Pember, Phoebe Yates (1823–1913)

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Pember, Phoebe Yates (1823–1913)

Confederate hospital administrator. Born Phoebe Yates Levy on August 18, 1823, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on March 4, 1913, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; fourth of seven children of Jacob Clavius Levy (a businessman) and Fanny (Yates) Levy; married Thomas Pember (died July 1861); no children.

Phoebe Pember was born in 1823 and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, the fourth of seven children, all but one of them girls. Her father, whose family had immigrated to Charleston from Poland, was a successful businessman and an early advocate of Reformed Judaism. Her mother was English. Little is known about Pember's early life, although her letters and reminiscences indicate that she was well educated. Sometime during the late 1850s she married Thomas Pember of Boston, who died of tuberculosis in 1861. Pember returned to her parents' home and with the advent of the Civil War moved with them to Marietta, Georgia, where they resided with relatives.

Pember felt confined in the small house in Marietta, and when in 1882 she was offered the position of matron at Chimborazo, a large Confederate Army hospital near Richmond, she immediately accepted. In her new post, Pember was in charge of housekeeping and food service for 31 wards, and it is estimated that she and her staff cared for 15,000 soldiers during the course of the war. As the first woman administrator appointed at the military hospital, she encountered her share of opposition, although she refused to let it deter her. The doctors and stewards particularly objected to her control as matron over the dispensing of whiskey, and they did their best to undermine her authority when possible. Pember remained firmly in charge, however, often aided by a pistol, which she kept at the ready.

Even without detractors, Pember's job was overwhelming, and she was often short of staff. Her salary of $40 a month was so inadequate that she was forced to moonlight, writing articles for magazines and copy writing for the War Department after a full day in the wards. Stress and overwork began to take its toll, and in the summer of 1863 she fell ill. At the suggestion of the surgeon general, upon her recovery she took a room in the city, commuting to the hospital each morning in the ambulance dispatched for daily marketing. The change of residence afforded Pember the opportunity for some socialization, and her wit and charm, coupled with a "pretty, almost Creole accent," made her a welcome guest in Richmond society. She gradually lost her taste for the social whirl, however, finding it frivolous in light of the relentless war.

Pember remained at Chimborazo through its occupation by Union forces in April 1865, then returned to Georgia. In 1879, she published a wartime remembrance, A Southern Woman's Story, which, although lacking immediacy, provides a valuable account of the inner workings of a major Confederate hospital. A second edition of the book, edited by Bell I. Wiley , was published in 1959, and includes a biographical sketch of Pember and nine of her wartime letters. Phoebe Pember died in 1913, at age 90.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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