Did you know… Kate Cumming?

Kate Cumming, Civil War nurse

Kate Cumming was a proper Southern belle but bridled at the strictures placed upon women of her time, when nursing was not considered a respectable occupation for a woman.

Kate was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1830. Her family emigrated to Alabama, settling in Mobile. Kate obtained an average education, but read widely, including the writings of Florence Nightengale. Kate spent her formative years in Mobile and strongly identified herself as a southerner, although she also valued her Scottish roots. She lived a comfortable life until, like many of her female peers, she became caught up in the atmosphere of political rhetoric and romanticized excitement that preceded the outbreak of the Civil War. Concern over the course of the war and what it could mean for the South prompted her mother and sisters to leave Alabama for England at the start of the war, but Kate remained. She desired to help, but did not, like some, wish to take a man’s role -rather she thought women could do enough in support of the army if only they would rise to the task.

As she watched the war, and the men leaving for battle, she chafed under idleness and felt she should do something. While deterred initially by concerns of propriety, when Shiloh came, and at the urging of her minister, she departed for hospitals in Corinth, MS to nurse the wounded. Her own brother was in the battle under Hardee with Ketchum’s battery. She never looked back.

On April 11, 1862, Kate arrived at Corinth. She and her party had attempted to get closer to the battlefield from the seventh on but were prevented by military authorities, through a misunderstanding. They traveled all night by train through the terrible storms, only to be told that they could not proceed. Once given permission she moved to the hospital. The sights that greeted her there were horrific beyond measure. Kate records :

Mrs. Ogden tried to prepare me for the scenes which I should witness upon entering the wards. But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here. I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene. Certainly, none of the glories of the war were presented here. But I must not say that; for if uncomplaining endurance is glory, we had plenty of it. If it is that which makes the hero, here they were by scores. Gray-haired men—men in the pride of manhood—beardless boys—Federals and all, mutilated in every imaginable way, lying on the floor, just as they were taken from the battlefield; so close together that it was almost impossible to walk without stepping on them. I could not command my feelings enough to speak, but thoughts crowded upon me. O, if the authors of this cruel and unnatural war could but see what I saw there, they would try and put a stop to it! To think, that it is man who is working all this woe upon his fellow-man.

Prior to this, Kate had ne’er seen an army or a wounded man. Yet her reactions are not dissimilar to those of her northern sisters, on entering the medical service. After four months in Corinth, she returned home briefly, but unlike some who couldn’t stand the carnage, she sought a permanent position in a hospital and served through the remainder of the war. She journaled, and it is from her diary that we have most of the first-hand account, from a Southern perspective, of Civil War nursing. Her brother survived the battle, as Ketchum’s battery aided in covering the retreat.

Kate moved on to Chattanooga, after an exhausting trip by boat and train of six hundred miles in thirty-six hours. Again, she was almost turned back but prevailed against the guards enough to get to a hotel, where they were denied rooms until Kate encountered an old friend, a Major Proctor who would vouch for her. They obtained passes and were able then to move about freely.

Opposition

Kate and her sister nurses encountered opposition as they toured the hospitals of Chattanooga area, in some cases being forced to split up, as it was “unseemly” for more than one woman to be in a hospital. Kate voices her frustration by saying

There is a good deal of trouble about the ladies in some of the hospitals of this department. Our friends here have advised us to go home, as they say it is not considered respectable to go into one…

It seems strange that the aristocratic women of Great Britain have done with honor what is a disgrace for their sisters on this side of the Atlantic to do. This is not the first time I have heard these remarks. Not respectable! And who has made it so? If the Christian, high-toned, and educated women of our land shirk their duty, why others have to do it for them.

The Confederate defeat at Stones River, one day after the Emancipation Proclamation, brought streams of wounded to the hospital where Kate served. Worries about propriety were forgotten amid the desperate human suffering, so many men to tend. There were over 7,500 wounded to nurse, encourage, and many a dying hand to hold. When Kate wrote on January 2, it was regarded as a Confederate victory – the true story was only known later as Bragg’s inept generalship and the flood of casualties overwhelmed the available medical resources.

The jobs performed by Kate and other matrons included managing hospital departments, cooking, foraging in the countryside for supplies, caring for soldiers’ physical and emotional wellbeing, sewing, writing letters, attending men’s deathbeds, and supervising the hospital labor force. 

Kate records: There is a large ward across from us, divided by a curtain, “which is filled with typhoid and pneumonia cases. I counted seven men in the ward, blistered severely. Though the room is so near ours, we have no time to spend in it. Many a time through the night we hear the men cough and groan, but we cannot even allow our minds to dwell on these things, as it would unfit us for our duties. We visit the wards at least twice a day; but many of the patients are brought in at night, and are dead before morning.”

Amid all the carnage, Kate found time for some dark humor. In tending a roomful of amputees, she mentions:

Nearly all the wounded are doing well. We shall not lose near as many as we thought. We have a room with seven men in it, who have lost a limb each. It is a perfect treat to go into it, as the men seem to do little else but laugh. They are young men, and say to me, and I must tell all the young ladies to come and see them, and that they will make excellent husbands, as they will be sure never to run away.

Though decrying the barbarism of the war, Kate remained an unreconstructed Confederate, blaming Lincoln and the North for the troubles. She was an adherent of the “Lost Cause” school of thought. Her views were shared by many, not only in the South. Kate often laments the poor treatment of blacks by foreigners and those in the North.

If the negro should be set free by this war, which I believe he will be, whether we gain or not, it will be the Lord’s doing. The time has come when his mission has ended as a slave, and while he has been benefited by slavery the white race has suffered from its influence.

We all know what the negro is free and as a slave. In the latter capacity he is better, morally and physically, than in the former, and he is much more respected in his place.
” – Kate Cumming

She denounced the trial and execution of the commander of Andersonville, Henry Wirz. Kate Cumming never married and remained devoted to preserving and promoting the memory of the Confederacy. In 1874 she moved from Mobile to Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote, taught school and music, and remained active in her church and the United Daughters of the Confederacy until she died on June 7, 1909. 

Cumming, Kate. Kate: The Journal Of A Confederate Nurse. Golden Springs Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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