpleasant doubt as to the wisdom of my proceedings, when my busy companion knocked off work and essayed to play the agreeable. He was communicative in the extreme, giving me his biography, which proved him a Connecticut man, and very much dissatisfied with the Confederacy, particularly the state of the money market. As long as he kept to his personal recollections all was right, but he soon claimed a return of confidence, and grew hourly more patronizing and conversational. The tone and manner, the loneliness of the position, a rd the impossibility of any fortunate interruption became unbearable at last, and there is no knowing what I might have been tempted to do in the way of breaking out, if the cars bad not fortunately run off the track. On we bumped, happily on level ground for ten minutes or more. The engineer entirely unconscious of the fact, and no way of communicating with him, as the soldiers were lying over the rope on the top of the cars, so that pulling was in vain. At last a pause, and then a crowd, and then a familiar name was called, most welcome to my ears. I repeated it till its owner was by my side, and the rest of the night was spent in asking questions and exchanging information. At daylight he left me to rejoin his command, while we continued on to Augusta. As usual, no vehicle of any kind at the depot, but being the only woman to be seen, the mail driver offered me a seat on the mail bags, and in this august style we reached the hotel by breakfast time. All military suspension ceased here, but there was two hours detention, and this was enlivened by an amusing episode.

Directly in front of me sat an old Georgia up-country woman, placidly regarding box cars full of men waiting, like us, to start. She knitted and gazed, and at last inquired “who those were in the parallel cars, and where were they going?” The explanation that they were Yankee. prisoners startled her considerably. The knitting needles ceased abruptly, (all the old women in the Confederacy knitted socks for the soldiers in the cars) the cracker bonnet of dark brown homespun was thrown back violently, for her whole system seemed to have received a galvanic shock. Then she caught her breath, lifted up her thin, trembling hand, accompanied by the trembling voice, and made them a speech

“Ain't you ashamed of youans,” she said, “a coming down here a spiling our country and a thieving in our hen-roosts? What did we ever do to you that you should come a killing our husbands and brothers and sons? Ain't you ashamed of youans? What do you want us to live with you for, you poor white trash. I ain't got a nigger that would be so mean as to force himself where he war'nt wanted, and what do weuns want with you? Ain't you –” But here came a roar of laughter from both cars, and, trembling with anger and excitement, the old lady pulled down her spectacles, which, in the excite meat, she. had pushed up on her forehead, and tried in vain to resume her labor with shaking hands.

From here to Richmond there occurred the usual detentions and trials of railroad travel under the existing circumstances. The windows of the cars were more or less broken, sometimes no stoves for fires, and the nights very chilly; all in utter darkness, for the lamps had been broken; could they have been replaced, there was no oil. We crawled along, stopping every now and then to tinker up some part of the car or the road, getting out at times, when announcements were made that the travellers must walk a mile or more, as the case might be. Crowds of women were getting in and out all the way, the male passengers grumbling half aloud that “the women had better stay at home-they had no business to be running around in such times.” This was said so often that it became very unpleasant, till the tables were turned early one morning at Gainsborough, when a large-sized female made her way along the centre of the car, looking from the right to the left in vain search of a seat. None being vacant, she stopped short and addressed the astonished male passengers: “What, for pity sake, do you men mean by running all around the country instead of staying in the field, as you ought to do? You keep filling up the cars so that a woman can't attend to her business, when your place should be opposite the Yankees.” This diversion in our behalf was received silently, but many seats were soon vacated by their possessors on the plea of “taking a little smoke.”

The thirtieth of October found me, weary, hungry, cold, exhausted, and with that most terrible of scourges, a very bad, nervous headache, at the Richmond depot, four hours after the schedule time. The crowd was immense, so that when it had opened or dispersed sufficiently to let me get through, every vehicle had left, if any had waited there till that hour. As usual, my telegram had not been received, so that there was no one to meet me; and pain rendering me indifferent to everything, I quietly laid my shawl upon a bench in the station-house, and myself on it. For how long I cannot say, but at last a voice asked what was wanted. “Any kind of a vehicle.” After a few moments my new friend returned with the information that there was only a market cart, which, if I was willing to use, was for hire. If it had been a balloon or a wheelbarrow, it would have been all the same. My trunks were put on, and then I was deposited on them: the hour, eleven o'clock at night.

I looked first at the horse; he had a shadowy, grey skin stretched over his prominent bones, and, in the dim, misty light, seemed a mere phantom. The driver next came under observation. A little, dried-up black man, with a brown rag tied around his head for shelter; but, like all of his species, he was kind and respectful. Directions were given him to drive to a friend's house, but he said that his horse was too tired; if I was willing, he had another at “his place,” where he would like to go and change.

