Advanced Search | Text Only

Product Cover


A Southern Woman's Story: Phoebe Yates Pember
With an Introduction by George C. Rable

by Pember, Phoebe Yates and Rable, George C.
Publisher: University of South
Retail Price: $14.95
Issue: Fall 2002
ISBN: 1570034516

One vast hospital'

That the Confederacy's Secretary of War,Judah P. Benjamin of New Orleans, wasJewish is an interesting, well-knownfact. Almost equally well-known since1866 is that, metaphorically, one of theConfederacy's most effective generalswas Jewish. A childless widow, Phoebe YatesPember, held the post of chief matron at theChimborazo Hospital in Richmond more successfully than most generals held forts.And she lost fewer battles, except for thoseshe lost to death in her valiant efforts to feedand comfort 76,000 Virginia and Maryland casualties throughout the war. Her adversarieswere hospital administrators and surgeonswho were disdainful of her petticoat government of the hospital complex, foodshortages, a colonel who refused her a seatin a rail car, ambulatory patients demanding access to the whiskey barrel, hordes ofvisitors, and the strong-willed but too-refinedladies whose style of care was more troublethan it was worth.

Ever since her story appeared serially inCosmopolite, beginning in the January 1866issue only months after the end of the war,historians have had access to her vivid, harrowing,sometimes humorous stories andinsights about life on the home front in thebesieged capital of the Confederacy whereresults of the generals' decisions arrived indroves of bleeding men. In book form, hermemoir, A Southern Woman's Story, publishedin 1879, has long been a source fromwhich historians have often quoted. With an introduction by George C. Rable, Universityof South Carolina Press has reissued thisrealistic and well-written work in its AmericanCivil War Classics Series, edited by Gary W. Gallagher and Robert K. Krick (Columbia,South Carolina, ISBN 1570034516, $14.95,softcover). She is an outstanding example of the many Southern Jews, not only women, but merchants and even rabbis, who were fiercely patriotic, as Robert Rosen thoroughly documents in The Jewish Confederates(Columbia: University of South CarolinaPress, 2000).

General Pember not only writes aboutthe many situations in which she tookcharge, her style itself is a take-charge batteryof rhetoric. Her voice is never that of thehypersensitive, delicate Southern lady witha backbone of steel; rather the steel is visiblein every line, whether she delineates hospitalhorrors, satirizes the foibles of administratorsand surgeons, dramatizes a deathbed scene,or discharges witty insights. Having movedamong thousands of maimed soldiers,Pember observes that a woman must soarbeyond the conventional modesty consideredcorrect under different circumstances.

If the ordeal does not chasten and purifyher nature, if the contemplation of sufferingand endurance does not make her wiser andbetter, and if the daily fire through which shepasses does not draw from her nature thesweet fragrance of benevolence, charity, andlovełthen, indeed a hospital has been no fitplace for her!

Hers is the elevated Victorian style at itsfinest, expressing the attitudes of an upperclassgentlewoman. Invading the realm ofthe warrior male, she took up rhetoric like asword and wielded it both in vigorous narrativeand in confrontational dialogue.

A tone of arrogance and egocentrism pervadesher memoir but with the self-awarenessof a writer who assumes her reader willenjoy, on the evidence, her sense of havingmet and conquered the enemy.

An enduring voice worth preserving,Phoebe Yates Pember's stark descriptions ofthis enormous hospital embodies Whitman'slament that America has been turned intoone vast hospital.

Founding Director ofthe United States CivilWar Center, DavidMadden is the author ofthree books on the CivilWar, including a novel,Sharpshooter. He is coeditorof the Classics ofCivil War Fiction seriesfor the University ofAlabama Press.


A Southern Woman's Story: Phoebe Yates Pember
With an Introduction by George C. Rable
, by Pember, Phoebe Yates, Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2002).