I’ve come to a decision. If I had lived during the Civil War era, and if I’d been around the age of thirty and a spinster, I would’ve volunteered as a hospital matron in a base hospital. I’d rather not be a nurse. Just my opinion… Why? Well, I’ve been reading the reminiscence of a hospital matron, and I have a new appreciation for that role.
Meet Phoebe Yates Pember – the hospital matron whose writing prompted my rambling thoughts. Today we’ll explore the job description, conflicts, and humor in a Confederate hospital through the explanations of Mrs. Pember.
Job Description: Hospital Matron
“She was to be cook and housekeeper, and nothing more.” That, folks, is the one sentence job description written by Mrs. Pember. Now, let’s explain…
I don’t know about your experiences, but my observation is that guys don’t usually make the world’s best housekeepers. My brothers will clean up their stuff and vacuum, and my dad will wash the dishes. And they know how to cook…pretty well. But, when it comes, to spring house cleaning, remembering to scrub the shower and sinks, and planning healthy meals for a week, the ladies win the prize.
Now, rewind the timeline about 150 years. Guys are even more dependent on ladies to control the domestic sphere. But then this war comes along… Hospitals are established. The guys can do a great job hacking off arms and legs, but when it comes to cooking and cleaning…DISASTER! Well, they tried, and we’ll give them an A+ for effort. But a soldier who’s just recently recovered from dysentery and who’s just strong enough to get out of bed, yet not well enough to go back to the army is not going to be the world’s best organizer, cook, Laundromat manager, sympathetic listener…and remember to make sure the chamber pots get emptied. So the hospital becomes an organized mess with a lot of hungry patients lying in dirty beds with irritable surgeons and assistants dashing around.
A hospital matron was a lady of respectable character who came to a medical facility to bring order to chaos. She was supposed to run a hospital the way she ran a home: organized, efficient, quiet, meeting the needs of everyone in a timely manner. She had assistants, but she oversaw all the work to keep the everything clean and everyone nourished. Brava!
Born in 1823, married in 1856, and widowed in 1861, Phoebe Yates Pember lived in South Carolina and Georgia during the early years of the war. In 1862 she volunteered and was appointed a hospital matron for a section of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. (Chimborazo Hospital was the largest medical facility in the Confederacy and over 76,000 patients came through its doors during the war; Mrs. Pember worked in one section of the large facility).
She spent the next years bring order to chaos, solving logistical and rationing problems, and overseeing the domestic aspects of hospital life. Mrs. Pember was fortunate to have the approval and support of the chief surgeon in her hospital section and was respected by most of the medical staff and patients.
Her reminiscences was written in 1866, but not published until 1879. Valuable for its details of the Confederate Medical Service, observations on Southern nationalism and sectionalism, and the stories from the life of a hospital matron, Mrs. Pember’s writing is respected by historians, researchers, and history buffs alike.
Mrs. Pember vs. The Whiskey Vandals
Mrs. Pember’s major and continuing battle was not for recognition or respect, but against drunkenness. Early in her days as a hospital matron, she noticed that the whiskey supply diminished very rapidly. (In those days, whiskey was used as a medical stimulant and as a painkiller.) Being a smart lady, she quickly determined that assistants or surgeons were stealing drinks.
Consulting her official regulation book published by the Confederate government, Mrs. Pember discovered that alcohol was part of the food supply and thus should be under her watchful eye. After some debate, she took the whiskey barrel and locked it in her room. Theft ceased, but she was continually pestered by medical staff who invented reasons to get extra whiskey for their wards.
Adventures continued through the years. A drunken nurse (a lady!) was sent home in disgrace. And in the final days of the war, she ordered some already drunken convalescents out of her room at gunpoint. Control of the whiskey undoubtedly lessened the medical disasters in her hospital and gave her a feeling of power.
Mrs. Pember’s Hospital Humor
A Civil War hospital wasn’t exactly a place for jokes, but Mrs. Pember did record some delightful incidents (along with her tragic observations.) I can’t relate them the way she wrote them, but here’s a sampling to get you interested in reading her book.
- The soldier who refused to eat chicken soup because he didn’t like the “floating weeds” (parsley)
- The nurse who arrived with 7 trunks, built a partitioned room in one of the wards, and drank the medicinal whiskey…before she was thrown out of the hospital
- The soldier who complimented Mrs. Pember’s appearance by saying she looked “as pretty as pair of red shoes with green strings.” (Hmm…bizarre…)
- Best of all – the lady who arrived to see a sick cousin, made a great nuisance of herself, and then refused to leave because she believed her husband would be wounded. Unfortunately, he was wounded and this annoying lady stayed another month, delivered a baby, started for home, forgot her baby, and the wounded father had to escort his infant home!
Mrs. Pember’s organizational skills, courage, and determination improved the housekeeping situation in one section of Chimborazo Hospital. She ensured that the domestic duties were accomplished, planned nutritious meals, encouraged sick or injured patients, won the battle against drunkenness, and – amongst all the sadness of a hospital setting – still maintained a sense of humor.
So…good homemaking skills, patience, and domestic diplomacy are useful and just might make history, if done properly!
P.S. Want to read A Southern Woman’s Story by Phoebe Yates Pember? Here’s a link to both printed copies and a Kindle edition via Amazon.