Quite willing, or rather too weary to assert any authority, on we rumbled and rattled twice the distance I was first bound, changed one skeleton for another, and started for my friend's house. At last the blessed haven was reached, but the sight of a new face in answer to our summons made my heart sink. “Moved yesterday.”

“Drive to Miss G.'s house,” was the next direction, for we were by this time out of the way of hotels or boarding houses. The same answer, and very near twelve o'clock. Had all Richmond moved?

The fresh air, to say nothing of the novelty of nay position, had improved my headache and given me courage to make a proposition I dared not attempt before: “Could not you drive me to the Hospital?” was the next demand in a most ingratiating tone.

The old man untied the rag off his head and smoothed it on his knee, by way of ironing the creases out and assisting reflection; replaced it, taking up the reins before he answered, for we were now at a standstill at the foot of the hill in Broad street.

“Missis,” said he, “de way is long, and de bridges is mighty bad; if you will drive over dem and let me git out, and pay me fifty dollars, de ole horse might go up de hill.”

The bargain was struck and the Hospital reached after midnight; the key of my apartment sent for, when the last hair that broke the camel's back was laid upon mine.

“Miss G. had taken it away with her.”

The key was gone but the carpenter was not, and with his help the door was broken open. When a fire had been made, a delicious piece of cold, hard corn bread eaten, and the covering of the first bed I had slept in for ten days drawn around me, all the troubles of a hard world melted away, and the only real happiness on earth, entire exemption from mental or bodily pain took possession of me.

There was now a great difference perceptible in the manner of living between Virginia and the more Southern States. Even in the best and most wealthy houses in Richmond, many every-day comforts had become luxuries, and been dispensed with early in the war. Farther south, they still sent to Nassau for what they needed, taking the risk of blockade running. Tea and coffee were first dispensed with, at the Capital then many used corn flour exclusively, wheat was so high. Gradually butter disappeared from the breakfast table, and even brown sugar when it reached twenty dollars a pound shared the same fate. But farther south, no such economy appeared necessary. The air of the people in the cars and around the railroad stations was tit that time hopeful and courageous to an extreme; there was no fear ever expressed even as late as this as to the ultimate success of the Southern cause.

The Hospitals though, did not compare with those I had left, either in arrangement, cleanliness, or attendance. Long before this, the matrons' places in Virginia had been filled with ladies of the very first class of life, but this had been the case alone in Virginia, and such supervision made a very great difference, as may be supposed.

During my absence, all the patients left a month before had either recovered or died, so that it was irksome to resume my usual duties, a few days visiting rectifying this, however. The happiest person to see me was Miss G., as she resigned the key of the liquor closet with a sigh that spoke volumes. From what could be gathered she had been equal to the occasion, and summoned determination to suit the exigencies of her position, though naturally of a very gentle, yielding nature.

The health of the army was now so good, that except when the wounded came in there was but little to do. That terrible scourge, pneumonia, so dreadful in its typhoid form, had almost disappeared. The men had become hardened and inured to exposure.

Christmas passed pleasantly. The Hospital fund, from the depreciation of the money, being too small to allow us to make any festive preparations, the ladies of the city drove out in carriages and ambulances laden with good things. The previous year, we had been able to give out of our own funds a bowl of egg-nogg and slice of cake to every man in the Hospital, as well as his turkey and oysters for dinner, but times were now more stringent.

Just after New Year, one of the Committee on Hospital Affairs in Congress called to see me, wishing to get some information on the subject before any appropriation had been made for whiskey for the ensuing year. There were doubts afloat as to whether the benefit conferred upon the patients by the use of stimulants, counterbalanced the evil effects it produced upon those surgeons who were in the habit of making use of them.

It was a hard question to answer, particularly as a case in point had just come under my observation. A man had been brought into our Hospital with a crushed ankle, the cars having passed over it. It had been dressed and put in splints before he was sent to us; so the surgeon in attendance ordered that he should not be disturbed. The nurse came over to say, in a few hours, that the man was suffering intensely. He had a burning fever, but complained of the fellow v leg instead of the injured one. The common idea of sympathy was suggested, and a narcotic given, which failed in producing any effect. On my second visit he induced me to look at it, and finding the foot and leg above and below the splints, perfectly well, the natural thought suggested itself of examining the other. It was a most shocking sight – swollen, inflamed and purple – the drunken surgeon had set the wrong leg! The pain produced low fever, which took a typhoid form; and the man eventually died. With this instance still fresh in my memory, it was hard to give an opinion. However, the appropriation was made.

