Coleman, Elizabeth Dabney. "The Captain Was a Lady." Virginia Cavalcade, vol. 6 (summer 1956-spring 1957), pp. 35-41.
To Sally Tompkins Went a Commission
That Remained Unmatched for Decades.
If in, say, the spring of 1861, you had been in Richmond, and Judge John Robertson had presented you to Miss Sally Louisa Tompkins, you would have found the twenty-seven year-old lady diminutive. Lately from "Poplar Grove" in Mathews County - her mother, her sister, and she had moved to the capital following her father's death -, she was no taller than five feet and was slim, brunette, and plain of feature. "Miss Sally," you might later have remarked to the judge, "was not designed by Nature for hard labor." If so, he would have told you that you were wrong. Much of her life had been spent in lightening the burdens of others and in ministering through endless hours to the sick. She could work like a Trojan.
Perhaps that was owing to her background. There was a strain of the martial in her veins. One grandfather had been brevetted by Washington at Monmouth. Another had been a naval officer. Her father had been a militia colonel. "But since she cannot herself be a soldier, Judge," you might have replied. "and since, as you tell me, she is well-to-do, I suppose she finds other outlets for her energies. Probably loves parties. Or, though she was quite simply dressed, she may be fond of rich apparel. And I suppose she's widely traveled."
Wrong again! Miss Sally's tastes were otherwise. In addition to an interest in nursing, a religious nature led her to a constant study of the Scriptures and to much work in her beloved Protestant Episcopal Church. Travel she would, yes, anywhere, so long as it be to the side of a sick bed or to a church conference. But so far as travel for its own sake was concerned, no one could remain more contentedly at home than she.
What might have been the eventual biography of Miss Sally Tompkins had her countrymen been more inclined to compromise their sectional differences is anyone's guess. Probably she would have lived out her years in quiet service and would have reached a grave surrounded by many grieving recipients of her philanthropies. Then memory of her would have faded. But her countrymen in 1861 plunged the nation into a fiery maelstrom. By that deed they unwittingly offered her an opportunity to grasp immortal fame. And she was ready.
For some weeks the newly-established "permanent" capital of the Confederacy enjoyed a war that consisted largely of festivities and military pageantry. But on Sunday, July 21, 1861, there was fought the first battle of Manassas. And suddenly the war assumed a ghastlier hue. Men were killed. Men were wounded, some of them horribly so. On a dreary, rainy Monday the still-living casualties began to arrive in Richmond from the field. Unprepared for such an influx, the hospitals were filled to overflowing. Others were hastily improvised; scores of private homes were flung open to house the mutilated.
Here was something that Miss Sally could do to help. Judge Robertson had recently sent his family into the country. He offered her the use of his town house, a frame structure standing on the northwest corner of Main and Third streets. Action followed. The furniture was moved upstairs, cots were assembled on the first floor, and the "Robertson Hospital" (Sally would hear of no other name for it) was opened in time to receive its first patient on August 1.
That first patient was the forerunner of scores of others. A portion of the female social elite of Richmond rallied to assist Miss Sally and, there then being no trained nurses, themselves formed a group known as the "Ladies of the Robertson Hospital," who undertook tasks that before the battle would have been deemed too onerous or indelicate for women of their standing. Mrs. Robertson insisted that the furniture stored upstairs be rearranged and used. It was, and the capacity of the house was thereby increased to hold twenty-five beds.
Yet a hitch was to ensue. The Confederate government was soon inclined to view the decentralized, private hospital system (if "system" the chaos could be called) with jaundiced eye. There was need for rigorous control of medical and surgical supplies in a land in which they were not plentiful. And most certainly there was need for better regulation of the flow of sick and injured military personnel. One would blush to confess it, but even in the gray and butternut legions there were malingerers ("gold bricks" is modem army jargon) who, if allowed to do so, would have made a career of remaining hospitalized. As for their tender-hearted, self-appointed nurses, they, it was believed, were too inclined to be sympathetic with feigned aches and pains. Accordingly, an order was issued closing all private hospitals to soldiers and directing that uniformed patients be sent only to those operated by the government.
It is recorded that, upon receiving this directive, Miss Sally wept. But not for long. As to how she won her point-and she usually did-stories vary. A daughter of judge William W. Crump, the Confederate Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, stated that he and Sally personally went to call on President Davis. The tiny nurse presented her infirmary register to the statesman. It proved to him that so superior was her record of healing men and returning them to the ranks that it could not be matched by that of any other hospital, whether government or private.
