Phoebe Yates Levy Pember
Phoebe Yates Levy Pember became matron and first female administrator of the Chimborazo Hospital near Richmond, Virginia, in 1862. She oversaw nursing operations as well as housekeeping and food and maintained a friendly but firm authority, loved for her feminine charms and her dedication to her patients but willing to threaten a staff member with a gun when he attempted to steal whiskey from the hospital’s supplies. After the Civil War, Pember travelled throughout America and Europe. Her account of her life, A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond, described her time at the hospital through the war years as well as her experiences as a proud but assimilated Jew welcomed into the tight-knit world of the South’s elite.
Early Life and Family
The life of Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, Confederate administrator of Chimborazo Hospital outside Richmond, Virginia, in many ways epitomizes the high level of acculturation, regional identity, and acceptance into Christian society that characterized second- and third-generation southern Jews in the nineteenth century. She was born on August 18, 1823, in Charleston, South Carolina, to Jacob Clavius Levy, the son of Polish immigrants, and Fanny (Yates) Levy, of Liverpool, England. For over three decades, Jacob Levy operated a successful mercantile establishment, and his wife enjoyed a highly acclaimed acting career in the Charleston theater. Their wealth and stature in the community enabled the Levys to move among the city’s social elite. Following financial setbacks in the late 1840s, the family moved to Savannah, Georgia.
The fourth of seven children, six of them girls, Phoebe followed in the footsteps of other siblings who embraced the Confederate cause. Her older sister, Eugenia, married Philip Phillips, a lawyer and United States congressman from Mobile, Alabama. Eugenia Phillips’s outspoken support for southern nationalism resulted in her imprisonment and subsequent exile from Washington, D.C., in August 1861, and a second incarceration in the summer of 1862, following the Union occupation of New Orleans. Her younger brother, Samuel Yates Levy, served as a major in the Georgia infantry before his capture and confinement in 1864–1865 at a United States military prison on Johnson’s Island in Ohio. Following his release, Samuel returned to Savannah, where he edited the Savannah Advertiser for a short time in 1868. His hostility to the federal occupation of Georgia brought him into repeated conflict with military officials, and he ultimately was forced to resign from the newspaper.
Antebellum and Civil War Life
Little is known of Phoebe’s life before the Civil War. She received some formal schooling, as her memoirs and personal letters reveal an articulate, sophisticated mind. In 1856, she married a non-Jew, Thomas Noyes Pember of Boston, but their marriage lasted only five years and produced no children. Thomas contracted tuberculosis. After an unsuccessful convalescence in the South, he died in Aiken, South Carolina, on July 9, 1861. A young widow, Phoebe Pember moved back with her parents, who had fled Savannah for the safety of Marietta, Georgia. But here she felt confined and unproductive and quarreled with her father, whom she described as indifferent to her needs. In November 1862, Phoebe Pember accepted an invitation from her friend Mrs. George W. Randolph, wife of the Confederate secretary of war, to serve as the matron of Chimborazo Hospital.
Under the supervision of a senior medical officer and with the help of numerous assistants, Pember oversaw nursing operations in the second of the hospital’s five divisions and attended to the housekeeping, dietary needs, and comfort of over fifteen thousand men. As the first female administrator appointed to Chimborazo, Pember offered the warmth and femininity craved by the soldiers, but she also fought against repeated attempts to undermine her authority. Much of the time this meant blocking efforts by the staff to pilfer supplies, especially whiskey, placed under her control. On one occasion, she threatened a would-be thief with a gun she kept hidden nearby. Her self-assurance and commitment to caring for the sick and wounded earned praise among Richmond society. In his book Belles, Beaux and Brains of the 60’s (1907), Thomas C. DeLeon described Phoebe as a “brisk and brilliant matron” with “a will of steel under a suave refinement.”
A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond (1879), Phoebe Pember’s account of her experiences at Chimborazo from December 1862 until April 1865, provides a valuable resource for Southern, gender, and American Jewish historians. Sensitively written and anecdotal in style, her memoirs detail day-to-day life in the wards, describe the poor state of Confederate medical facilities, reveal the attitudes of and toward southern women, and offer a glimpse into the mind-set of a highly acculturated southern Jewish woman. Throughout her adult life, Pember remained conscious of her high social status and moved freely among the South’s elite families, suggesting that Jews could enjoy complete acceptance in Christian society. Although she married outside Judaism and apparently did not practice her faith, she spoke openly and proudly of her Jewish heritage. Following the Civil War, Pember traveled extensively throughout the United States and Europe. She died on March 4, 1913, at age eighty-nine, while visiting Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is buried beside her husband in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery.
DeLeon, Thomas C. Belles, Beaux and Brains of the 60’s (1907).
Gamble, Thomas. Savannah Duels and Duellists, 1733–1877 (1923).
Hagy, James William. This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston (1993).
Marcus, Jacob R. The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (1981), and The American Jewish Woman, 1654–1980 (1981), and Memoirs of American Jews, 1775–1865. 3 vols. (1956).
Pember, Phoebe Yates. A Southern Woman’s Story: Life in Confederate Richmond. Edited by Bell Irvin Wiley (1879. Reprint 1959).
Phillips-Myers Family Papers. Collection 596, Southern Historical Collection. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Stern, Malcolm H. First American Jewish Families: Six Hundred Genealogies, 1654–1988. 3d ed. (1991).