The poor fellow was the most dependent patient I ever had, and though entirely uneducated, won his way to my sympathies by his entire helplessness and dependence upon my care and advice. No surgeon in the Hospital could persuade him to swallow anything in the shape of food, unless he first sent for and consulted me; and a few soothing words or an encouraging nod would satisfy and calm him. His ideas of luxuries were very peculiar, and his answer to my daily inquiries as to what I should give him to eat, was invariably the same – he would like some “scribbled eggs and flitters.” This order was carried out till the surgeon prescribed stronger food, and though beef steak was substituted, he always called it by the same name, leading me to suppose that scribbled eggs and flitters were a generic term for food generally. I made him some jelly: Confederate jelly, with the substitution of whiskey for Madeira wine, and citric acid for lemons, but he said he did not like it, there was no chewing in it, and it all went he did not know where; so there was no use trying to tempt his palate.

It was very awkward visiting the wards after my return. Before this, the departure of old patients and the arrival of new, was hardly noticeable, as there were always enough men left to whom I was known to make me feel at home, and to inform the last comers why I came among them, and what my duties were. I now found the Hospital filled with a very superior set of men, Virginia cavalrymen, and many of the Maryland infantry. They were not as considerate as my old friends had been, and rather looked with suspicion upon my daily visits. One man amused me particularly, keeping a portion of his food every day for my particular and agreeable inspection, as he thought, and my particular annoyance as I felt. Everything unpalatable was deposited under his pillow awaiting my arrival, and the greeting given was invariably:

“Do you call that good bread?”

“Well, no not very good; but the flour is very dark and often musty.”

Another day he would send for me, and draw out a handful of dry rice.

“Do you call that properly boiled ?”

“That is the way we boil rice in Carolina, each grain to be separated.”

“Well, I didn't wish mine to be boiled that way.”

And so on through all the details of his food, somebody, he felt, was responsible, and unfortunately he determined that I should be the scape-goat. His companion, who laid by his side, was even more disagreeable than he was. He was a terrible pickle consumer, and indulged in such extreme dissipation in that luxury, that a check had to be put upon his appetite. He attacked me on the subject the first chance he had, and listened to my explanations without being convinced that pickles were luxuries to be eaten sparingly, and used carefully. “Perhaps,” he said at last, sulkily, “we would have more pickles if you had not so many new dresses.” There was no doubt as to my having on a new calico dress, but what that had to do with the pickles was rather puzzling. However, that afternoon, came a formal apology, written in quite an elegant style, and signed by every man in the ward, (except the pickle man) in which they laid the fault of this cruel speech on the bad whiskey.

All this winter the city had been unusually gay. Besides parties, private theatricals and tableaux were inaugurated. Wise and thoughtful men disapproved openly of this mad gaiety. There was, certainly, a painful discrepancy between the excitement of music and dancing, where one could hear in a momentary lull the rumble of the ambulances carrying the wounded to the different Hospitals. Young men advocated this state of affairs, arguing that after the fatigues and dangers of a campaign in the field, that some relaxation was necessary on their visit to the Capital.

To thinking people this recklessness was ominous: and, by the end of February, 1865, I began to feel that all was not as well as might be. The incessant moving of troops through the city from one point to another shewed weakness, and the scarcity of rations issued told a painful tale. People spoke of the inefficiency of the Commissary General, and predicted that the change made in that Department would make all right. Soon afterwards, the truth was told to me, in confidence, and under promise that it should go no farther. Richmond was to be evacuated in a month or six weeks. The time might be lengthened or shortened, but the fact was established.

Then came the packing up, quietly but surely, of the different departments. Our requisitions on the Medical Purveyor were returned unfilled, and an order from the Surgeon-General required that herbs should be used in the Hospitals. There was a great deal of merriment elicited over the “yarb teas” drawn during the time by command of the surgeons, without any one knowing why the substitution had been made.

My mind had been much harrassed as to what I should do, but my duty seemed to be to remain with my sick, as no general ever deserts his troops; but to be left by all my friends amidst the enemy, with every feeling antagonistic to them, and the prospect of being turned away from the Hospital the day after they city surrendered, was not a cheering one. Even my home would no longer be opened to me, for staying with one of the Cabinet Ministers, he would certainly leave with the government. I was spared the necessity of decision by the sudden attack of Gen. Grant and the breaking of the Confederate lines. This necessitated the evacuation of Richmond sooner than was expected, and before I had time to think about the matter at all, the government and all its train had vanished.

On the 2d April, 1865, while the congregation of Dr. Hoge's church in Richmond, were listening to the Sunday sermon, a messenger entered and handed a telegram to Mr. Davis, then President of the Southern Confederated States, who rose immediately, without any visible signs of agitation, and left the church. No great alarm was exhibited by the congregation, though several members of the President's Staff rose and followed, till Dr. Hoge brought the service to an abrupt close, and informed his startled flock that Richmond would probably be evacuated very shortly, and they would only exercise a proper degree of prudence by going home immediately, and preparing for that event.

