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The North's Unsung Sisters of Mercy - Sidebar: September '99 America's Civil War Feature

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1999 
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Sally Tompkins: Devoted Confederate Nurse

Although they had no formal nursing directors, the Southern armies relied on women to succor their wounded just as the Northern armies did. Sally Tompkins administered one of the larger hospitals for the treatment of Confederate casualties. The daughter of Christopher Tompkins, a wealthy businessman and politician, she established a reputation as a philanthropist and nurse in Richmond, Va., where she and her family were living when the war began.

Following the First Battle of Manassas, a prominent Richmond judge named John Robertson offered his home as a military hospital and put Tompkins in charge of the operation. Although other private hospitals in Richmond that served the wounded were shut down to make way for larger military facilities, Tompkins obtained permission to carry on.

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave Tompkins the rank of captain in the cavalry in September 1861, making her the first woman in the country to hold a military rank during wartime. In lieu of military wages, she received food, medicine and other supplies for the men. She ran her hospital with military discipline, Christian fervor and a fanatic insistence on sanitation. Of 1,333 patients admitted, only 73 died. Because of this success, some of the most grievously injured Army of Northern Virginia troops were sent to her hospital.

After the war, Tompkins remained single. She continued to take an interest in the welfare of Southern veterans until her death in 1916 at age 83, when she was buried with full military honors.

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