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Phoebe Yates Levy Pember

1823 – 1913

by Mark I. Greenberg

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.

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, she 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.

Bibliography

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); NAW; 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).

More on: Medicine, Memoirs
2 Comments

A Southern Woman's Story is available as an e-book at the Internet Archive
http://archive.org/details/aso...

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In 1998, Michael Gorman found what is largely a draft version of A Southern Woman's Story, published in The Cosmopolite, a Baltimore magazine, in 1866. This version differs from the book in two important ways: She included many places names and used much more critical language when describing prominent figures in the magazine than in the book. The entire magazine version can be read here:

Pember, Phoebe Yates, "Reminiscences of a Southern Hospital. By Its Matron." The Cosmopolite, Serialized: Vol. I, No. I. January 1866, pp. 70-89; Vol. I, No. II. February 1866, pp. 203-215; Vol. I, No. III. March 1866, pp. 297-309; Vol. I,
No. IV. April 1866, pp.350-369.
Civil War Richmond
http://www.mdgorman.com/Hospit...

The audiobook version is available here:
http://archive.org/details/rem...

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Upon her arrival at Chimborazo, she was told to take care of the dietary needs of some 600 men. Not knowing exactly what to do, she ordered chickens, and for the first time in her life, killed the birds and made chicken soup, which was a success! As she later wrote "Nature may not have intended me for a Florence Nightingale, but a kitchen proved my worth."

Though Phoebe had no professional medical training, she believed that caring for her husband as he suffered from TB qualified her for hospital work. She remained at Chimborazo until the Confederate surrender in April, 1865. She stayed with her patients after the fall of Richmond and until the facility was taken over by Federal authorities. During that time, she cared for both Confederate and Union soldiers. During the course of the war, 15,000 troops came under her direct care.

After the war, she returned to Georgia, where she was appointed to the Georgia Lottery Commission. She spent the rest of her life traveling and writing for the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and the Independent.

In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued 20 stamps commemorating the Civil War. A committee of historians chose Mrs. Pember as one of the persons to be depicted. The back of her stamp reads: "Confederate Nurse, Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, 1823-1913. Directed care and dietary needs of over 10,000 soldiers at Richmond's Chimborazo, one of CSA's largest hospitals. Specialty: chicken soup. Criticized poor care in her "A Southern Woman's Story."

Rosen, Robert N. The Jewish Confederates. University of South Carolina Pr., 2000.

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Interestingly, her name is "Phebe Y. Pember" on an obelisk created in her memory at her grave site in Savannah.

http://www.civilwarwomenblog.c...
http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-...

iNTERESTING TO COMPARE HER WORK WITH THAT OF FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE. THE DATES SEEM SIMILAR. AND YET NIGHTINGALE IS SEEN AS A N ABSOLUTE INNOVATOR. HIS SUGGESTS THAT SHE WASN'T .

How to cite this page

Greenberg, Mark I.. "Phoebe Yates Levy Pember." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 30, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/pember-phoebe-yates-levy>.

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