This announcement, though coming from such a reliable source, hardly availed to convince the Virginians that their beloved Capital, assailed so often, defended so bravely, surrounded by fortifications on which the engineering talents of their best officers had been expended, was to be surrendered. Some months before a few admitted behind the veil of the temple had been apprised that the sacrifice was to be accomplished; that Gen. Lee had again and again urged Mr. Davis to give up this Mecca of his heart to the interests of the Confederacy, and resign a city which required an army to hold it, and pickets to be posted from thirty to forty miles around it, weakening the comparatively small force of the army – and again and again had the iron-will triumphed, and the foe beaten and discomfited retired for fresh combinations and fresh troops.

But the hour had come, and the evacuation was but a question of time. Day and night the whistle of the cars told the anxious people that brigades were being moved to strengthen that point, or defend this, and no one was able to say where exactly any part of the Army of Virginia was situated. That Grant would make an effort to strike the South-side railroad – the main artery for the conveyance of food to the city – every one knew; and that Gen. Lee would be able to meet the effort and check it, everybody hoped, and while this hope lasted there was no panic.

The telegram that reached Mr. Davis that Sunday morning, was to the effect that the enemy had struck, and on the weakest side of the Confederate forces. It told him to be prepared in case a repulse failed; and two hours after came the fatal news that Grant had forced his way through, so that the city must be evacuated that night. What is meant by that simple sentence, “evacuation of the city,” few can imagine. The officers of the different Departments hurried to their offices, speedily packing up everything connected, with the Government. The quartermasters' and commissary's stores were thrown open, and thousands of the half-clad and half-starved people of Richmond rushed to the scene. Delicate women tottered under the weight of hams, bags of flour and coffee. Invalided officers carried away little articles of luxury for sick wives or children at home. Every vehicle was in requisition, commanding fabulous prices, and gold or silver were the only currency that would pass. The immense concourse of strangers, Government officials, speculators, gamblers, pleasure and profit lovers of all kinds that had been attracted to the Capital, were “packing,” while those who had determined to stay and await the chances of war, tried to look calmly on and draw courage from their faith. in the justness of their cause.

The wives and families of Mr. Davis and his Cabinet had been fortunately sent away some weeks previously, so no provision was made for the transportation of any particular class of people. All the cars that could be collected were at the Fredericksburg depot, and by three o'clock the trains commenced to move. The scene at the station was one of indescribable confusion. No one could afford to leave any article of wear or household use, going where they knew that nothing, ever so trifling, could be replaced. Baggage was almost as valuable as life, and life was represented there by wounded or sick officers and men; helpless women and children – for all that could be with the Southern army were at their post.

Hour after hour passed, and still the work went on. The streets were strewn with torn papers, records and documents of all descriptions, and people still hurried by with the stores, until then hoarded by the Government and sutler shops. The scream and whistle of the cars never ceased all that weary night, and was perhaps the most painful sound to those left behind, for all the city seemed flying; but while the centre of Richmond was in the wildest confusion, the suburbs were very quiet, and even ignorant of what scenes were enacting in the heart of the city. Events crowded so quickly upon each other that no one had time to spread reports.

There was no change in the aspect of the city till near midnight, and then the school ship, the “Patrick Henry,” formerly the “Yorktown,” was fired at the wharf in “Rocketts,” the extreme east end of the city. Her magazine blowing up seemed a signal for the work of destruction to commence. Explosions followed from all points. The blowing up of the large magazine at Drewry's Bluff was most terrific. The warehouses of tobacco were fired next and communicated the flames to the adjacent houses and shops, which were soon in a flame along Main street. The armory, which was not intended to be burnt, either caught accidentally or was fired by mistake, the shells exploding and filling the air with their hissing sounds of horror, no one knowing how far they would reach. Fortunately, Col. Gorgas had had the largest rolled into the canal before he left, or the city would have been leveled with the dust.

No one slept during that night of horror, for, added to the present scenes were the anticipations of what the morrow would bring forth. Daylight dawned upon a wreck of desolation and destruction. From the highest point of Church Hill and Libby Hill, the eye could range over the whole extent of city and country – the fire had hardly abated and the burning bridges were adding their flame and smoke to the scene. A single, faint explosion could still be heard at long intervals, but the Patrick Henry was low to the water's edge, and the Drewry but a column of smoke. The whistle of the cars, and the rushing of the laden trains still went on-they had never ceased, but clouds hung low and draped a great part of the scene as morning advanced.