Mr. Davis was visibly impressed. A government regulation must be obeyed, of course, but . . . . He paced the floor thoughtfully. Then he stopped short and, facing bliss Sally, said, "I will make you a captain in the army of the Confederate States. In that way your hospital can be saved."
At any rate, it is undeniable that, dated as of September 9, 1861, a commission was sent to Sally Tompkins, who was addressed as "Sir." She was also informed that her branch of service would be the cavalry, unassigned, with commensurate rights and claims to pay. The masculine salutation is explicable: in all modem military history to that time there was no regularly-commissioned captain known who had not been a man. And it has been suggested that she was listed as being in the cavalry because a captaincy in that branch entitled her to more pay (she was expending generously of her own funds on her hospital) than in any other. The emolument of rank she never accepted, however, requesting that it be employed for the benefit of the common soldiers. "I was too anxious to help them," she later explained, "to take anything from them."
Her unprecedented commission was to stand alone in American military annals until women were made eligible for officer rank in the Army Nurse Corps of the United States Army in 1901. It is of further interest to find that prior to the establishment of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in World War II federal authorities procured and studied copies of the commission of Captain Sally Tompkins, C. S. A., who had continued to be referred to or addressed by her military title to the end of her days.
Secure in her rank, Captain Sally was able in part to sustain her extraordinary hospital by making regular requisitions for rations on the government. The balance she procured in the open market by dipping into her own wealth and by spending the monetary gifts of generous donors. Even in the most stringent times her friends stood by her. Many a dinner was left untouched and sent through the portals of her house of mercy. Many a brewed broth, or molded custard or jelly, or other delicacy was bade farewell by its self-denying maker. The patients of the Robertson Hospital never went hungry.
As with food, so it was with medicines. The Surgeon General sent Captain Sally what he could - a strange list ranging from apple brandy, which was thought to be effective in the treatment of malaria, through a whole gamut of items, some of them held in repute today, others of which have been relegated to pages of past and quaintly useless materia medica. What she could not in this way acquire she was happy to purchase through the good offices of blockade runners, one of whom addressed her as "Dearest of Captains" and promised her anything she wished and on which he could lay hands.
During most of the war the chief surgeon at the Robertson Hospital was Dr. A. Y. P. Garnett, who had left a large and lucrative practice in Washington, D. C., to cast his fortunes with those of the Confederacy. He and Captain Sally were not always in accord, which is equivalent to saying that he frequently was forced to surrender his opinions. Yet for all his defeats, he was a fair diplomat, and on one occasion he proved it by luring back into service two of the "Ladies" who had departed in a huff when an irreverent patient called them "spry old larks."
The ladies, in addition to their own work, often brought in their most efficient Negro servants, so that there was never any dearth of staff. Of permanent colored personnel there were four - "Mammy" Phoebe, who had watched over the Captain since childhood; another Sally, the cook, who could appease the taste buds of the most fastidious; and "Gay" Betsy and "Sad" Betsy, whose adjectival nicknames were bestowed by the soldier patients.
One Confederate veteran incapacitated for further marching stayed on and made himself useful as a carpenter. Another, John Crumley, became the gardener. John died just as Richmond fell, and his Captain flatly refused to let the Yankees touch his corpse. Instead, she and "Gay" Betsy (one feels that more logically "Sad" Betsy should have made the trip) procured a wagon and bore the body off to Hollywood Cemetery themselves.
It need scarcely be said that the little Captain's hospital reflected the character of its head nurse-strict attention to duty and love for the Word of God. For years after the war former patients were to recall with smiling pride the image of the frail angel of mercy who, with medical receptacle suspended from her waist, flitted from bed to bed solicitous of their comfort and quick to enjoin them, once they were well, to return immediately to their commands. "The little lady with the milk-white hands" they called her. But however soft those hands, Judge Crump declared, "She ruled her hospital with a stick in one . . . and a Bible in the other."
That is what she did almost literally. Her charges learned not to argue with her. One private, by way of example, decided to celebrate his near recovery from illness by touring the town. He returned to the hospital in what, not inaccurately, might be called high fettle. The next morning he found that his clothes had disappeared. Nor were they handed back to him until he had made meekest apologies and promised the Captain that there would be no repetition of his misdeed.
For those whose spiritual interests were much like her own Captain Sally provided additional medicine of a less material sort. Whether at bedside or elsewhere, she was always ready with religious counsel; and each night those who could walk gathered in a downstairs room to kneel in group prayer before retiring. She did not sleep in the house, incidentally, but retired to a nearby apartment and was invariably back at her duties by dawn -unless, that is, exigencies necessitated that she not retire at all.
