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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Confederate Nurse Kate Cumming, the Army of Tennessee

by Gordon Thorsby

Confederate Hospital (actually Richmond VA, April, 1865.)

“...From my experiences since last writing on that subject, a lady's respectability must be at a low ebb when it can be endangered by going into a hospital." -- Kate Cumming, regarding the lack of female volunteer nurses.


Kate Cumming (182801909) made her mark in the Confederate hospitals of the Army of Tennessee and she broke the glass ceiling in Southern hospitals and Southern Culture.


Her birth was somewhere between 1828 and 1835 in Edinburgh, Scotland and arrived in Mobile Alabama at a time when the South made an impression on her. The war broke out and though her family vehemently opposed her volunteering for nursing at 27 (the work violated a lady’s etiquette to see men’s bodies) she saw the need to help and off she went to Shiloh. She left Mobile for northern Mississippi with a group of 40 other women volunteers. Hospital conditions were atrocious and many of the volunteers quit, but Cumming stayed. The hospitals were melting pots of attendants and assistants that included men, women and African Americans, free and slave aiding the sick and wounded.


After Shiloh, she worked at the two battles at Corinth. When her work moved to Chattanooga's Newsome Hospital, her duties focused on floor and hospital staff management. The Confederate Congress finally recognized the employment of women in Confederate hospitals under the title as matrons in late 1862. Chattanooga was

evacuated in mid-1863 and her work continued in a mobile hospital group in Georgia. Quality of medical care suffered from lack of supplies amid mounting casualties and so Cumming’s duties expanded. Duties now included foraging for food and medical supplies under the supervision of Dr. Samuel Stout, Medical Director of the Army of Tennessee. Stout was a pioneer of Mobile (M.A.S.H style) units for emergency surgery and first aid.


Sherman advanced into Georgia and Cumming was there where she recorded the challenges for medical teams to provide even a basic quality of care. Her journal recorded daily happenings, military movements and her experiences as a non-military witness to the changing Confederacy. The South was disappearing as an army and as a culture.


She published her journal in 1866, a real time recording that explained what female nurses experienced. We learned men hated women on the bed floors, that Kate disliked women who could not stand up to the rigors of taking care of the very sick and wounded soldiers, and that many soldiers died slow, lingering deaths. Cumming eventually assisted surgeons in amputations, bullet extractions and she performed post-operative duties of wound flushing and changing bandages.


She never married. Her family were her patients. After the war, she focused on ladies memorial associations, daughters of the Confederacy, and teaching. Her first book was, “ A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War: With Sketches of Life and Character, and Brief Notices of Current Events During That Period” was the name of her journal. Four days after Shiloh where the casualties in the two days were on a scale never seen in America, she wrote:


I daily witness the same sad scenes-men dying all around me. I do not know who they are, nor have I time to learn.”


The very next day:


“…going round as usual this morning, washing the faces of the men, and got half through with one before I found out that he was dead.”

She edited and republished the journal again in 1895 titled, "Gleanings from Southland." Cumming died on June 5, 1909 in Birmingham, AL.


The journal preface offered some wisdom:

"Let us cease to live on the surface; let us do and dare—remembering, if we are true to ourselves, the world will be true to us."


In the journal was a poem by an unknown author. Here is some of that verse.


Fold away all your bright-tinted dresses,

Turn the key on your jewels today,

And the wealth of your tendril-like tresses

Braid back in a serious way;

No more delicate gloves, no more laces,

No more trifling in boudoir or blower,

But come with your souls in your faces

To meet the stern wants of the hour.


Looks around. By the torchlight unsteady

The dead and the dying seem one—

What! Trembling and paling already,

Before your dear mission’s begun?


These wounds are more precious than ghastly—

Time presses her lips to each scar,

While she chants of that glory which vastly

Transcends all the horrors of war.


Some wife shades her eyes in the clearing,

Some mother sits moaning distressed,

While the loved one lies faint but unfearing,

With the enemy’s ball in his breast.


Here’s another—a lad—a mere stripling,

Picked up in the field almost dead,

With the blood through his sunny hair rippling

From the horrible gash in the head.


Pass on! It is useless to linger

While others are calling your care;

There is need for your delicate finger,

For your womanly sympathy there.


There are sick ones athirst for caressing,

There are dying ones raving at home,

There are wounds to be bound with a blessing,

And shrouds to make ready for some.


But e’en if you drop down unheeded,

What matter? God’s ways are the best:

You have poured out your life where ‘twas needed,

And he will take care of the rest.



Sources:


Unknown author, “A Call to the Hospital,” in Kate Cumming, A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, from the battle of Shiloh to the end of the war. By Kate Cummings (Louisville: 1866), pp. 104-105


https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/the-civil-war/poem-about-civil-war-nurses-

http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1101


Harwell, R., ed., Kate, The Journal of a Confederate Nurse (1959). Massey, M. E., Bonnet Brigades: American Women and the Civil War (1966). Scott, A. F. The Southern Lady (1971)


Garrison, Webb, Amazing Women of the Civil War (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 5


University of Southern Mississippi, Special Collections, | 118 College Drive #5148 | Hattiesburg, MS 39406-0001 | https://lib.usm.edu/spcol/exhibitions/item_of_the_month/iotm_april_09/



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