Before the last star had faded from the sky, two carriages rolled along Main street, and passed through Rocketts, carrying the Mayor and Corporation to the Federal lines with the keys of the city, and half an hour afterwards, over to the east a single Federal blue jacket rose above the hill and stood still with astonishment; another and another sprung up, as if out of the earth, and still all was quiet. At seven o'clock, there fell upon the ear the steady clatter of horse's hoofs, and under Chimborazo Hill, winding around Rocketts, came a small but compact body of Federal cavalrymen, on horses in splendid condition, riding closely and steadily along; they were well mounted, well accoutred, well fed – a rare sight in Richmond streets; the first of that army that for four years had knocked so hopelessly at the gates of the Southern Capital.

They were some distance in advance of the infantry, who came on as well appointed and well dressed as the cavalry. Company after company, battalion after battalion, regiment after regiment, brigade after brigade, pouring into the doomed city – they seemed an endless horde. One detachment separated from the main body, and marching to Battery No. 2, raised the United States flag, their band playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” – then they stacked their arms. The rest marched along Main street, surrounded by fire and smoke, over burning fragments of buildings, emerging at times when the wind lifted the dark clouds like a phantom army; while the colored population shouted and cheered them on their way.

Before three hours had elapsed, the troops had been quartered and were inspecting the city. They swarmed in every high-way and bye-way, rose out of gullies and appeared on the top of hills, emerged from narrow lanes and skirted around low fences. There was hardly a spot in Richmond not occupied by a blue coat, but they were quiet, orderly and respectful. Thoroughly disciplined and careful of giving offense, they never spoke unless addressed first; and though the women of Richmond contrasted with sickness at the heart the difference between the splendidly equipped army and the war-worn, wasted aspect of their own defenders, they were grateful for the consideration shown to them; and if they remained in their homes with closed doors and windows, or walked the streets with averted eyes and veiled faces, it was that they could not bear the presence of invaders, even under the most favorable circumstances.

Before the day was over, the public buildings were occupied by the enemy, and the citizens entirely relieved from all fear of molestation. The hospitals were attended to, the ladies allowed to nurse and care for their own wounded; but rations were very scarce – in a few days they arrived and were issued generally. It had been a matter of pride among the Southerners to boast that they never had seen a greenback, and the entrance of the Federal army had also found them almost entirely unprepared with gold or silver currency. People who had piles of Confederate money, and were wealthy a day previously, looked around in vain for wherewithal to buy a loaf of bread. Strange exchanges were made on the street of tea and coffee, flour and bacon. Those who were fortunate in having a stock of household necessaries were generous in the extreme to their less wealthy neighbors, but the destitution was terrible. The Sanitary Commission stores were opened and commissioners appointed to visit the houses to distribute tickets to draw food, but to draw from the first named place required so many appeals to different officials, that decent people gave up the effort, and the rations issued of musty corn-meal and codfish were hard on Southern stomachs – few gently nurtured could live on such unfamiliar food.

In the meanwhile, there had been no assimilation between the invaders and the invaded. There had appeared in the daily paper a notice that the military bands would play in the beautiful capitol grounds every evening, but when the appointed hour came, except the musicians, officers and men, not a white face was to be seen. The negroes crowded every bench and path. The next week brought out another notice, that “the colored population” would not be admitted; and the absence then of everything in the shape of a bonnet or female hat was appalling the entertainers went to their own entertainment. The third week and still another notice appeared, “colored nurses were to be admitted with their white charges,” and, lo! each fortunate white baby was the cherished care of a dozen finely dressed black ladies – the only drawback being that in two or three days the music ceased, the entertainers feeling at last the ingratitude of the subjugated people.

Despite the courtesy of manner – for however despotic the acts, the Federal authorities maintained a respectful manner – the new comers made no advance towards fraternity. They spoke openly and warmly of their sympathy with the sufferings of the South, but advocated acts that the hearers could not recognize as “military necessities.” Bravely dressed Federal officers met their former old class-mates from college and military schools, and enquired after the families, to whose home they had ever been welcome in days of yore, expressing intentions of “calling to see them,” while the vacant chairs, rendered vacant by Federal bullets, stood by the hearth of the widow and bereaved mother. They could not be made to understand that their presence was offensive, that the acts they excused as “military necessities,” were the barbarous warfare of midnight burnings and legal murders. There were few men in the city at this time, but the women of the South still fought their battle; fought it silently, resentfully but calmly! Clad in their mourning garments, overcome but not subdued, they sat within their desolate houses, or if compelled to leave that shelter, went on their errands to church or Hospital with veiled faces and swift steps. By no sign or act did the possessors of their fair city know that they were even conscious of their presence. If they looked in their faces they saw them not; they might have almost supposed themselves a phantom army. There was no stepping aside to avoid the contact of dress, no feigned humility in giving the inside of the walk; they simply ignored their presence.

