From the Richmond Times, 6/30/1896, p. 15, c. 5

Place Where a Brave Woman Cared For Confederate Sufferers.
Judge Robertson’s Residence on Third and Main Converted Into a Hospital Where Sick and Wounded Soldiers Were Nurse Back to Strength.

The world resounds with the fame of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, for in their broad field of philanthropic labor, the public eye has been upon them; but in the four years of strife which Virginia knew, the self-sacrifice of hospital nurses was as great as theirs. Much of their work, hidden from the outer world, has perished. One knows that the women of the South, with one accord, in every way work for the soldiers, both in the field and in the hospitals, but the names of the women, and the nature of their work are unfortunately obscure. One young Southern woman stood alone in Virginia as the founder and supporter of a hospital. Born in Tidewater, of a line of prominent people, reared luxuriously, used to the kindliest care of servants and friends; the wonder was that she should find heart and courage for so grave an undertaking; but, like the pampered boys who made such glorious soldiers, she rose above shrinking and fear, and was one of the most capable nurses from 1861 to 1865.

The name of this little woman, who has been quite as unselfish since the war, in her zeal for her church and her friends, need hardly be written, for in the South all know her well.

In 1861 there was a call upon the citizens of Richmond just after the first battle of Manassas. The cry was “who will care for the sick and the wounded?”

Miss Sally Tompkins, was then boarding at the “Arlington” with her sister, and the old “Poplar Grove” nurse, “Aunt Phoebe.” Her ardent desire was at once to rent a room, and nurse as many men as could be comfortable put in it, and with the wish burning, she talked of it to many friends. Judge John Robertson had just sent his family away; and he at once offered his house, at the corner of Third and Main, to the zealous pioneer of Confederate nurses.

At first she hesitated. It seemed a great thing, for the Judge to do; but at last the decision was made to try the experiment. Mrs. Robertson’s furniture was moved up stairs, and the lower rooms filled with cots for the suffering soldiers.


The battle of Manassas was fought on the 21st of July, on the 31st the first sick man was brought to the “Robertson Hospital.” The founder of the institution, young and inexperienced, nursed him with her own hands, and nursed him well. He recovered and fought again. The house was full in a short time. The plan of not using Mrs. Robertson’s furniture was soon abandoned. At Mrs. Robertson’s earnest entreaty, the whole house was a sick room, and earnest Richmond women offered themselves to “Miss Sally,” as willing co-workers. Prominent among many others in this labor of love and pity, were Mrs. Eliza Semmes, sister of Mrs. Judge Meredith; Miss Eliza Davenport, whose energy never flagged, whose interest was intense to the last; Mrs. Bowen and Mrs. Judy McGuire, Mrs. Rebecca Jones kept the register, which is now at the Confederate Museum.

At first there was some perplexity as to a “physician in charge.” Mrs. Sydney Smith Lee suggested Dr. A. Y. P. Garnett, who had left Washington and come to Richmond as a refugee. He consented to be the physician of the Robertson Hospital, and attended the patients for three years.

On several occasions, he and the “head nurse” had serious arguments upon certain questions, and the woman, as is often the case came off victorious.

Dr. Garnett opposed the taking in of wounded soldiers, fearing that the delicate Southern ladies would not have the grit to dress the wounds, but “Captain” Tompkins held the adverse opinion and took in all she could shelter, informing the Doctor on many occasions, that she was head. The first wounded man who came in was from South Carolina; he was shot through the lung. Mrs. S. P. Lathrop brought him; he was judiciously and tenderly nursed, got well enough to be taken home; and afterwards joined the army again.

The “Captain” with her own hands dressed the wound of a poor fellow, who about this time had his arm fearfully shot. She improvised many ways of dressing wounds and keeping things clean. By some ingenious contrivance she fixed a tin-basin under this wounded arm, and it made her heart-sick to see how it would discharge during the night. The colored staff of this sacred institution consisted of Mammy Phoebe, mentioned before, and two “Betseys.” One was “Gay Betsey” the other “Sad Betsey.” The sick soldiers named one, “Gay Betsey.” They loved her as if she was a mother. “Sad Betsey” was faithful and kind, if a trifle lugubrious, and she still waits upon Miss Sally Tompkins, and lives in Richmond.

