This Day in Jewish History / An Ironic Confederate Nurse Is Born

Desperate for men on the battlefield, the Confederates let women into the wards, leading Phoebe Pember to create the position of 'matron.’

August 18, 1823, is the birthdate of Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, the Charleston, South Carolina-born Jewish nurse and administrator of a Confederate army hospital during the Civil War. She became something of a legend by way of the ironic and insightful memoir she published of her experiences.

Phoebe Levy was the daughter of Jacob Clavius Levy, the son of Polish-immigrant parents and a prominent Charleston merchant, and the Liverpool-born Fanny Yates, a successful Charleston actress. Phoebe was the fourth of their seven children.

The family was strongly loyal to the Confederate cause. Her older sister Eugenia married a U.S. congressman from Alabama, and was herself imprisoned several times by Federal authorities for her Southern nationalism. A younger brother, Samuel, was a major in the Georgia infantry and spent time as a Union prisoner of war.

Georgia-bound

In the late 1840s, the Levy family left Charleston for Savannah, Georgia after Jacob encountered financial difficulties. It is not known how much formal schooling Phoebe had, but she was clearly well read and worldly. In 1856, she married a non-Jewish Northerner, Thomas Noyes Pember, of Boston, but was left a childless widow when he died of tuberculosis in 1861.

In late 1862, Pember’s friend Mary Elizabeth Adams Pope Randolph, wife of the Confederate secretary of war, asked if she wanted to work as a nurse at the Chimborazo military hospital in the Southern capital of Richmond, Virginia. Chimborazo was then the world’s largest military hospital, admitting some 76,000 wounded and sick patients over the course of the war. Its mortality rate was a relatively low 9-10 percent.

The Confederate legislature had passed a law empowering women to work in army hospitals – a move that freed up male medical personnel for battlefield service – but Pember’s presence as “matron” of one of the hospital’s five divisions elicited some hostile reactions from both patients and colleagues.

However, her decisive and authoritative manner, competence (although her only medical experience to date had been caring for her husband during his illness) and sense of humor stood her well, and Pember remained at Chimborazo from December 1862 through the fall of Richmond in April 1865.

In March 1865, less than a year after the war’s end, Pember published her reminiscences in three parts in a Baltimore magazine, the Cosmopolite. They make for fascinating reading (and are available online, at no charge, at http://www.mdgorman.com/Hospitals/pember_memoir_cosmopolite.htm). Fourteen years later, the articles were collected and published, with some abridgement, in book form as “A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond.”

‘Whether right or wrong’

To the extent that she refers to the war’s purpose, Pember doesn’t mention slavery but rather states’ rights, and writes how “the women of the South … incited the men to struggle for their liberties, and whether right or wrong, sustained them nobly to the end.”

She also doesn’t refer in the memoir to her Jewish background – although her first act at Chimborazo was to make a pot of chicken soup – but in a September 1863 letter to her sister Eugenia Levy Phillips, she noted her gratitude at belonging to a religious group that did not ask her to turn the other cheek. 

“At last I lifted my voice,” she wrote, “and congratulated myself at being born of a nation, and religion that did not enjoin forgiveness on its enemies, that enjoyed the blessed privilege of praying for an eye for an eye, and a life for a life, and was not one of those for whom Christ died in vain, considering the present state of feeling.” 

She also suggested that her Christian friends, at least until the end of the war, “should all join the Jewish Church, let forgiveness and peace and good will alone and put their trust in the sword of the Lord and Gideon.”

Phoebe Yates Levy Pember died on March 4, 1913 at age 89 while visiting a sister in Pittsburgh, and was buried back in Savannah, next to the grave of her late husband.