Two particular characteristics followed the invaders – the circus, and booths for the temporary accommodation of petty venders. These small speculators must have thought there were no means of cooking left in Richmond, from the quantity of “canned edibles” they brought. They inundated the city with pictorial canisters at exorbitant prices, which no one bought. Whether there was a scant supply of greenbacks, or the people were not disposed to trade with the new-comers, the stores remained empty of customers. The most remarkable fact was, that from the shop-keeper to the lowest private, none were Northern – they all sympathized with the South. They carried their sympathy, it may be supposed, in their army trains, it was so very cumbrous. The officers had all been in the regular army, and staid there to prevent by their influence any bloodshed the first year, afterwards they were too poor to resign, but they “felt so much for the Southern people, and despised the Administration, Black Republicanism, and volunteer commission holders.” The shop-keepers had all come from Baltimore, and aided the South to the extent of their power, though unable to get across the Potomac. The soldiers had all been forced into the invading army, being too poor to hire substitutes. Even the black allies, when questioned, involuntarily spoke of the “Yankee men and the Southern gentlemen,” and paid the deference of habit to the one not accorded to the other; never was there so much sympathy on one side and such black ingratitude on the other.

By this time, steamboats had made their way to the wharves, though the obstructions still defied the iron-clads, and crowds of curious strangers thronged the pavements, while squads of mounted pleasure-seekers raced along the streets of the city. Gaily dressed women began to pour in, with looped-up skirts, very large feet and a very great preponderance of spectacles. The Richmond ladies, sitting by desolated fire-sides, were astonished by the arrival of former friends, people moving in the best classes of society, who had the bad taste to make a pleasure trip to the mourning city, calling upon their former friends in all the finery of the last New York fashions, and in many instances forgiving their entertainers the manifold sins of the last four years, in formal and set terms.

From the hill on which my Hospital was built, I had sat all the Sunday of the evacuation, watching the turmoil and bidding friends adieu. Till twelve in the day on Sunday, many were still unconscious of the events which were transpiring; and as night set in, I wrapped my blanket shawl around me and continued my lonely watch, seeing all that is here related. An early visit to the wards found them comparatively empty. Every man who could walk or crawl away had gone. Beds in which paralyzed, rheumatic and helpless patients had lain for months were empty. The miracles of the New Testament had been re-enacted. Those poor fellows who were left were almost wild at the idea of getting again into a Northern prison, having only been exchanged, in many instances, the month before. They received all the comfort in my power to give, and with it their usual breakfast, while the shouts of the invading army and their negro sympathizers were filling the air just below. There was a great deal of difficulty in managing matters, for all the nurses, with very few exceptions, had followed Gen. Lee's army. We made the sick wait upon those in worse condition, and waited the turn of events.

At eleven o'clock on Monday morning, the fourth of April, the first blue uniform appeared at our office – three surgeons walking around inspecting the Hospital. There was an amiable understanding apparently as our surgeon was with them. One of the divisions was required for the new comers and cleared out, the patients divided among the different wards, and soon wagons arrived laden with necessaries for their own sick. We still had commissary stores on hand of our own, and no change was made. Three days afterwards an order came that all the patients should be transferred to Camp Jackson, the Surgeons going with them, so that the Hospital should be empty in four hours. Driving over to Camp Jackson, in the ambulance, I found the Confederate Surgeon-in-charge, and stating who I was and what I wanted, merely to remain with my sick and nurse them, was received so rudely, that his conduct combined with the excitement and annoyance of the day, was more than I could bear. Discourtesy from our invaders was to be expected, but that a Confederate gentleman should fail at such a time to render a kindness under the circumstances, was very hard. He took no measures to assist me, so that all I could do was to take a sad farewell of my sick, returning again to my old quarters at my own Hospital till other arrangements could be made.

It was fortunate that this result followed for there were still left in the wards many very sick men, too ill to be removed even on a bed. To them I devoted my time, for the surgeons, obedient to orders received had left hours before, and the place looked deserted; Miss G., myself and the old black cook only remaining. They also left at dark and I sat in my room, endeared by retrospection and the knowledge that in a few days I should have to leave forever.

The Federal authorities had as yet placed no guards around, and our own had been withdrawn, or rather had left, being under no control or direction, and not a sound broke the stillness and solitude around. This quiet was interrupted suddenly by a crash in my adjoining pantry, and passing into it instantly, I came upon a group of seven men, who had burst in the outer door which opened upon the yard. As my eye travelled slowly from face to face I recognized them as a set of “Hospital rats,” who had never been gotten rid of, for if even sent to the field one week they would be sure to be back the next, on some trifling pretext of sickness or disability. The ringleader was an old enemy who had stored up many a grievance against me, but many acts of kindness paid to his sick wife had naturally made me suppose his wrath had been disarmed. He was the spokesman, and the trouble was the same old one. Thirty gallons of whiskey had been received into my pantry the day before the evacuation.

“We have come for that barrel of whiskey!”