Whenever one of her patients was discharged, he was sent away with a knapsack or a blanket roll filled with clean, durable clothing and with a prayer book and the Gospels bound in oil-cloth. With her spare time - though one is embarrassed in trying to imagine how she ever found any - she took up her knitting, so that "warm socks lengthened beneath her nimble fingers, and hundreds of men felt their comfort in long marches over ice and snow."
Time came, of course, when Lee's army withdrew from Richmond and with it bore off every reason for the Robertson Hospital's continued existence. With the fall of the capital imminent, the "Ladies" rallied a last time, to bake biscuits and to fill the haversacks and pockets of those convalescents able to depart with the troops. By that date 1,333 admissions were listed on the register. Sergeant William B. Graves, of the artillery, was the last. He reported on April 2, 1865, ostensibly to have a minor ailment cared for but more truthfully, as he admitted, to afford himself the honor of having been one of Captain Sally's "patients." Once treated, he hastened to join in the retreat.
After the war Captain Sally personally made and presented to the Confederate Museum in Richmond a copy of the original register of her patients. It reveals that when a battle was fought, admissions were largely for "gun shot wounds." At other times diagnoses were for ailments contracted in less bellicose activities, except possibly for one patient admitted because he "had a fight." Scores of those diagnoses would be found unsatisfactorily vague by the modern medical practitioner-"thin-blooded," for example, or "worn out," or simply "badness."
Medical science of the 1860's representing the poverty of exact knowledge that it did, how well had the captain maintained the record for successful cures that had so favorably impressed President Davis? The answer is, incredibly well. Very few are the register entries that read "He died." Such entries were made, in fact, only seventy-three times. That is to say that had you been sent to the Robertson Hospital, the odds would have been more than eighteen to one that you would eventually emerge under your own power. It is scarcely to be wondered at that wounded men begged to be sent there. And the amazing nature of the record is heightened if, as has been claimed, the military authorities became accustomed to sending the most desperate cases to the house at Main and Third. Possibly much of the excellence of the record lay in the lady Captain's passion for cleanliness, a passion that led her unknowingly to anticipate many of the benefits arising from the use of aseptic methods common today.
Captain Sally did not close her hospital when the Yankees entered the capital. There were still immobile patients on her hands, and the last of them was not discharged until June 13, 1865, well over two months after the occupation. Thereafter she went on a vacation. It would seem that she had earned one.
That such a great lady should be forgotten by her contemporaries was naturally impossible. Although never considered a beauty, she received numerous proposals of marriage but elected to remain unwed. She continued to engage in periodic nursing, to conduct quiet charities, and to carry on her labors in the church. On many occasions she became godmother to the children of friends and admirers.
When, in 1896, the United Confederate Veterans came to Richmond to hold their annual rally, the captain rented a sizable house, ran up the "Rebel" flag, and posted a large sign, "Welcome to Veterans." They visited her, and they visited her by the scores. Fourteen years later, in 1910, she was further honored when a tablet was placed to mark the site of the old Robertson Hospital.
But by that late date Captain Sally's fortunes had materially changed. Her many, expensive good works, coupled with financial losses, had reduced her fortune to a point that it would not permit her to live in ease; and, there was no denying it, she who had done so much for others was growing old and weak. In 1905, therefore, on behalf of the board of managers of the Richmond Home for Confederate Women, the wife of Governor Andrew J. Montague asked her to honor them by becoming their lifetime "guest.'' She accepted, but only on the condition that she be allowed to pay for her own expenses.
With trembling eagerness, the aging women in the home welcomed to their midst the idolized Virginia heroine. They treated her with special deference from the beginning and assigned to her, noted an observer, as much respect as they might an "officer." Small wonder. That is what she had been.
Death came to Sally Louisa Tompkins on July 25, 1916, in the eighty-third year of her age. She was, said a newspaper editor, "shrunken and bent and piteously feeble . . . . But to those who knew her history, she passed with fluttering banner, still lifted high, all armored and panoplied in bravery and beauty. So might a Joan of Arc have passed." Old veterans bore their little Captain's coffin out then to the Christ Church graveyard in Kingston Parish, Mathews County, and interred it with full military honors.
In 1925 Confederate Memorial associations united to erect at her grave a headstone such as they believed to be merited by her great services to Virginia and the South. During the Second World War, when a shortage of competent nurses posed a crisis, chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the Old Dominion offered to young women interested in the nursing profession scholarships that appropriately memorialized Sally Tompkins. Four U. D. C. chapters have been named in her honor. Two were in her native state, in Gloucester and Mathews counties. A third is at Cookeville, Tennessee. The fourth is at far-off Glendale, California.
It will be long ere Captain Sally Louisa Tompkins is forgotten.