“Sally” was the cook, and an excellent one. She was lent to the “Robertson Hospital” by Mrs. John Spotswood Wellford.

Sally was very discriminating as to the “usefulness” of the ladies who visited the hospital. On one occasion when some well-dressed females came in, she was intensely “Sniffy,” “I knows dey ain’t no count to help you, dey’s too fine.”

One day a poor fellow came from camp ill with dysentery. When the disease was checked, he was fearfully emaciated and needed frequent nourishment, and Sally was sent up to see what he fancied. She returned with this information: “He say ef he could git a piece of right nice brown ‘possum he mout eat it.”

The market was well explored but no ‘possum could be found that day. The next morning one was procured, cooked by sally, and eagerly enjoyed by the convalescent, with the happiest result.

Miss Sally Tompkins, did not sleep at her hospital. Some quiet rest was necessary for her arduous duties, but she was there at sunrise every morning and stayed frequently until 2 o’clock, sometimes all night. Once she was there alone in the midst of a terrible storm, among the groans of the sick ones, and the feeble mutterings of the dying.

One of the soldiers whom she nursed was a Southern man named O’Brien. Since Mr. Polk Miller has been touring through the South, he has met him, and he was full of inquiry for his good friends of the Robertson Hospital.

Typhoid fever cases were numerous during the war, and among the sick with this disease at Third and Main were two poor fellows who were wildly delirious. They were in the same ward. One day one of them called for water. A good German woman who was a detailed nurse went in with a glass of cool water; the other man got indignant for some reason best known to himself, jumped out of bed and boxed the woman’s ears. In a twinkling the other sick man jumped up and boxed the ears of his fellow-sufferer, and the battle between the two waxed furious, when the “little captain” came upon the scene, and positively ordered them to bed, they obeyed like two penitent but naughty children. The sick always obeyed her implicitly.


For a long time only the money of the head nurse was expended; friends everywhere sent her clothes and eatables, butter and milk, but she assumed all responsibility. Her friends, however, had the honor and office of “captain,” conferred upon her, that she might draw pay, and use it for the increasing demands upon her hospitality. She has her commission as captain in the Confederate army signed by Hon. Jas. A. Seddon. She never drew any pay. Judge Robertson once went to collect it but found the superior officer very surly. “Good morning,” he said when he went in. No answer. Again “Good morning.” No answer. A third time “Good morning!!” and receiving still no answer, he was about to leave, extremely indignant, when an assistant inquired “What can I do for you, Judge?”

“Go to h-ll,” said the angered Judge, and he never went again to draw Miss Sally’s pay.

Many industries were carried on at the “Robertson Hospital.” Mr. Edgar Garnett exercised a supervision over the garden. There was a man in Gen. Wise’s brigade named “Crumley.” He came to the hospital sick and returned to the hospital two or three times. Gen. Wise was touched with the old fellow’s persistent bravery, but he saw that he could fight no longer, and he begged “Miss Sally” to give him something to do. She did give him employment. She got him to potter about the garden, and made him a sort of orderly of the institution. Miss Sally would mend his clothes and he used to go to St. James church every Sunday, and sit in the gallery. He was sick one day and he said to Mrs. McGuire, “Your name is so Irish please sit down and talk with me.” He told her his life’s history very touchingly. “He had loved an Irish lass, and left her behind, while he came to America to make something so they could get married; but alas! his little girl had died before the fortune was made. And Mrs. McGuire said the humble hero, “from that day to this John Crumley has been alone.”

He died the day of the evacuation and his body stayed in the hospital for a week, for the captain could not bear for Union soldiers to bury him, and when a wagon could be gotten to bear his body to Hollywood, she and “Gay Betsey” made the simple cortege.

When hostilities were fiercest there came an order to close every private hospital, because the ladies pampered the soldiers.

This almost broke the heart of the brave woman who had thrown her soul and body into her enterprise.