“You cannot and shall not have it.”

“It does not belong to you?”

“It is in my charge and I intend to to keep it. You must go out of my pantry: you are all drunk now!”

“Boys?” he said “pick up that barrel and carry it down the hill, I will attend to her.”

But the habit of obedience still had its effect on the “boys,” for they did not move except in a retrograde direction.

“Wilson,” I said, “ you have been in this hospital for four years; do you think from what you know of me that I will allow you to take that barrel away without my consent?”

He became very insolent.

“None of your domineering,” he said, “all your great friends have gone and we wont stand it now; move out of the way.”

He walked up to the barrel and so did I, only being in the inside, I interposed between him and the object of intention. The ungovernable temper blazed up in his face, and catching me roughly by the arm, he called me a name which a decent woman seldom hears, and even a wicked one always resents.

Fortunately, I had a little friend, which had been kept quietly in my pocket since the evacuation more from a sense of protection than from any idea that it ever would be called into use; and before he had time to push me one inch from my position, or to see what kind of an ally was in my hand, that sharp click-a sound so peculiar and so different from any other – struck upon his ear, and sent him back among his friends, very pale and much shaken.

“You had better leave,” I said very composedly, considering all the circumstances, “for if even the first shot misses you, which it is very likely to do, I have five more here ready, and the place is too small for even a woman to miss six times.”

He could hardly speak from rage, but after some conversation with the rest, concluded to leave, but turned wrathfully at the door.

“You think yourself very brave now,” he said, as he left, “but wait until to-night, perhaps others may have pistols, too, and you won't have it all your way.”

My first act was to take the round head of a barrel and nail the door as tightly as I could, using a two-pound weight for a hammer, and then still warm with excitement and victory gained, I sat down by my Whiskey barrel, and felt the affection which we all have for what we have cherished and defended, but as my blood cooled, affairs wore a different aspect. There were no fastenings on either doors or windows, and as my little bed was just under one of the latter, which was only four feet from the ground, unpleasant memories beset me of a fairy picture I had once seen of a fire-cloud griffin dragging an enchanted princess through just such an opening by the hair of her head. This idea was so absurd, that it produced a strong inclination to laugh, and having once got to laughing, nervous terrors became dispelled, so putting a candle, a box of matches, and the pistol within reach of my hand, I went quietly to bed, and what is more, to sleep, never waking until the sun was high, and hearing nothing more of my visitors. The next day the hospital was guarded by Federal-sentries. Perhaps in telling my story (and it is not every woman who has had a chance of drawing a pistol without a certain degree of ridicule attached,) not only the whole truth, but all the truth should be told, and I confess that I did drag away my bed from under that window and put it right in the middle of the room, so that no griffin, were his claws ever so long could reach me.

The next day, the steward informed me that our stores had been taken possession of by the Federal authorities and we could not draw the necessary rations. The surgeons had all gone, the steward, a very good, honest, quiet man, was not calculated to give any help in such an emergency, so, though very averse to any intercourse with the intruders, I walked up to headquarters, formerly Dr. M.'s office and making my way through a crowd of strange blue coats, accosted the principal figure seated there, with a demand for food, and rather a curt enquiry whether it was their policy to starve the captured sick. He was very polite, but said that their transports had not been able to get through the obstructions in the river, and until they did so the army would be straitened for food. Fortunately, having been fearful of this need, I had kept a large quantity of coffee, partly saved from rations drawn, and partly from donations to the hospital, so I requested the loan of my own ambulance, which was under Yankee lock and key, to take this coffee to market and exchange it for necessary food. This was acceded to, and an order given me to that effect, which I passed to an orderly, and having gained one point, proceeded to try the ingratiating style if necessary.

He asked if I “was a Virginian.”

“No a South Carolinian.”

He had “lost a brother at Fort Sumter.”

“Ah! I was very sorry. Why did he go there?”

He regretted that “it was out of his power to assist me in any way, for he saw in the pale faces and pinched features of the Richmond women how much they had suffered?”

I retorted quickly this wound to both patriotism and vanity. He may have meant to be polite, but that he was unlucky was proved by my answer-

“If he saw anything in my features that was pinched, or any paleness of face, it was not what had been suffered under the Confederacy, but the horror and dread of seeing our Capital in such hands.”

But my ambulance was once more under my command, and putting a bag of coffee and a two-gallon jug of whiskey in, we drove to the market. The expedition was entirely successful, as I returned with a live calf, bellowing all the way. Striking up an acquaintance with my Vermont driver, he informed me that they had “no such real ladies in their Northern hospitals as we had at the South.” The drink of whiskey offered to him was refused, perhaps from a latent fear of danger, some foolish story of poisoned pies having been reported.

