Shortly after the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861, Richmond was flooded with wounded Confederate soldiers. Existing hospitals were filled quickly, and the government appealed to the local population for assistance. Scores of individuals and organizations responded quickly, establishing numerous private hospitals for the relief of the wounded.
The most famous and successful of those facilities was established by Sally Louisa Tompkins in the home of Judge John Robertson on the corner of Main and Third streets. The Robertson Hospital, as it was known, treated patients continuously throughout the war, discharging its last soldier on June 13, 1865. During its four-year existence, Robertson Hospital treated 1,333 wounded and had only 73 deaths, the lowest mortality rate of any military hospital during the Civil War.
So great was her success at treating the wounded that Tompkins received a commission as captain in the Confederate Cavalry (unassigned) from President Jefferson Davis. Thus, she became the only female officer to serve in the Confederate army and the first American woman to receive a military commission. Her story demonstrates the significant contributions of countless Southern women who gave of their time, talent and treasure from Fort Sumter to Appomattox.
Sally Tompkins was born at Poplar Grove in Mathews County, Va., on Nov. 9, 1833, the youngest child of Col. Christopher Tompkins and Maria Patterson Tompkins. Her family had boasted a proud military tradition since the Revolutionary War, when Sally's grandfather, Col. John Patterson, was commissioned by Gen. George Washington after the Battle of Monmouth.
That the young woman was keenly aware of this tradition is certain. When her brother left to serve in Texas during the Mexican War, Sally, then 13 years old, wrote: "I hope you will be able to distinguish yourself in the battle and be a second George Washington and come home to receive congratulations from all your friends."
The family's martial tradition led Sally Tompkins to believe fervently in the Southern cause. After the Confederate victory at Manassas, she wrote to one of her sisters, "I felt that we could indeed say 'thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power; thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.'"
The Tompkins family also shared a deep commitment to the Episcopal Church. Sally's sister Elizabeth had led the effort to restore the dilapidated Christ Church in Mathews County, and Sally soon dedicated herself to charitable efforts of the local parish. From an early age, she displayed a natural talent for nursing and often could be found tending to the sick, both free and slave, on nearby plantations.
Her childhood, however, was marked by a series of losses. Her father died in 1838, and her three sisters, Elizabeth, Martha and Harriet, died within the next four years. She turned increasingly to nursing and church work, where she found comfort and renewal.
Shortly before the Civil War, she and her mother moved to Richmond, where they joined St. James Episcopal Church. There they encountered the wealthy and socially prominent of the city, including Judge Robertson. When the war began in 1861, Robertson moved his family to the country for safety. Sally Tompkins implored him to allow her to use the family's vacant home for a hospital, and he readily agreed.
Now she called upon the women of St. James and other well-heeled friends for support. She formed the Ladies of the Robertson Hospital and converted the private home into a 22-bed hospital, largely at her own expense. The hospital officially opened on July 31, 1861, and the first patient was admitted the next day.
Tompkins was fortunate to acquire the services of Dr. A.Y.P. Garnett, a well-known physician from Washington, as chief surgeon. At least a half-dozen other doctors worked under her and Garnett. The remainder of the hospital staff was made up of female volunteers, cooks and slaves, including "Mammy" Phoebe, a longtime Tompkins family slave who had raised Sally. Several soldiers, unable to return to active duty because of the severity of their wounds, also stayed on to help after being discharged from the hospital.
The Robertson Hospital was noted for its efficiency and especially its cleanliness. At a time when the cause of infection was not completely understood, Robertson Hospital enforced the highest level of sanitation possible. Tompkins is described in one account as "obsessed" with cleanliness, an obsession that no doubt saved the lives of many soldiers.
Not all private hospitals were run so efficiently -- or honestly. Indeed, some of the private facilities had taken to charging exorbitant sums for their services. In some cases, patients were kept, at the army's expense, beyond the necessary time for full recovery. Those and other problems caused the Confederate government to close all private hospitals, including Robertson Hospital, on Sept. 5, 1861.
According to contemporary accounts, Tompkins protested this decision even as military ambulances arrived to remove her patients. Determined to keep her hospital open, she insisted on a personal meeting with President Davis. Accompanied by Judge William W. Camp, assistant secretary of the Treasury, she showed her hospital register to the president and pointed out the high percentage of men who returned to active duty after recovering from their wounds.
Davis knew he had few options. He could close Robertson Hospital and lose the invaluable services of Tompkins and her staff, or he could commission Tompkins as an army officer and so comply with the new hospital regulations.
The decision must have been difficult for the president. No woman had ever served as an officer, and the strong military tradition of the South made such an idea unthinkable. Yet there was something remarkable about this small but powerful 27-year-old woman that caused him to relent.
Davis offered her a commission in the Confederate cavalry, and she accepted. In that way, Robertson Hospital would be under control of the army and become eligible to receive medicine, bandages and other supplies from the government.
She was made a captain on Sept. 9, 1861, but refused to accept any payment for her service. On her military commission, she wrote, "I accepted the above commission as Captain in the C.S.A. when it was offered. But, I would not allow my name to be placed upon the pay roll of the army."
For the duration of the war, Tompkins labored to relieve the pain and suffering of the Confederate wounded. Carrying her Bible and medicine bag, she spent endless hours comforting and healing those in her care. Though of slight build and only 5 feet tall, Capt. Tompkins was described as a "dignified and forceful presence." Her dedication and strength of character earned the respect and admiration of both her patients and her medical staff, and her orders were obeyed without question.
Some called her "the little lady with the milk-white hands." Others saluted her as "dearest of captains." Mary Chesnut, a frequent visitor to the hospital, wrote in her diary, "Our Florence Nightingale is named Sally Tompkins." The more than 1,300 men fortunate to be sent to Robertson Hospital called her simply "Capt. Sally."
After Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Tompkins remained in Richmond, devoting her time and what was left of her treasure to a variety of charitable and religious causes. She never married and eventually, her personal wealth depleted, took up residence at the Richmond Home for Confederate Women in 1905. She died there on July 25, 1916, at age 83.
She was buried with full military honors at Christ Church in Mathews County, where an 8-foot monument marks her final resting place. In 1961, the Capt. Sally Tompkins Memorial Window was dedicated in her honor at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond. Both remain fitting tributes to Sally Tompkins, a true angel of the Confederacy.
Ron Maggiano teaches history at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County and writes frequently on the Civil War.