Birth of Confederate nurse Phoebe Yates Levy Pember
August 18, 1823
Phoebe Yates Levy Pember was born into an assimilated Charleston, South Carolina, family on August 18, 1823. The fourth of seven children, she was raised in a wealthy and socially prominent family; her father was a successful merchant while her mother was a popular actress. One of Pember's sisters, Eugenia Yates Levy Phillips, would later be imprisoned — twice — for her support of the Confederate cause. Exemplifying the way in which wealth enabled some antebellum Jewish families to gain full community acceptance, the Levy family moved among Charleston's elite until a series of financial setbacks sent them to Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1840s.
Pember apparently received some formal schooling before her 1856 marriage to Bostonian Thomas Pember, a non-Jew. By late 1861, however, she was a childless widow, living with her parents in Marietta, Georgia, where they had fled to escape the ravages of war. Unhappy at home, Pember accepted an invitation to serve as the matron of Richmond's Chimborazo Hospital. She reported for duty in December, 1862.
A sprawling institution on the outskirts of the city, Chimborazo was reportedly the largest military hospital in the world in the 1860s. By the end of the Civil War, the hospital had cared for some 76,000 patients. Pember's job was to head up one of the facility's five divisions. It was an unusual job for a woman, at a time when virtually all nursing was done by men. Pember's varied duties surely required what one of her contemporaries described as her "will of steel under a suave refinement." Although Pember had to thwart efforts by her staff to pilfer supplies, once reportedly threatening a would-be thief with a gun, she also seems to have been accepted and valued by patients. In a male-dominated environment, she was able to give soldiers a warm, feminine presence. Lacking adequate food, medicine, and other supplies, often that warm presence was the best that Pember and her staff could offer. Although she dedicated herself to relieving the suffering of soldiers, she was often simply a final companion for the dying.
Pember remained at Chimborazo until the Confederate surrender in April, 1865. After the War, she wrote her memoirs, which were published as A Southern Woman's Story: Life in Confederate Richmond, in 1879. This book, which details her daily life through anecdotes of the war years, remains one of the best sources for understanding the experiences and ideas of upper-class Southern Jewish women before and during the Civil War. Following the War, Pember maintained her elite social status, and traveled extensively through the U.S. and Europe. She died on March 4, 1913, and is buried in Savannah.
To learn more about Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
See also: This Week in History for November 29, 1862 "Phoebe Yates Levy Pember given charge of Confederate military hospital"; Jewish women On the Map - Chimborazo Hospital - Richmond National Battlefield Park; Civil War in the United States; Military Nurses.
Sources:Pember, Phoebe Yates, A Southern Woman's Story: Life in Confederate Richmond, including unpublished letters written from the Chimborazo Hospital (New York, 1879), Ed. by Bell Irvin Wiley, (reprint, Jackson, TN, 1959); Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1042-1043; jwa.org/discover/inthepast/infocus/military/nurses/pember.html.