Phoebe Pember served a hospital matron in one of the wards of Chimborazo Hospital, which was one of the largest medical facilities in Richmond, Virginia. After the war, she wrote a memoir about her experiences at this Confederate hospital, and the following excerpt is a unique blend of women’s history and healthcare in a military hospital setting.
Mrs. Pember faced many challenges and difficulties in her administrative role at Chimborazo, but the conflict with one particular visiting family is one of the more amusing incidents in the record. Her descriptions are unparalleled, so here is the incident in her own words:
One sultry day I found a whole family accompanied by two young lady friends seated around a wounded man’s bed; as I passed through six hours later, they held the same position.
“Had not you all better go home?” I said good-naturedly.
“We came to see my cousin,” answered one very crossly. “He is wounded.”
“But you have been with him all morning, and that is a restraint upon the other men. Come again to-morrow.”
A consultation was held, but when it ceased no movement was made, the older ones only lighting their pipes and smoking in silence.
“Will you come back to-morrow, and go now?”
“No! You come into the wards when you please, and so will we!”
“But it is my duty to do so. Besides, I always ask permission to enter, and never stay longer than fifteen minutes at a time.”
Another unbroken silence, which was a trial to any patience left, and finding no movement made, I handed some clothing to a patient near. “
Here is a clean shirt and drawers for you, Mr. Wilson; put them on as soon as I get out of the ward.”
I had hardly reached my kitchen, when the whole procession, pipes and all, passed me solemnly and angrily; but for many days, and even weeks, there was no ridding the place of this large family connection. Their sins were manifold. They overfed their relative who was recovering from an attack of typhoid fever, and even defiantly seized the food for the purpose from under my very nose. They marched on me en masse at ten o’clock at night, with a requisition from the boldest for sleeping quarters. The steward was summoned, and said “he didn’t keep a hotel,” so in a weak moment of pity for their desolate state, I imprudently housed them in my laundry. They entrenched themselves there for six days, making predatory incursions into my kitchen during my temporary absences, ignoring Miss G. completely. The object of their solicitude recovered and was sent to the field, and finding my writs of ejectment were treated with contemptuous silence, I sought an explanation. The same spokeswoman alluded to above, met me half-way. She said a battle was imminent she had heard, and she had determined to remain, as her husband might be wounded. In the ensuing press of business she was forgotten, and strangely enough, her husband was brought in with a bullet in his neck the following week. The back is surely fitted to the burden, so I contented myself with retaking my laundry, and letting her shift for herself, while a whole month slipped away. One morning my arrival was greeted with a general burst of merriment from everybody I met, white and black. Experience had made me sage, and my first question was a true shot, right in the center.
“Where is Mrs. Daniells?” (she who had always been spokeswoman).
“In ward G. She has sent for you two or three times.”
“What is the matter now?”
“You must go and see.”
There was something going on, either amusing or amiss. I entered ward G, and walked up to Daniells’ bed. One might have heard a pin drop.
I had supposed, up to this time, that I had been called upon to bear and suffer every annoyance that humanity and the state of the country could inflict; but here was something most unexpected in addition ; for lying composedly on her husband’s cot (he had relinquished it for the occasion), lay Mrs. Daniells, and her baby, just two hours old.
The conversation that ensued is not worth repeating, being more of the nature of soliloquy. The poor little wretch had ventured into a bleak and comfortless portion of the world, and its inhuman mother had not provided a rag to cover it. No one could scold her at such a time, however ardently they might desire to do so. But what was to be done? I went in search of my chief surgeon, and our conversation although didactic was hardly satisfactory on the subject.
“Doctor, Mrs. Daniells has a baby. She is in ward G. What shall I do with her?”
“A baby! Bless me! Ah indeed! You must get it some clothes.”
“What must I do with her?”
“Move her to an empty ward and give her some tea and toast.” This was offered, but Mrs. D. said she would wait until dinner-time and have some bacon and greens.
The baby was a sore annoyance. The ladies of Richmond made up a wardrobe, each contributing some article, and at the end of the month, Mrs D., the child, and a basket of clothing and provisions were sent to the cars with a return ticket to her home in western Virginia. My feelings of relief can be imagined. But the end had not come. An hour after the ambulance had started with them, it stopped at my kitchen door apparently empty, and the black driver with a grin half of delighted mischief and half of fear silently lifted a bundle out and deposited it carefully upon my kitchen dresser. Mrs. Daniells’ baby!
The unnatural woman had deserted it, leaving it in the railroad depot, but the father fortunately was still with us and to him I appealed. A short furlough was obtained for him, and he was dispatched home with his embarrassing charge and a quart of milk. He was a wretched picture of helplessness, but had I sent again for the mother I should never have got rid of her. It may be remarked in passant that she was not wholly ungrateful, for the baby was named after me.
Phoebe Pember. A Southern Woman’s Story. Originally published in 1914. Accessed through Google Books, pages 108-112.