Phoebe Pember((August 18, 1823 – March 4, 1913) was a South Carolina widow who became the head matron at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.
Phoebe was born into a wealthy and prominent South Carolina Jewish family, the fourth of seven children. Her father was Jacob Clavius, a successful merchant, and her mother a well regarded actress. She had a private tutor, and learned the feminine arts of the time as she grew up. One can only speculate as to why she married late at 33, but later life might suggest her strength of character deterred suitors. She was no delicate flower.
Eventually, Phoebe did marry Thomas Pember, a Gentile from Boston, two years her senior in 1856. Thomas didn’t last long. He contracted tuberculosis and died July 9, 1861 in Aiken, SC. Phoebe became a childless widow at 38. Her parents fled south to Georgia, hoping to escape the ravages of war. Phoebe went with them, but fidgeted, restless, her reserves of energy unused. Her father expected her to sew, attend parties, and play the pianoforte. Such pursuits were profoundly boring to Phoebe, who longed to be useful. She had a great friend, the wife of the Confederate Secretary of War, Mary Pope Randolph. Randolph offered her a position as matron at the Chimborazo Hospital, and Phoebe jumped at the chance. There were ninety hospital wards, forty beds each.
Almost from the beginning, Phoebe was at odds with her male colleagues. She was appalled by the abuse of hospital alcohol supplies, consumed by doctors, male nurses, and orderlies while on duty. She lobbied to be put in charge of the entire alcohol supply for the hospital, prompting complaints to superiors in the Richmond hierarchy.
During her tenure, almost 76,000 Confederate soldiers were tended. She did not practice medicine herself, lacking the training, but her skills as an administrator made sure that medical staff had the supplies needed to do their job. She also personally read for, wrote for, cared for, and otherwise helped as many wounded men as possible, up to 15,000 under her direct care during the course of the war. She got a fair amount of flak for being female, but never let it bother her. She relates one conflict with a powerful man, William Carrington, head of the Confederate Medical Dept.:
“He advanced towards the [whiskey] barrel, and so did I, only being in the inside, I interposed between him and the object of contention. The fierce temper blazed up in his face, and catching me roughly by the shoulder, he called me a name that a decent woman seldom hears and even a wicked one resents. But I had a little friend, which usually reposed quietly on the shelf, but had been removed to my pocket in the last twenty-four hours, more from a sense of protection than from any idea that it would be called into active service; so before he had time to push me one inch from my position, or to see what kind of ally was in my hand, that sharp click, a sound so significant and so different from any other, struck upon his ear, and sent him back amidst his friends, pale and shaken.
‘You had better leave,’ I said composedly (for I felt in my feminine soul that although I was near enough to pinch his nose, that I had missed him), ‘for if one bullet is lost, there are five more ready, and the room is too small for even a woman to miss six times.’” – National Museum of Civil War Medicine, Kristin Brill, and A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond, Phoebe Pember
One Confederate observer said of Phoebe that she possessed “the will of steel under a suave refinement.”
On one occasion, as she was visiting some newly arrived soldiers who had been wounded in a recent battle, one of them called for her attention. At first glance, it could be seen that he was very weak and would probably soon pass away. She stepped to his side to see what she could do for him in his final moments:
“He shook his head in negative to all offers of food or drink or suggestions of softer pillows and lighter covering.
‘I want Perry,’ was his only wish.
On inquiry I found that Perry was the friend and companion who marched by his side in the field and slept next to him in camp, but of whose whereabouts I was ignorant. Armed with a requisition from our surgeon, I sought him among the sick and wounded at all the other hospitals. I found him at Camp Jackson, put him in my ambulance, and on arrival at my own hospital found my patient had dropped asleep. A bed was brought and placed at his side, and Perry, only slightly wounded, laid upon it.”
…when the young soldier awoke, he was overjoyed to see his old friend, and got to spend the last few minutes of his life with his army buddy at his side, thanks to the quick and selfless work of Phoebe Pember.
Another time, there was a young man who had suffered a badly broken bone in his upper thigh, but he was healing and expected to make a recovery. One night, he rolled over in bed and screamed.
Phoebe came running and found that a bone splinter had poked out through his skin, and the wound was jetting blood (apparently an artery had been severed). Phoebe immediately pressed on the wound with her finger and was able to cut off the flow of blood until a surgeon arrived.
Unfortunately, when the surgeon arrived, he found that he could not locate the severed artery, and finally told Phoebe that there was no hope. She was left to break the news to the wounded man. This task was very difficult for her, but finally:
“It was done at last and the verdict received patiently and courageously, some directions given by which his mother would be informed of his death, and then he turned his questioning eyes upon my face.
‘How long can I live?’
‘Only as long as I keep my finger upon this artery.’ A pause ensued. God alone knew what thoughts hurried through that heart and brain, called so unexpectedly from all earthly hopes and ties. He broke the silence at last.
‘You can let go.’
But I could not. Not if my own life had trembled in the balance. Hot tears rushed to my eyes, a surging sound to my ears, and a deathly coldness to my lips. The pang of obeying him was spared me, and for the first and last time during the trials that surrounded me for four years, I fainted away.”
This story demonstrates once more how deeply Phoebe Pember cared for those who came into her care, but that is not the only thing that made her a successful matron at Chimborazo…
At the end, as the battle neared Richmond, many of the surgeons deserted the hospital for the front. Phoebe was moved by the cries of the wounded. Countermanding the orders of her superiors, who insisted the wounded be taken elsewhere, Phoebe received them. She heeded the cry of a soldier who said, “For God’s sake, take them in or kill them.”
After the surrender of Richmond, her duties did not end. There were still wounded to attend to, and they needed relief from pain. Laudanum and other anesthetics were not to be found, but a thirty gallon barrel of whiskey was delivered. Phoebe again resorted to her pistol to defend it, as others assumed all authority was gone, and a mere woman was of no consequence.
“Undaunted, Mr. Wilson headed for the barrel himself, but Phoebe stepped in his way. Wilson swore at her, and grabbing her arm, moved to throw her out of his way. Suddenly, he heard the distinctive sound of a pistol being cocked.”
Phoebe stayed for about six months after the conclusion of the war, tending the wounded. The Union took over the hospital, using it for their own wounded. Phoebe returned home to Marietta, Georgia. She traveled widely, speaking on the evils of war. She died of breast cancer in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1913.