- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

The United States was totally unprepared for the war that began after Fort Sumter surrendered. Nowhere was this more tragically demonstrated than in the hospitals, Union and Confederate, that were unable to cope with the thousands of severely injured, often dying men who crowded their wards.

The plight of the wounded was immeasurably worsened by delays in taking them where they would receive often pitifully inadequate medical attention. Many were left untended on battlefields long after the guns had fallen silent.

Surgeons, not all of them highly skilled, did their best to treat the human wreckage from cannon and rifle fire, but the continuing loss of life was appalling. One Southern hospital alone received more than 77,000 men, and of those, some 16,000 died there. Its name was Chimborazo, derived, for some strange reason, from a province in the South American republic of Ecuador.

How many more lives would have been lost had it not been for the devoted care provided by women, most not professionally trained, who gave unsparingly of their time, energy and compassion? Regrettably, many surgeons did not appreciate the loyal support they received.

One such woman was Phoebe Pember, who became known as “the Angel of Chimborazo.” Born Phoebe Yates in Charleston, S.C., in 1823, she moved with her wealthy Jewish parents to Savannah, Ga., where, probably in 1840, she married Thomas Pember, a merchant from Boston. He contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after the Federal surrender of Fort Sumter in 1861.

Phoebe seems to have acquired some knowledge of medicine and some nursing experience. She became friendly with the wife of George Wythe Randolph. A Virginia native, Randolph (1818-1867) became a lawyer, was made a Confederate brigadier general in February 1862 and was appointed secretary of war the following month. Ill health from tuberculosis forced him to resign.

Phoebe must have met Mrs. Randolph after she left Savannah and settled in Richmond. She was determined to help the Southern cause and thought she could best do so through hospital work. It is likely she used her friendship with Mrs. Randolph to that end. At first her efforts were rebuffed. Finally, she approached Surgeon General Samuel Moore, who offered her a senior position at Chimborazo.

The very large hospital, with 75 wards, was divided into five divisions, and Phoebe was appointed head matron of the 2nd Division toward the end of 1862. A woman of great energy and determination, unafraid of voicing her opinions, she threw herself wholeheartedly into her daunting tasks.

For all the hospital’s size, care at Chimborazo was primitive, and the hospital was notorious for its stench, probably from gangrene. At times openly critical of the surgeons with whom she had to work, Phoebe Pember rid the 2nd Division of its foul odors, saw to it that all patients had clean bed linen and got rid of inefficient male nurses, replacing them with more effective female ones. She kept a close watch on the always inadequate medical supplies. She even ensured better food preparation. Little wonder the men adored her even if the surgeons resented her forceful personality.

Chimborazo treated not only wounded men, but those who suffered from what would now be termed battle fatigue. The death toll at Chimborazo was high, a shortage of medical supplies being a contributory factor.

Phoebe began her duties on Dec. 1, 1862, and took time off during the autumn of 1864 to visit her parents in Georgia. Travel in the disintegrating Confederacy was difficult, but she managed to see her parents and get back to her work at Chimborazo.

By the end of hostilities in 1865, her duties had lessened. Many injured Confederates who were able to move chose to leave the hospital, fearing capture and transfer to Federal military prisons. Phoebe had her own concerns. What would become of Chimborazo when the blue uniforms arrived, and how would she be treated?

She need not have worried. She was permitted to retain her position until required to hand over the facility to members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She was allowed to leave. She had served the Confederacy well, earning the respect and gratitude of innumerable soldiers. She must have been one of the last people to hold a senior post in the defeated Confederacy.

She left nursing and traveled extensively, perhaps with money inherited from her parents. She also made her own useful contribution to the literature of the Civil War. Throughout her years at Chimborazo, she had kept a comprehensive diary, and she drew heavily on this for “A Southern Woman’s Story,” written and published many years after the war.

Phoebe Yates Pember died, at age 90, in 1913, only a year before another, even more terrible war began.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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