Angels Of The Confederacy
Thursday, May 19, 2011
By Bob Hurst
During the War for Southern Independence, that great conflict that was waged from 1861 to 1865, there were in the Confederate Army a total of approximately 1,050,000 service members. Of these million plus individuals there were roughly 3000 who were commissioned officers. Of these 3000 officers there was exactly one who was female and her story is absolutely remarkable.
Her name was Sally Louisa Tompkins and she was born on November 11, 1833 at "Poplar Grove" in Mathews County, Virginia to a family of wealth. Her father, Colonel Christopher Tompkins, was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War who accumulated a large fortune. He died when Sally was only five years old and left great wealth to Sally and her mother. The two moved to Richmond rather than continuing to live in the rural and isolated environment of Poplar Grove. There they were able to fit nicely into the society of Richmond and were familiar with many of the prominent people of the city.
The Tompkins were still living in Richmond when war broke out between the North and the South at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861.Very few on either side thought the fighting would be as severe as it proved to be and the hospitals in Richmond were totally unprepared for the large number of Confederate wounded that were brought into the city, primarily by rail. President Jefferson Davis made an appeal to the citizens of Richmond to absorb this multitude of injured by opening their homes to the soldiers and establishing private hospitals.
Sally Tompkins was a person of great kindness and wanted to help with the wounded. She also had some nurse’s training. She approached Judge John Robertson, a prominent member of the Richmond community, and appealed to him to allow her to convert a large home that he owned in the downtown area into a private hospital. Sally was very persuasive and the large structure became Robertson Hospital.
The hospital opened on August 1, 1861 with Sally and a staff of six to care for the wounded. Some supplies for the hospital were supplied by the Confederate government but primary funding came from the inheritance that Sally had received from her father.
At first there was some opposition to Sally, her staff and the hospital since the Confederate armies discouraged women from serving as nurses. The prevailing attitude was that men did not want refined Southern ladies exposed to the horrors of war by having to treat the mutilated, sick and dying soldiers in military hospitals. This soon changed and many of the wounded began to request care from Sally, or "the little lady with the milk-white hands" as she came to be called.
After an assessment soon after the establishment of these private hospitals, the Confederate government decided that all hospitals treating wounded soldiers should be put under the control of the Confederate Medical Department. The Confederate Congress passed legislation to this effect and President Davis issued an order making it official policy. This would result in the closing of the private hospitals.
Sally Tompkins went straight to Jefferson Davis to argue her case for leaving her hospital open while other private facilities were being closed down. To support her appeal, she supplied to President Davis numbers from her hospital showing the amazing rate of treatment successes for her hospital compared to others.
Jefferson Davis realized the validity of her argument but he was also aware that the new regulations required all military hospitals be run by military personnel. While discussing this with Sally, the president had to have a brief meeting with Confederate diplomat James Mason who was about to leave for Europe.
As Mason left, Davis turned to Sally and said that Mason had given him an idea concerning how to solve the dilemma of the hospital. Jefferson Davis then appointed Sally Tompkins to the rank of captain of cavalry (unassigned) effective September 8, 1861.
Sally could continue to run her hospital as she was now official military personnel. She also became "Captain Sally", the only woman to hold a commission in the Confederate Army. From that time forward until she died, townspeople and everyone else who came in contact with Sally addressed her as "Captain Sally".
Robertson Hospital stayed in operation until June of 1865, after the War had ended in Virginia. During its existence the hospital treated a total of 1333 wounded Confederate soldiers. Of these, only 73 died. This gave the hospital an astonishing 94.5% survival rate. Because of the good reputation of the hospital, the most severely injured soldiers were assigned to Robertson Hospital making this feat all the more remarkable. In fact, a higher percentage of patients treated there returned to service than from any other Confederate medical facility or Union military hospital. Sally Tompkin’s insistence on cleanliness was likely the key to this remarkable record although little was known at that time about the cause of infections.
During the entire existence of the hospital, Sally Tompkins refused to accept a salary from the Confederate government for her work there.
After the War, Sally became one of the most beloved citizens of Richmond. She was active in work for the Episcopal Church and attended many functions of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and reunions of the United Confederate Veterans. She was even made an honorary member of Robert E. Lee Camp, UCV.
Sally also received many offers of marriage during this time. Many of these offers came from veterans who had received care from her at the hospital. None of these offers was ever accepted as this would have interfered with her ability to work for and contribute to worthy causes. And contribute she did! Sally contributed so much to the church and to veterans causes that by 1905 she had completely expended her inheritance. She then moved into the Confederate Women’s Home in Richmondwhere she was allowed to live free of charge since she had given everything she had for the Cause.
Sally Tompkins died on July 26, 1916 and was buried with full military honors at Christ Church Kingston Parish Cemetery in Mathews County.
For many years Sally Tompkins was referred to as the "Angel of the Confederacy". There is a large stained-glass window at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond honoring Sally Louisa Tompkins. The beautiful window depicts an angel hovering above and behind a full-length image of Sally and features a Confederate Battle Flag in one corner.
It is an appropriate and well-deserved honor for this Southern woman who was truly an angel.
If you observed carefully at the beginning of this article, you noticed that I used the plural "angels" rather than the singular "angel" in the title. This is because I have chosen to include in this piece another Southern woman that I believe deserves the recognition of being an "angel" to the Confederate Cause.
Ella King Newsom was born in Brandon, Mississippi in 1838. In 1854 she married a wealthy physician and planter who died only a short time after the marriage. He was a wealthy man and left a fortune to Ella.
When the War began in 1861, this wealthy young woman who was wise beyond her years decided to use her money to provide medical care for Confederate soldiers. She first trained in Memphis as a nurse and then took over a hospital in Kentucky as the administrator. Ella’s organizational skills were outstandingand she soon put them to good use by recruiting and training nurses, directing the movement of hospitalized troops and routing supplies to where they were most needed.
Her skills were recognized and appreciated by Confederate officials and in subsequent years of the War she established and administrated military hospitals in Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta and Corinth (Mississippi). Because of her remarkable administrative abilities and her willingness to help wounded Confederate soldiers, Ella Newsom was called the "Florence Nightingale of the Southern Army ".
After the War she wrote a book titled REMINISCENCES OF WAR TIME which chronicled her experiences. By 1885 , Ells’s fortune was all but gone so she had to take employment. Being the administrator that she was, she moved to Washington, D.C. and worked for more than 30 years in administrative capacities with the federal government.
Ella King Newsom died on January 20, 1919.
Sally Tompkins and Ella King Newsom were two wealthy Southern women who refused to stay on the sidelines during the War for Southern Independence. Instead, they used their fortunes and their wealth of ability to make outstanding contributions to the Confederate Cause. By their actions and dedication they earned the admiration and remembrance of the Southern people.
Sally Tompkins and Ella King Newsom were truly "Angels of the Confederacy", but there were so many other Southern women who played critical roles during this time of war and turmoil.
A quote from CONFEDERATE VETERAN magazine, Volume 16 (1908) sums up nicely the character, dedication and contributions of the remarkable women of the South:
" It has well been said that if we seek a lofty ideal and a noble model on which to shape a well-rounded and perfect womanhood, combining the pure patriotism, the rugged virtues, the winning modesty, and the tender graces of Spartan mother, Roman dame, and Carthaginian maid, we have but to take a retrospective glance down the corridors of memory for about four decades to find it in that historic sisterhood of martyrs and patriots, the women of the Confederacy."
And to think, for so long many of us only thought that Southern women were beautiful!
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