From the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/30/1936, p. 51, c. 1
Captain Sally and Her Hospital of ‘61
The Confederacy’s Only Commissioned Woman Might Be Termed – If She Needed More Glory Than Her Praises Sung by Man Thousand Soldiers – The ‘Florence Nightingale of Richmond’
THE Sunday night of July 21, 1861, found Richmond hot and terror-stricken. The first big battle of the war had been fought a few hours before, the first Battle of Manassas. They were telling it around that the Federal troops had won a great victory and were marching on Richmond and that there had been bloodshed past all belief.
During the night, a dispatch from Jefferson Davis, who was at the scene of the battle, stopped half these rumors. “We have won a glorious though dear-bought victory. Night closed on the enemy in full flight and closely pursued.”
How dearly bought this victory was Richmond saw 24 hours later on that stormy Monday night when the first ambulance train arrived in a downpour of rain bearing the wounded. The cry was for more stretchers, more instruments, more tourniquets, more stimulants, more of everything that would ease maddening pain, help amputate splintered limbs, and make sound bodies once again out of that sorry mess of blood and protruding bones. It was not a sight for those who held that war was glorious.
Among the women who went down to minister to the wounded was Miss Sally Tompkins. She could be called Richmond’s Florence Nightingale, but there is no need to compare her with any one else. She proved through the four years of the War Between the States that she could stand alone. And more than one of the 1,334 men whom she nursed during those four years came back to visit her at the Home for Needy Confederate Women, and called her blessed.
Women were thought to be retiring creatures in the days of ’61, but not 10 days after she had seen the first of the hundreds of wounded men that poured into Richmond from Manassas, Miss Sally had opened up a hospital. It stood on the northwest corner of Third and Main, the home of Judge John Robertson, who had taken his family to the country, and who in answer to Miss Sally’s frantic plea, for a hospital, had turned over to her his dwelling.
With the little money she had, Miss Sally equipped her hospital which she called the Robertson Hospital. There were no trained nurses. There were “The ladies of the Robertson Hospital,” women who gave their services, and offered infinite courage and willingness in place of formal training. There were seven surgeons, all of whom gave their services; and stewards. And there was a gardener; a wounded man who raised fine vegetables in the back yard of the hospital; and a carpenter, another wounded man who made chairs and other furniture. One of these chairs may be seen in the Confederate Museum.
She Helped Captain Sally In Robertson Hospital
THERE is living in Richmond today a woman who often helped Miss Sally with the thousands of things that had to be done about a hospital. She is Mrs. Emmie Crump Lightfoot. Her father was Judge W. W. Crump, whose fine home was the only big house between the White House of the Confederacy and the Governor’s Mansion. It stood on the site of the Memorial Hospital, and there was a great tree in the yard, the seed of which had been brought from Africa. Judge Crump was assistant secretary of the treasury of the Confederacy, a man of unbounded sympathies and great influence. And it was to him that she turned when the Confederate government sought to close her hospital.
“You know these men who were in the war, they were human just as we are,” Mrs. Lightfoot, who is 89 years old, said. “After they had come through one battle, they did not always want to go back and endure another. Here in Richmond was sore need for hospitals. Chimborazo Hospital was the only big government hospital, and it could not begin to accommodate the wounded men that thronged the city. As a consequence, private homes were opened to the men. There was no government supervision and soldiers would linger in Richmond long after they were able to be back in service.
“President Davis heard of this and ordered all private hospitals closed, and an act was passed by the Confederate Congress absorbing these into the military organization.
“I shall never forget how grieved Cousin Sally was. All her life she had gone about doing good. As a child she loved to care for the sick. There was nothing that she wouldn’t do to aid the unfortunate, and here was her hospital, which had saved the lives of many of our soldiers, ordered closed.
She Ruled With Stick In One Hand, Bible in the Other
“SHE begged father to help her, and together they set out for the White House to see President Davis. He was much impressed with what he heard; Most of the men who had been patients at the Robertson Hospital had been returned to duty. There was a very low percentage of deaths. He paced the floor and tried to think of a way to save Cousin Sally’s hospital. Then he stopped short and said to her: “I will make you a captain in the army of the Confederate States. In that way your hospital can be saved.”
“And from that moment until her death in 1916 she was known as Captain Sally Tompkins,” Mrs. Lightfoot smiled, “and her hospital was the only private hospital in existence here during the war. There was nothing that the people of Richmond would not do to help Captain Sally. She used the little money she had, and when that would go no farther, she was obliged to seek help. I remember how father used to go to a cabinet we had in the dining-room where mother kept cake and bread and other good things to eat. He would have them wrapped up and then set out for Captain Sally’s to replenish her larder.
“He used to say that she ruled her hospital with a stick in one hand and a Bible in the other…Well that was true in a way. She was a devout woman, and the discipline at the hospital was rigid; but the men all adored her even when she scolded them!
“There was no situation that she could not meet. It happened that one man who was convalescent had gone out one afternoon and gotten something to drink. When he got back to the hospital, he wasn’t exactly crazy, but he was undeniably tipsy, Cousin Sally didn’t say a word to him, however; but when the man woke the next morning his clothes had vanished. Captain Sally had taken this means of keeping his from repeating the offense and told him so. To show you how the men looked up to her, far from getting mad, the man offered his profound apologies, and meekly said he was sorry to have caused her any trouble.”