She wept bitter tears, and consulted influential people as to what she should so, and this plan was adopted. Her “log book” showed the number she had received, the number who had died, the number returned to the army. The latter were so much greater and the number of deaths were so much smaller than any other hospital that the order was rescinded as far as the Robertson Hospital was concerned; and that kept open doors until the end of the war. If its walls had speech and language they might have uttered words fraught with tenderest pathos; and now and then might have been a sparkle of fun.


A boy had followed his father, determined to be a soldier, although he was but fourteen. The hard life was too much for him, and when the army fell back, his father brought him to Miss Sally. “Please take care of him,” he said; “he is too ill to go on.”

He never went on, but he had the loving kindness of a mother while he lived. The little soldier in his weakness was but a little boy, and Miss Sally amused him in his last days with stories and pictures. The stories no doubt were all about soldiers, and courage, and victory, and the pictures too. Judge Robertson came in one day, and the boy asked him to pray for him. The Judge was much affected and could not keep back his tears, and he went for the Rev. Joshua Peterkin, who prayed with loving faith for the “little soldier.”

Bishop Joseph Wilmer would frequently be praying with the dying before the sun rose.

Ah! those days! Their great and solemn beauty grows nearer as the years advance!

There was another little fellow brought to the hospital, just sixteen; he had been a prisoner for some time, and just been exchanged. The day of the surrender he hear the guns firing.

“What are those guns?” he asked. He was nothing but a poor little skeleton, and he was kept very quiet.

“Those are for Lee’s surrender,” somebody told him.

“Oh! I have heard them fire before for Lee’s surrender,” he said. “I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now.” And before he knew the truth, he was where all is victory.

At the beginning of the war General Lee remarked that many more soldiers would die from disease than from bullets, and this was truly the case at the Robertson Hospital. Typhoid fever raged at one time.

There were ten cases of small-pox there at one time, and they all got well.

One young man named Craig Lake, who had been slightly wounded two or three weeks before, was brought to the hospital one day with a raging fever. He was supposed to have measles, and was suffering dreadfully. It was night before a doctor saw him; he stood beside his bed with the “little captain,” and looked very grave. The he took her down stairs and pronounced the disease the worst sort of small-pox. The next day Mrs. Peterkin, Mrs. Semmes, and Miss Sally Tompkins took him out to the small-pox hospital and in a short time he died.

At one time eleven weary Texans who had marched and slept in wet clothes, came to the hospital. Four of them soon died, the others recovered, and the knife of one who died (named Woodward) is still owned by the woman who watched his last breath.

Every night those who could hobble about gathered in the down-stairs room for a little cheerful chat and knelt at family prayer, before retiring.

After one of the battles when the South was victorious, Mrs. McGuire came to bear the good news. Her emotion was too great for self-chosen words, and she broke forth into the “Gloria in Excelsis” – a touching battle-cry, in which all who could, joined heartily. A plan was adopted after a while to detail certain citizens to keep the night watch; but the men proved so drowsy that the “little captain,” with surprising ingenuity, contrived to order a dose to be administered to somebody every fifteen minutes, and they could scarcely doze between drinks.

One of our most prominent bankers may still remember, a scolding consequent upon his stealing a nap.

So many Marylanders were cared for at this hospital, that they wanted to name it the “Maryland Hospital,” but the captain wouldn’t have it; its name must testify to the generosity and patriotism of Judge Robertson, who had large offers for the property, but refused them all, for he wanted the house used as a hospital. At last he did sell it, but got little for it, as he made this stipulation to the purchaser.


Lieut. Yale, of Maryland, had a curious experience at the Robertson Hospital. He was shot in his leg between the ankle and the knee, and such a wound is usually followed by amputation. But Lieut. Yale put a pistol under his pillow, and threatened to shoot the fellow who dared to amputate his leg. After a time the bone knit and he was ready for action. In a later fight the other leg was mangled in like manner, and cured by the same treatment.

Dr. Garnett and the “little captain” often disagreed about the number of sick soldiers, who ought to be taken in. The captain always had room for one more, and if a wounded man came when the Doctor was out he always got in. One Sunday Dr. Garnett had gone to church, and the ambulance brought a man up. The house was full, but it was hard to turn the soldier away, and Miss Sally took him in, and when he was in she made preparations to appease the Doctor. She put all the surgical instruments in place, got clean linen and an apron, and made a good cup of green tea, and waited results.

