BY MARY C. MESKAUSKAS
From atop Chimborazo Hill on the western outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, Phoebe Yates Pember, matron of Chimborazo Hospital Number Two, looked down upon “a scene of indescribable confusion.” A few months earlier, the collapse of the Confederacy had been only a whispered rumor. Now, on the afternoon of April 2, 1865, that depressing prospect had become a shocking reality. With Federal troops fast on their heels, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and other government officials were scampering out of town by train, carriage, and any other available form of transportation.
Surgeons, nurses, and stewards followed their example and skedaddled from the Chimborazo complex. After bidding her fleeing friends farewell, Pember turned away from the turbulent scene and walked through her nearly empty wards. Night was setting in. As she later wrote, “Beds in which paralyzed, rheumatic, and helpless patients had laid for months were empty. The miracles of the New Testament had been re-enacted. The lame, the halt, and the blind had been cured.”
Pember had arrived at Chimborazo Hospital, a complex of long, single-story, whitewashed buildings sprawled atop Chimborazo Hill, on December 18, 1862. Chimborazo was at the time said to be the largest military hospital in the world, and Phoebe would be its first matron. She had accepted the job from Mrs. George Wythe Randolph, wife of the Confederate secretary of war, mainly to escape unhappiness and inactivity at the Yates homestead in Marietta, Georgia, where she had gone to live after the death of her husband the previous year.
In a November 29, 1862, letter to her sister, Eugenia, Pember admitted she was a little anxious about her decision: “You may imagine how frightened and nervous I feel concerning the step I am about to take and how important in this small way it will be to me, for I have too much common sense to underrate what I am giving up.” In the same letter she also wrote proudly that she was to have “entire charge of my department, seeing that everything is clean, orderly and all prescriptions of physicians given in proper time, food properly prepared and so on.”
Though she had no professional medical training, Pember had run a large household and cared for her husband, who had suffered from tuberculosis. She considered herself an efficient and educated woman well up to the challenge of heading one of Chimborazo’s five hospital divisions. Nevertheless, the conditions she encountered at the hospital would challenge her efficiency and her patience. The challenge began with her living space. The surgeon-in-charge had made no preparations for his female nurses, so Phoebe set to work converting a vacant building into her own quarters, an office, parlor, laundry area, pantry, and kitchen.
As Pember’s confidence grew so did her use of authority. She was responsible for procuring supplies and food for her patients’ special diets and she soon insisted upon total control of luxuries such as coffee, tea, and milk. Still, her position seemed little more than that of a chief cook until the surgeon-in-charge, Dr. James B. McCaw, found her peeling potatoes one day. McCaw initiated a thorough study of hospital rules that resulted in the organization of a full staff under Pember’s jurisdiction. She was provided with an assistant matron, cooks and bakers, and two laborers to perform menial tasks.
Pember soon had her first major skirmish with traditional male authority at the hospital, over a problem that nearly proved her undoing. Each hospital division received its own monthly barrel of whiskey for medicinal purposes. Pember noted that “the monthly barrel of whiskey which I was entitled to draw still remained at the dispensary under the guardianship of the apothecary and his clerks, and quarts and pints were issued through any order coming from surgeons or their substitutes, so that the contents were apt to be gone long before I was entitled to draw more, and my sick would suffer for want of the stimulant.”
There was a wide discrepancy between Confederate law, which dictated that all spirituous liquors required by hospitals should be entrusted to the matrons, and how whiskey was actually dispensed at Chimborazo. Thoroughly familiar with the hospital bill passed by Congress, Pember made a formal request to Dr. McCaw for total jurisdiction over the monthly whiskey ration. The surgeon-in-charge protested, but then reluctantly released the barrel to the matron’s care. Flushed with victory, Pember wrote, “I nailed my colors to the mast, and that evening all the liquor was in my pantry and the key in my pocket.”
Pember’s triumph heralded the beginning of trouble. She soon felt what she called “the thousand miseries of my position.” Staff members flooded her office with countless petty requests. Pember’s all-consuming passion–the care of the sick, wounded, and dying–kept her going. “My duty prompted me to remain with my sick, on the ground that no general ever deserts his troops,” she wrote. She eventually found some respite from her responsibilities by renting a room in town, to which she returned at night.
Meanwhile, her patients taught her something about courage. “No words can do justice to the uncomplaining nature of the Southern soldier,” she wrote. “Day after day, whether lying wasted by disease or burning up with fever, torn with wounds or sinking from debility, a groan was seldom heard.” In her war memoir, A Southern Woman’s Story, Yates described a particularly remarkable example of a young soldier named Fisher.
Fisher had suffered a severe hip wound. One night, after months of hard and diligent nursing, he turned over in bed and cried out in pain. Pember examined him and discovered that a sharp edge of splintered bone had severed one of his arteries. She immediately placed her finger in the tiny hole to stop the gush of blood, and summoned the surgeon. After looking at Fisher’s injury, the doctor shook his head and declared sadly that the poor man was beyond help.
Pember faced what she later considered “the hardest trial of my duty at Chimborazo.” She told Fisher there was no hope for him, and the gravely injured man gave her directions on notifying his mother of his death.
“How long can I live?” he asked.
“Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery,” Pember replied.
