A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee From the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War by Kate Cumming
With blogs, Facebook, Blackberries and the like, we have all become familiar with the immediacy provided by first-hand accounts and the intimate knowledge of events gained through the barely mediated musings of anyone with an Internet connection. We make up-to-the-second information gathering a part of our everyday lives. Reading journals and letters from decades, even centuries ago, within the context of what we now understand as personal documentary lends a certain approachableness to those individuals writing about the events of their respective times. The authors, who might once have seemed so ancient and odd with their stuffy language and constrictive clothing, appear more recognizable and less old-timey. How interesting to pick up a journal written almost 150 years ago and consider the writer, Kate Cumming, as a sort of blogger for her day - a southern woman in her thirties Twittering about what was happening daily in the hospitals full of wounded soldiers dying for The Lost Cause.
Kate Cumming (ca. 1828-1909) volunteered to serve the Confederacy first by caring for the soldiers wounded in the Battle of Shiloh. Kate was living in Mobile, Alabama in 1862 and heeded the call when the Reverend Benjamin Miller asked the ladies of the south to head to the front lines. She continued volunteering in various Confederate hospitals across the South and was eventually hired as a paid nurse. Kate began recording her activities and thoughts and describing hospitals and surrounding events from the time she was assigned her first post in Okolona, Mississippi in April 1862 until three years later when she was back in Mobile on May 29, 1865. She published the journal in 1866 as A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War: with Sketches of Life and Character, and Brief Notices of Current Events During That Period.
Kate’s journal entries are often, that is very often, as heartbreaking as one might imagine. She writes on April 16, 1862: “I daily witness the same sad scenes-men dying all around me. I do not know who they are, nor have I time to learn.” April 17 finds her “going round as usual this morning, washing the faces of the men, and got half through with one before I found out that he was dead.” But she also expresses strong opinions, mostly in the form of her fierce loyalty to the Confederacy. After hearing yet another claim from Federal soldiers to despise Lincoln and abolitionists as much as the next southerner - they said they were only fighting to keep the Union together, Ms. Cumming writes:
I am no politician. I must own to ignorance in regard to federal or state rights; but I think I have a faint idea of the meaning of the word “union.” According to Webster and other authorities; it is concord, agreement, and conjunction of mind. We all know how little of that and happiness exists in a forced union of man and wife, where there is neither love nor congeniality of feeling. Can these men really think it when they say it? Are they so blind as to think, even if they succeed, that it can ever bring happiness to them or us?
Kate writes about visits from generals, quotes poetry and the Bible, yearns for the end of the war, and offers mini-rants on such topics as the lack of order in the place or the level of noise: “If Pope had been there, I think he could have made a few additions to his “Ode to Silence.” Without links or jpegs or embedded mp3s, Ms. Cummings creates for the reader the immediate, undeniably real world of the Civil War hospital and one woman’s struggle to tough it out as a nurse.
Civil War bibliographer Richard Barksdale Harwell (In Tall Cotton, Cornerstones of Confederate Collecting) edited the journal and published in 1959 Kate: the Journal of a Confederate Nurse. Harwell says in his introduction that the original work was a superior example of the personal narratives produced by women serving in this capacity during the war. The other two, The Soldier’s Friend by Mrs. S.E.D. Smith and Mrs. Fannie A. Beers’ Memories: A Recollection of Personal Experiences during Four Years of War, did not do as fine a job describing how the hospitals worked. Harwell also included the Cumming journal in his In Tall Cotton: The 200 Most Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher and Collector. The entry states that the journal is “By far the fullest and most informative of narratives of the Confederate women who served as nurses.”
The McCain Library & Archives holds two copies of the original published journal, one of which is of particular interest. Ms. Cumming inscribed the book on June 9, 1870 “with compliments of the author” to former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Mr. Davis himself wrote underneath the inscription on July 19, 1870 an effusive note to his daughter Margaret and presumably passed the book along to his “dear Maggie.”
Ms. Cumming would later edit and annotate her journal and publish it in 1895 as Gleanings from Southland. This work is not held in nearly as high regard as A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee. She died in Birmingham, Alabama in 1909.
McCain Library & Archives Holdings:
McCain Library E621 .C97 1866
Cumming, Kate. A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War: with Sketches of Life and Character, and Brief Notices of Current Events During That Period. Louisville: John P. Morton; New Orleans: William Evelyn, 1866.
2 copies from the Ernest A. Walen Collection
Cumming, Kate. Gleanings from the Southland: Sketches of life and manners of the people of the South before, during and after the war of secession, with extracts from the author's journal and an epitome of the new South. Birmingham: Roberts & Sons, 1895. (McCain Library E487 .C97)
Harwell, Richard Barksdale, ed. Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. (McCain Library E625 .C8 1959)
Harwell, Richard. In Tall Cotton: The 200 Most Important Confederate Books for the Reader, Researcher and Collector. Austin: Jenkins Book Publishing Co, 1978. (McCain Library Z1242.5 .H327)
Schultz, Jane. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. (Gulf Coast Library E621 .S35 2004)
Encyclopedia of Alabama:
Kate Cumming: http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1101
The New Georgia Encyclopedia:
Kate Cumming: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-3354
Image Caption: 1. Title page from A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War by Kate Cumming (Louisville, New Orleans 1866). 2. Inscription from Jefferson Davis to his daughter Margaret, 19 July 1870, on the endpaper of the McCain copy of A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War.
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Text by Peggy Price, Curator, Special Collections