The doctor ripped and scolded, but the tea appeased him. The operation was performed, and the man got all right.

A man was brought one day with a serious wound in his foot and his sister was sent for at once. When she arrived, instead of being full of pity, she seemed to be indignant, and at last she could not refrain from saying “Those women were at the bottom of everything. Her brother’s sweetheart was in Petersburg, and he had gone to see her, and was there caught in a skirmish and wounded, though his command was on the other side.

With all the little captain’s tenderness was an intense desire for cleanliness, and she contrived many means to facilitate this end. In the house was no bathroom, and she determined to have one. She turned the coal-house in the back-yard into a bath-room, and ran a pipe to it from the hydrant, where she had a large bath-tub put, and, though rude and primitive, it served her purpose.

When Dr. Garnett saw it, he fell into a fit of laughter, and straight way went and put this “ad” in a daily paper, “Turkish Baths at the Robertson Hospital from 11 to 3.” And the next day he was on hand to see the callers and how the “little captain” stood the fun.

The medical assistant to Dr. Garnett, was his kinsman, Dr. Clarence Garnett; and Lamar Holladay, a wounded man, whose shortened leg made service impossible, was aid to the head apothecary.

Whenever a soldier was sent away from this hospital, his knapsack was packed with clean, strong clothes, and in it was put a prayer book and Bible, or rather the Gospel, bound in oil-cloth.

One young fellow wrote the “little captain” that the Bible had deflected a bullet and probably saved his life.

If the Doctor could be persuaded to have prayers at the tea-table, the pious superintendent considered it a great point gained. One evening as he was engaged in devotion, Mrs. Edmonia Heth, and Mrs. Page, came in. The Doctor loved to dress well, and his bowed head above the table and his shiny pumps below, made these two ladies laugh immoderately, much to the disgust of one of the soldiers, who called them “two spry old larks.”


The ladies, although very useful to the institution, became highly indignant and vowed they would never enter it again.

Dr. Garnett in consequence had the task of appeasing them, and addressed to them a “hifalutin” letter, dated September 22, 1862, in which he calls himself and Miss Sally Tompkins the “Elders,” the two injured ladies “fair daughters,” and Miss Sally Davenport “Sister Eliza,” and Mrs. Semmes “Sister Semmes.”

The letter shows that there was some fun even at a war-time hospital, and we hope it appeased the injured ladies.

The morning of the evacuation the hospital was full. Every man who could move followed the army. Many very sick ones were left behind. The night before the troops left the city, there was a big gathering of ladies at the hospital. Many of them set to work to make biscuits, so as to fill the knapsacks of the poor weak ones, who would soon be leaving.

The hospital kept open until the 13th of June, when the last sick man went home. Officers of the Union army offered the captain a guard, but she wouldn’t have it. She went on as she had been going, selling various articles as soon as the need of them was over, to help to keep the soldiers that were left.

The day of the evacuation, when Libby Prison had been changed, from a Union to a Confederate prison-house, one of the Southern soldiers just imprisoned there sent for the “little captain.” She and Mrs. McGuire went to him, although the red-hot pavements burnt the soles of the shoes on their feet. The street through which they walked was a wilderness of blackened ruin.

Once before the evacuation, Mr. Edgar Garnett sent word to Miss Sally Tompkins that a Union prisoner at Libby Prison asked her to send him a prayer book and a Bible, a blanket and a mattress.

The first two articles she sent; the last she declined, saying, “If he had been where he ought to have been he would not have needed them.”

The complete roll of the soldiers nursed at the Robertson Hospital is now at the Confederate Museum. It shows 1400 names.

As we pass up Main street to-day we will again see at the corner of Third and Main, under a Confederate flag, “The Robertson Hospital,” and above, “Welcome to Veterans.”

Once more does the “little captain” throw open her doors to Confederate soldiers. Once more does she wish to behold those whom she nursed so faithfully.

Such actions call not forth memories of bitter strife; they but remind us of sublime and exalted self-sacrifice, born only of peril and of pain.            S. N. R.

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