Pember, Phoebe Yates

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PEMBER, Phoebe Yates

Born 18 August 1823, Charleston, South Carolina; died 4 March 1913, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Jacob and Fanny Yates Levy; married Thomas Pember, in the 1850s (died)

Phoebe Yates Pember was the fourth of seven children. Little is known about her early life or education. The family moved to Savannah, Georgia, in 1850. A few years later, Pember married, and after her husband's death returned to live with her parents first in Savannah, then in Marietta, where they were refugees.

In 1862, Pember received and accepted an offer to become matron of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond. She remained there until the occupation of Richmond by federal troops in April 1865. After the war, Pember returned to Georgia and obscurity.

Pember's reminiscences of her life at Chimborazo were originally published in 1879. A modern edition of A Southern Woman's Story, including several letters from Pember to her sister Eugenia, was prepared by historian Bell I. Wiley in 1959. Sometimes moving, sometimes humorous, these reminiscences are among the most revealing accounts of a woman's life and work during the Civil War. Pember was unusual in that she received a salary for her nursing, and she had more responsibilities than volunteer nurses.

Chimborazo was the largest military hospital in the world at that time. Matrons like Pember were assigned a number of wards for which they supervised the meals and the laundry, and oversaw the general welfare of their patients. Even though the Confederate Congress had made provisions for the use of matrons in army hospitals, Pember was not greeted with enthusiasm. Fear of "petticoat government" led one surgeon to remark in her presence that "one of them had come," and things would never be the same again. Under Pember's direction, care at Chimborazo's second ward improved dramatically. Food and medications were prepared properly and delivered to the patients on time. Slaves and civilian laundresses were hired to wash the wards and linens regularly. Pember often went to great lengths or used her own money to prepare some special delicacy for a patient.

Pember's major conflict with members of the medical staff concerned the distribution of the whiskey ration. Believed to be both a stimulant and a narcotic, whiskey was a vital element in the treatment of disease. Almost immediately after her arrival at the hospital, Pember learned whiskey intended for the patients was being consumed by the male nurses and surgeons. She decided to remove all temptation by locking the cabinet at night and keeping the key on her person. Resenting Pember's interference, the surgeons bombarded her with insulting and demeaning requests and even threatened her. Fortunately the chief surgeon supported Pember, and the harassment ceased.

A Southern Woman's Story helps strip the Confederacy of romantic myths. There was self-sacrifice and nobility of spirit, but Pember records the selfishness and pettiness which also marked the Confederate experience. Pember herself emerges as a strong vital woman, capable of great kindness and patience but certainly no saint. Its combination of wit and grim reality makes A Southern Woman's Story a classic in its field.


Adams, George W., "Confederate Medicine," in Journal of Southern History (1940). Cunningham, H. H., Doctors in Gray (1958). Hume, E. E., "The Days Gone By: Chimborazo Hospital," in The Military Surgeon (1934).