My next visit was to the Commissary Department of the hospital in search of sugar; but two Federal guards were seated in the adjacent room, the officer in charge having left for a moment. A fortunate moment for me, as the key was lying on his desk.

In a minute an empty basket was filled, and the door relocked. An expostulation from one of the astonished guards met with an explanation that I was always at my kitchen and could be arrested there if necessary. After this no one opposed my erratic movements, the new comers giving me a wide berth. No explanation of this line of conduct was made, and all I ever gathered was from a young boy who had fraternized with a Yankee sutler, who did me the honor to ask my name and tell his informant, confidentially, that the Federal Surgeon in charge, thought “that little woman in black had better go home,” to which he added on his own responsibility, “He's awful afraid of her!''

Away was I compelled to go at last, but took a room near, and still visited my sick who had now been' removed to another division. There daily congregated all the ladies in the neighborhood, bringing what delicacies they could gather, and nursing indiscriminately any patient that needed care. This continued till the sick were either convalescent or dead, and at last my vocation was gone and not one patient left to give me a pretext for daily occupation.

And now, when the absorbing duties of the last years no longer demanded my whole thoughts and attention, the difficulties of my own position forced themselves upon my mind. Whatever food had been provided for the sick since the Federal occupation, it had been sufficient for me to eat and drink; but when that failed I found myself with a pocket full of Confederate money and a silver ten cent piece; some former gage d'amitié, which puzzled me much, not knowing how to expend it. It was all I could depend on, so I bought a box of matches and five cocoa-nut cakes. The wisdom of the purchase there is no need of defending. Should any one ever be in a strange country where the currency of which he is possessed is entirely valueless, and ten cents be his only available funds, perhaps he may be able to judge of the difficulty of expending it with judgment.

But of what importance was the fact that I was houseless, homeless and moneyless in Richmond, the heart of Virginia. Who ever wanted for aught that kind hearts, generous hands or noble hospitality could supply, that they did not receive it all without even the shadow of a patronage that could make it distasteful. What women were ever so refined in feeling and so unaffected in manner, so willing to share all that wealth gives, and so little infected with the pride of purse, that bestows that power? It was difficult to hide one's needs from them; they found them out and ministered to them with their quiet simplicity of manner and the innate nobility, which gave to their generosity the coloring of a favor received, not conferred.

I laughed at the careless disregard shown by myself for the future, when every one who remained in Richmond apparently had laid by stores for daily food, but they detected with quick sympathy the hollowness of the mirth, and each day at every hour of breakfast, dinner or supper would come to me a waiter, borne by the neat little Virginia maid in her white apron, with ten times the quantity of food I could consume, packed carefully on. Sometimes boxes would be left at my door, with packages of tea, coffee, sugar and ham or chicken, and no clue to the thoughtful and kind donor. Would that I could do more than thank the dear friends, who made my life for four years so happy and contented; who never made me feel, by word or act, that my self-imposed occupation was otherwise than one which would ennoble every woman. If ever any aid was given through my own exertions, or any labor rendered effective by me for the good of the South – if any sick soldier ever benefitted by my pleasant smiles or happy face at his side, or a death-bed was ever soothed by gentle words and kindly treatment, such results were only owing to the cheering encouragement I received from them. They were gentle women in every sense of the word, and though they may never have remembered that “noblesse oblige,” they felt and acted up to the motto in every event of their lives. Would that I could live and die among them, growing each day better, from contact with their gentle kindly sympathies, and heroic hearts.

It may never be in my power to do more than offer my heartfelt thanks, which may reach their once happy homes; and in closing the plain “reminiscences” of hospital experience, let me beg them to believe that whatever kindness it may have been in my limited power to show the noble soldiers of their State, it has been repaid tenfold, leaving with me an eternal but grateful obligation.

There is one other subject connected with hospitals on which a few words may be said – the common and distasteful idea that a woman must lose a certain amount of reticence and delicacy in filling any office in them. This is an entire mistake. There need be no unpleasant exposure, under proper arrangements, and if even there be, the circumstances which surround a wounded man, far from friends and home, suffering in a holy cause and dependent upon a woman for help, care and sympathy hallow and clear the atmosphere in which she labors. That woman must indeed be hard and gross who lets one material thought lessen her efficiency. In the midst of suffering and death, hoping with those almost beyond hope in this world; praying by the bed-side of the lonely and heart-stricken; closing the eyes of boys hardly old enough to realize man's sorrows, much less suffer by man's fierce hate, a woman must soar beyond the conventional modesty considered correct under different circumstances.

If the ordeal does not chasten and purify her nature; if the suffering and endurance does not make her wiser and better, and the daily fire through which she passes does not draw from her nature the sweet fragrance of benevolence, charity and love, then indeed a hospital has been no fit place for her!


Page last updated on 02/12/2008