SUBMITTED BY REED ALVORD OF HAMILTON, NEW YORK
NAME: Sally Louisa Tompkins
DATES: 1833 to 1916
HIGHEST RANK: Captain
SERVICE RECORD: Opened Robertson Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, on August 1, 1861. Commissioned captain of cavalry on September 9, 1861. Ceased operating the hospital on June 13, 1865.
Born into a wealthy and altruistic family in coastal Mathews County, Virginia, in 1833, Sally Louisa Tompkins was destined for a life of philanthropy. After moving to Richmond, Tompkins spent much of her time and a considerable portion of her fortune assisting causes she considered worthy. With the onset of civil war, she labored tirelessly on the behalf of the South’s wounded soldiers, and for this she became the first and only woman to receive an officer’s commission in the Confederate army.
After the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861 left northern Virginia littered with wounded, the fledgling Confederate government pleaded with its citizens to open their homes to the wounded. Tompkins was among the first to respond. She sought help from her friend, Judge Robertson of the Circuit Court of Richmond and Henrico County, and he offered her his home at the corner of Third and Main Streets in Richmond. At her own expense, Tompkins transformed the house into a hospital, naming it in honor of the generous judge. Tompkins’s keen eye for detail and her obsession with cleanliness made Robertson Hospital, which opened on August 1, one of the South’s most vital institutions, and Confederate authorities hurried their most desperate cases to her.
Tompkins’s reputation grew, and soon wounded Rebel soldiers, calling her “the little lady with the milk-white hands,” begged to be sent to her hospital. Soldiers of all ranks proposed marriage to her. She turned them all down, saying, “Poor fellows, they are not yet well of their fevers.” She never married.
Only a few weeks after the hospital opened, President Jefferson Davis placed all Southern hospitals under the control of the Confederate Medical Department. In recognition of Tompkins’s service, Davis commissioned her a captain of cavalry on September 9. Flattered, Tompkins refused all pay but accepted the rank because it enabled her to obtain supplies far more easily than she would have as a civilian. Her patients soon gave her the affectionate nickname “Captain Sally.”
Tompkins worked exhaustively until the hospital closed on June 13, 1865, two months after Union soldiers had occupied the Confederate capital. In four years as chief, Tompkins had admitted 1,333 patients, losing just 73 of them, a remarkable 94.5 percent survival rate. After the war, Tompkins’s continued philanthropy wiped out her fortune and compelled her to enter Richmond’s Home for Confederate Women. She died in 1916 and was buried with full military honors at Kingston Church in Mathews County. Years later, two chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were named for her, the Confederacy’s only woman officer.