Her Commission, Reticule, Cane in Confederate Museum
IN THE Virginia Room of the White House of the Confederacy is the original commission of Captain Sally Tompkins. It begins: “Sir: You are hereby informed that the President has appointed you Captain in the Army of the Confederate States.” Why is didn’t begin “Madam” is easily explained. Captain Sally is, so far as is known, the only woman ever given such a commission in the army. She was made “Captain of Cavalry, Unassigned.” At the bottom of the commission she wrote: “I accepted the above commission as captain in the C. S. A. when it was issued. But I would not allow my name to be placed upon the payroll of the army.”
Even in her old age, Captain Sally refused to accept the hospitality of her grateful countrymen. She lived at the Home for Confederate Women, but she insisted upon paying for what would have gladly been given her.
At the White House of the Confederacy, one may see, too, her picture, the little black reticule she wore during the four years she conducted her hospital, and her cane, which she used in later years. Most interesting of all is the hospital registry in which the names and ailments of 1,334 patients are recorded.
Soldier Admitted Because He ‘Had a Fight’
IT IS A silent and yellowed indictment of war. Pages upon pages, after a big battle was fought, carry “gun shot wound” as the disease of the patient. When there were no battles to speak of, then the ailments of peacetime predominate. Diagnosticians were not as choosy in those days. One soldier’s disease was noted in the registry as “thin-blooded”; another was “worn out”; another was afflicted with “want of cleanliness,” and another “badness.”
And then there is that most ironical entry of all. The soldier was admitted as a patient because he “had a fight.”…There was measles, mumps, pneumonia, smallpox at the Robertson Hospital, in addition to the endless procession of gun shot wounds and you are struck, as you look through the registry, with the few times that Captain Sally had to write, “He died,” beside a patient’s name…One of the patients was Private A. Spiers George, Cavalry, 10th Virginia Regiment, who years later left one-fifth of his fortune to the Home for Needy Confederate Women. Another was Dangerfield Lewis, aide to General J. E. B. Stuart; H. A. French, Beauregard’s bodyguard; St. George T. C. Bryan and Private Shirley Carter.
“I well remember the 1,334th name on that registry,” Mrs. Lightfoot said. “It was during the last years of Captain Sally’s life, that I was sitting with her in her room at the home, when some one knocked at the door. It was a man who introduced himself as one of Captain Sally’s patients, and he asked me to write his name in the registry. He was the last man to enter the hospital – it was at the close of the war, just before the Federal troops entered Richmond.” His name is William B. Graves, sergeant in Brook’s Battery, Poague’s Battalion, Reserve Artillery, Army of Northern Virginia. “I was the last one who entered the hospital,” reads the entry dated April 2, 1865, “and I left for Lee’s army when the Federal army entered Richmond.”
“HOW well I remember that day when the Federal forces entered Richmond and marched hour after hour past our door. The warehouses were on fire. Everywhere was wild disorder. My father with the rest of the Confederate government officials had left Richmond. We did not know where he was. I was heartbroken. I went to my room and instead of throwing myself on the bed and crying, I got pen and paper and wrote down all that I felt in those dark hours. About two years ago, these reminiscences were published without my knowledge in a historical magazine.
“You know not so very many years ago a lady was never supposed to have her name in the paper. And so when I saw mine in print I was horrified. And if my father had lived to see it why he would have put me to bed as a disgrace!
“GENERAL LEE…He was often at our house. Those months that he remained in Richmond after the war we saw much of him. He would pat us children on the head, and I’d say to the other children: ‘Never cut your hair. General Lee has touched it.’ Why, their hair would have been a yard long if they had obeyed my instructions! General Lee was much concerned over father. He was not the austere, ascetic sort of a person that some people thought him to be. But his shoulders carried a great burden. He could not be always light and jovial under such cares. There you see the sofa that he loved to sit on when he came to see us, and here is what he gave me when he kissed me good-by when he left for Lexington.”
Mrs. Lightfoot drew from a little white box, a button. General Lee had cut it from the uniform he wore during the war. And on the back was engraved: “R. E. Lee to E. A. Crump, 1865.”
In the box with the button was a tiny bone knife.
“That?” Mrs. Lightfoot laughed. “That was given to me by a soldier who was a patient at Captain Sally’s hospital. He had been a prisoner of war for several months in the North and made the knife himself out of beefbone. ‘There was so much bone and so little meat to that piece of beef they gave me for Sunday dinner,’ he told me, ‘that I just thought it was a pity to throw such a nice, big piece of bone away, and so I made me a knife.’
“I can never forget the loyalty of our slaves, and how they helped us through trying times. Ours was the only big house between the White House and the Governor’s Mansion and at the top of the hill. We had heard from our cousins in Norfolk at the time of the surrender, how they had been forced out of their homes by the Northern soldiers, and so we waited in fear for the doorbell to ring, and for the soldiers to tell us that we must leave our home.
“I have lived to see many changes in the world. I remember back in 1865 I set out for Gloucester County in company with Captain Sally and other relatives. Virginia was District 1 under Federal rule. We traveled in an ambulance, the same as used in the army, a sort of spring, covered wagon with seats running sideways and curtains to let down in case of rain, open back and front, and drawn by two horses. We started from the corner of Tenth and Grace Streets, and we arrived in Gloucester (Captain Sally was born at ‘Poplar Grove’ in that county) two days later. That was as good time as any one made in those days. …Now it makes your head swim to think of the speed with which you can get anywhere you want to go.
Deafness is the only infirmity I don’t possess,” Mrs. Lightfoot tells you. But when you are with her, you are conscious only of a young spirit who can look back through the years and remember what should not be forgotten, but often is by unimaginative souls. And there are so many of these.
She saw war from her front window, but of bitterness, she has none: “I don’t call them Yankees any more,” she says with a smile.