A Southern Lady’s Self-less Service

Look Away To Dixieland! Now, it’s time to introduce and remember some brave ladies from the South and their role as nurses or hospital matrons.

In the South, the prejudice against women’s service in the medical field was even more pronounced than in the North. But the ladies were not discouraged. While old-school surgeons made life unpleasant, saying that a woman must stay home and in her sphere of influence, the ladies argued that tending the sick and injured had been one of the tasks in their homemaker roles and that it became a way to contribute patriotic service. (For a more complete discussion of the argument, please read: Nurses of the American Civil War – An Overview)

Today I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite Southern nurses and share an overview of her experiences and contributions to the war effort. Meet Miss Kate Cumming…

Miss Kate Cumming

Miss Kate Cumming

A Scotswoman Goes To War

Miss Kate Cumming was a Scottish immigrant who lived with her family in Mobile, Alabama. She was born in 1835 and came to America when she was child; she was raised as a Southerner, but was conscious and proud of her Scottish heritage.

In 1860, as the politics of war reached a boiling point, Miss Kate and the other ladies of Mobile began to take an interest in the situation, reading newspapers and discussing the state of the nation. When the War Between The State began in 1861, the town rejoiced,  expected a short conflict, and happily sent the boys to war. That spring Miss Kate’s mother and sisters returned to Scotland, but our heroine remained to “keep house” for her father and brother.

Miss Kate knew she could do something to contribute to the war effort. Reverend Benjamin Miller – a friend of her family – gave an address and asked ladies of good character to volunteer and go to the front as hospital nurses. Miss Kate wanted to go, but her father and brother worried about her safety if she left home. For a few months, she stayed home, collecting and making supplies (supporting the war effort from home.)

One day Miss Kate made up her mind. That day she’d seen close acquaintances and childhood friends leave town as soldiers in the 21st Alabama Regiment. Inspired by patriotism, she persuaded her family to let her go – if she was properly chaperoned – and told Reverend Miller that she would go serve as hospital nurse. Though she admitted she had never been to a hospital, she took courage from the example and writing of Florence Nightengale (a British lady who organized a corps of nurses during the Crimean War).

April 7, 1862 – “I left Mobile by the Mobile and Ohio Railroad for Corinth, with Rev. Mr. Miller and a number of Mobile ladies…”

This is NOT a photograph of Miss Kate, but it represents some of the duties of a Civil War Nurse

This is NOT a photograph of Miss Kate, but it represents some of the duties of a Civil War Nurse

Three Years, Hundreds of Miles, Thousands of Wounded

From 1862 until 1865, Miss Kate served in the medical hospitals of the Confederate Army of the Tennessee. She worked mostly in established hospitals (not frontline like Clara Barton). She fought against wasteful uncaring surgeons, cleaned filthy hospitals, bargained for healthy food for the injured and sick, commented on the military situations, dressed wounds, wrote letters home, read the Bible and prayed. Organized and worked through numerous hospital evacuations as the Confederate army retreated.

Through it all, Miss Kate was a lady and she maintained her sense of propriety. She never travelled alone; she worked alongside other ladies of good character. And she took time to note this in her journal.

Also, in all the horror of hospital work, she never lost her appreciation for the beautiful things in life. Her journal is filled with quotes and references to poetry, prose, and Scripture. Miss Kate’s perception and attention to detail is remarkable – making her writing one of the most vivid and informative accounts of the Confederate medical service and Southern ladies’ roles in it.

May I Quote You, Miss Kate?

Here are some my favorite quotes and excerpts from Miss Kate Cumming’s journal:

I have no patience with women who I hear telling what wonders they would do if they were only men, when I see so much of their own legitimate work left undone.

Women of the South, let us remember that our fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons are giving up all that mortals can for us; that they are exposed hourly to the deadly missiles of the enemy; the fatigues of hard marching, through burning suns, frost, and sleet; pressed by hunger and thirst; subject to diseases of all kinds from exposure; and last, though by no means least, the evil influences that are common in a large army. Are we aware of all this, and unwilling to nurse these brave heroes who are sacrificing so much for us? What, in the name of common sense, are we to do? Sit calmly down, knowing that there is many a parched lip which would bless us for a drop of water, and many a wound to be bound up? These things are not be done, because it is not considered respectable!?

Kate Cumming QuoteWar is a great leveler, and makes philosophers of us, when nothing else will.

We profess to be Christians; do not let us make a mockery of the name, but give Him the glory and honor unto whom it is due.

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.

Concluding Thoughts

Miss Kate was a strong lady when she volunteered for hospital service, but her experiences sharpened her beliefs and commitment to serving others. She kept the spirit and heart of a Southern lady while contributing in a new and unique setting created by war.

I think what I admire most about Miss Kate Cumming is her feminine attitude and self-less actions. She was pushing the limits of Southern thinking, regarding the role and place for ladies; but she wasn’t not acting from a desire for womanly independence. She was acting with a generous heart, seeking a new way to serve others. Far from flouting traditional values, she was seeking a way to extend the gracious, courageous, self-less role of a Southern lady to a place of greet need: the Confederate hospital.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Want to read Kate Cumming’s journal? You can find a printed edition HERE and an abridged e-book edition HERE. Happy reading!

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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