Then, she later wrote, “A pause ensued. God alone knew what thoughts hurried through that heart and brain, called so unexpectedly from all earthly hopes and ties. He broke the silence at last.”
“You can let go,” Fisher said. Pember froze, unable to obey. The horror of the situation overcame her, and for the only time during her days at Chimborazo, she fainted.
As the war progressed, casualties multiplied and Pember’s duties increased. Massive numbers of incoming wounded caused shortages of medical supplies, surgeons and assistants, and hospital beds. Pember arranged for makeshift beds and continually washed and dressed minor wounds, preparing the more difficult cases for the surgeons. Soon, however, trouble began anew, and as Pember wrote, “if it is necessary to have a hero for this matter-of-fact narrative, the whiskey barrel will have to step forward and make his bow.”
It was the spring of 1864 when the ongoing whiskey problem escalated into a confrontation between Pember and a determined ward surgeon. Every day, each ward’s officer of the day ordered a quart bottle of whiskey in case a patient needed a stimulant during the night. The following morning Pember would inquire why the bottles were empty when no patients had required the elixir. The answer would invariably be that rats must have tipped the bottle over during the night.
The mystery of the disappearing whiskey rations might have continued for the duration of the war if not for a complaint lodged by a patient in a distant ward, who wondered why the liquor ration had not reached his building. Pember marched over and questioned the other patients, who all said that they had not received any whiskey. The men hinted that several champagne bottles hidden behind a certain vacant bed might easily be spirited away in the night.
Pember searched and discovered the stowed champagne bottles filled with the missing whiskey. Incensed, she tracked down and confronted the ward master, but he indicated that another party was guilty. Pember was unsympathetic; in looking the other way the ward master had failed his charges, and the matron informed him that when she took “the matter to the proper authorities he would be sent to the field.”
An hour later the ward surgeon accosted Pember in her office. He swore that his ward master did not drink. Pember replied, “I know he does not, and I also know who does.” The doctor’s fiery flush revealed him as the true culprit. Despite his subsequent efforts to discredit Pember, it was the surgeon who soon left Chimborazo, never to return. It was a hollow victory for Pember, who soon realized that the whiskey barrel was not just a source of contention, but a troubling institution she would someday have to deal with once and for all.
That day came on the Monday following the evacuation of Richmond. The hospital was in enemy hands and Pember spent the day discharging orders given by Federal surgeons. She cleared one hospital division to make room for incoming Union patients, who were laid alongside the remaining Confederates. Exhausted at the end of the day, she entered her quarters and tumbled onto her straw mattress.
Suddenly, the sound of a door crashing down jolted her to her feet, and Pember found herself face to face with a threatening mob. She recognized the ringleader, a long-time hospital resident named Wilson. “We have come for the whiskey!” he declared.
“You cannot, and shall not have it,” the matron answered, undeterred by the angry “hospital rats” at Wilson’s back.
“It does not belong to you,” Wilson said. In this, Wilson was mistaken. Pember had remained at Chimborazo to execute her duties, and those duties included insuring the safety and disposition of 30 gallons of whiskey that had arrived the day before. Pember was determined to do her duty.
“Boys!” Wilson bellowed, “Pick up that barrel and carry it down the hill. I will attend to her!”
For nearly three years, Pember had given orders and the men had taken them. Now they backed away, leaving their leader to confront the defiant matron by himself.
“Wilson,” Pember said, “you have been in this hospital a long time. Do you think from what you know of me that the whiskey can be taken without my consent?”
That said, she stepped solidly between her foe and the whiskey barrel. She watched as Wilson’s “fierce temper blazed up in his face, and catching me roughly by the shoulder, he called me a name that a decent woman seldom hears and even a wicked one resents.” The bully was about to shove Pember out of his way when he heard a telltale click–the sound of a pistol being cocked, barely muted by the folds of the matron’s homespun skirt. Pember told him to leave. “If one bullet is lost,” she warned, “there are five more ready, and the room is too small for even a woman to miss six times.”
Wilson backed down, but left with a threat: “You think yourself very brave now, but wait an hour; perhaps others may have pistols too, and you won’t have it entirely your way after all.” Wilson’s hateful words were chilling, and after the men retreated Pember nailed the head of a flour barrel across the back door and sat down on the whiskey barrel, her pistol within easy reach. Fortunately, the men did not return. “Warm with triumph and victory gained,” Phoebe slept undisturbed, if uncomfortable, through the rest of the night.
On the morning of April 4, 1865, Federal authorities took possession of Chimborazo’s stores, and the troublesome whiskey was no longer Pember’s concern. The matron remained on duty until all her patients had convalesced, died, or been removed to another hospital. Then, after more than two years of selfless duty, Pember suddenly found herself alone in Union-occupied Richmond, without prospects, and with just a silver 10-cent piece and a box of useless Confederate money to her name. Laughing at her lot, she spent her paltry remaining funds on “a box of matches and five cocoa-nut cakes.”
Pember eventually made her way back to Georgia, and spent many of her remaining years traveling. She died in 1913, an eternity removed from her trials and triumphs at Hospital Number Two.
Mary C. Meskauskas is a freelance writer from Florida who studies the written record of women in the Civil War.