Tompkins, Sally Louisa (1833–1916)

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Tompkins, Sally Louisa (1833–1916)

American military nurse who was the first woman commissioned as an officer in the Confederate Army. Born on November 9, 1833, in Poplar Grove, Mathews County, Virginia; died of chronic interstitial nephritis on July 25, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia; daughter of Christopher Tompkins (a justice of the peace, member of the militia, and state representative) and Maria Boothe (Patterson) Tompkins.

Sally Louisa Tompkins was born in 1833 in Mathews County, Virginia, where she spent her childhood as the youngest of four children in a family distinguished on both sides by political service. Her father, who became a justice of the peace and a militia member after an earlier career as a merchant mariner, was elected to the Virginia legislature. Her mother's father had fought in the Revolutionary War and been cited for bravery at the battle of Monmouth. The family was well known in Tidewater Virginia, and enjoyed a wide circle of friends. When Colonel Tompkins died shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, the family moved to Richmond, Virginia, which became the capital of the Confederacy.

In Richmond, the Confederate Army opened many military hospitals to care for war casualties. Among the first was the 25-bed Robertson Hospital, operated by Tompkins (who financed most of the institution) and a group of socially prominent women she recruited as nurses. She had only a permanent staff of seven, including herself, two veterans unable to serve, and four slaves, but her hospital soon developed a reputation for the quality of its care. When the surgeon general of the Confederacy recommended that private hospitals in Richmond be closed, President Jefferson Davis did not want to lose the city's best facility. He commissioned Tompkins as a captain of cavalry—an unprecedented step—which enabled her to keep her hospital open as a military facility. She declined her captain's salary, however. From August 1, 1861, when it received its first patient, to June 13, 1865, when it discharged its last patient, the Robertson Hospital recorded only 73 deaths out of 1,333 admissions. This record was unmatched by any other hospital in either the North or the South, and was all the more outstanding because the most critical cases were often sent there. Tompkins' emphasis on sanitation may well have contributed to the success rate of her hospital. In addition, she was known to stress religion and to be effective in boosting the low morale of soldiers in her care.

After the war, Tompkins lived quietly in Richmond, engaging in local charity work. In 1905, after having exhausted most of her financial resources, she was invited by the board of managers of Richmond's Home for Confederate Women to live there as a guest, but she insisted on paying her own expenses. She remained there until her death in 1916, and was buried with full military honors.


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