Confederate Women Nurses

This entry is part 13 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

A Civil War Nurse caring for a wounded manLike their cousins on the Union side of the battle line, the women nurses on the Confederate side pushed their way onto the battlefields and into the hospitals where their services were desperately needed. Most white Confederate nurses were from the working class. Black women, both enslaved and free, held positions subordinate to white women and generally performed the more unpleasant and physically demanding tasks.

Southern white women, in contrast, had to contend with their society’s concerns that refined white ladies should not engage in the kind of hard labor usually done by slaves. Indeed, free and enslaved black women could be found in far greater numbers than white women in Confederate hospitals, often categorized as “cooks” and “laundresses” but still frequently doing a range of chores to help the sick and wounded.

Although the precise number of women in the South who volunteered or hired their services is unknown, thousands of black and white women nursed, cooked, cleaned, sewed, and did laundry for military hospitals during the war.

There were some professional nurses in the South and they usually were appointed to field hospitals by surgeons familiar with their skill and conduct under pressure. Most women, however, worked or volunteered in established military hospitals at military depots and near battlefields.

The number of nurses on the Confederate side were far smaller than those on the Union side: 4,000 to 10,000. Many women volunteered to care for the wounded in battles that were close to their homes. Since most of the fighting in both theaters took place in the South, women temporarily nursed soldiers who were wounded near their homes. When the work was done they simply went home to their former lives.

Upper class Southern women usually volunteered for brief periods when the battles were convenient to their homes. They generally worked in Army hospitals when their was a need and left when their wasn’t.

Sally Louisa Tompkins, often known as ‘Captain’ Sally Tompkins was a Virginia nurse. When the Confederacy was ill-prepared for their wounded after the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, the public realized the gravity of the situation and made preparations to set up hospitals and care for their men

Only 28 years old, Tompkins was among the civilians who responded by opening the home of Judge John Robertson as a hospital. After the crisis had passed President Jefferson Davis instituted regulations requiring military hospitals be under military command. In order to circumvent his own regulations Davis commissioned her as a captain in the Confederate States Army. She was the first American women nurse to be commissioned but she refused any pay.

The Scottish-born Kate Cumming was born about 1830. She spent much of the latter half of the Civil War as a nurse in hospitals in Georgia when the war in the Western Theater shifted to that state. Her family had moved from Scotland, first to Montreal and finally to Mobile, Alabama where the war found her.

Despite having no formal training as a nurse, she heeded the call to volunteer and left her home in April 1862. Her first experience in tending to the wounded was after the Battle of Shiloh. She cared for the wounded there until June 1862. She returned to Mobile for two months during the summer of 1862 but after that served without respite until the end of the war.

In September 1862 the Confederate War Department reluctantly decreed that women nurses could be paid for their service. At that point, Cumming’s status changed from volunteer to professional. For the duration of the war, she was officially enlisted in the Confederate Army Medical Department.

After the fall of Chattanooga, Cumming followed the Confederate Army into the state of Georgia where she would stay until the end of the war. She worked in hospitals in Americus, Cherokee Springs, Dalton, Newnan, and Ringgold.

At the age of 27, Ada W. Bacot had been left as a widow and childless when her husband and two children died. Left with a large plantation and a large number of slaves, she wondered what to do. Her home state of South Carolina was in need of nurses and Bacot answered their call. After arranging for the care of her plantation and being financially supported by her father she left for Virginia, the cockpit of war.

With a handful of volunteers, she made her way to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she worked at a converted hotel described as the “Chaotic Confederate medical system.” Charlottesville was a ‘hospital’ town because it was both a rail hub and the home of the University of Virginia Medical School.

At the start of the war the Confederate government like its counterparts in Washington thought that the war would be over in six months. The Richmond government had only provided $50,000 towards the establishment and maintenance of military hospitals. The number of surgeons and assistants commissioned were also inadequate.

Most of the medical responsibilities were handled by men, as they considered the wards not to be a place for a lady. Ada and the others tended to housekeeping, cooking and laundering for patients. Ada constantly pushed to do more, and was eventually one of few women that were allowed direct contact with the wounded and ill soldiers.

Ada wrote a diary of her experiences in Charlottesville, one of only two known nurse diaries from the Charlottesville hospital. During her service she met James E. Henry Clarke, a wounded soldier that she ended up marrying in 1864.



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