Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kneeling in Blood: Who Was Kate Cumming? Part 2

This series on Kate Cumming is dedicated to all those nurses who give of themselves to heal others. Your kindness, your touch, your wisdom and your unselfish dedication can never be appreciated enough.

To all my sister and brother nurses,
Thank You.

If you read Part 1 of our story on Kate Cumming, you know we will be exploring her journal as a nurse of the Medical Department of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Photo from
Before exploring her journal, I thought it would be good to have a little basic information about Kate. A cursory search reveals a great deal.

Kate was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, between 1828 and 1835. Sometime in the 1840s, her father, David Cumming,moved their family to Montreal, Canada. Then he moved them to Mobile, Alabama, where I live.

Kate spent her formative years in the beautiful Southern city of Mobile where she lived a life of comfort. Mobile at that point had been occupied by the French, the English, the Spanish and was now a part of the United States, the multi-cultural tone of the city allowed her to, keep her Scottish roots and still strongly identified herself as a Southerner.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Kate's mother and two sisters left for England but Kate remained at home with her father and her brother, who enlisted in the Confederate army. As the war intensified and battlefield casualties arose, Kate joined the relief effort by gathering supplies for hospitals.

She decided to volunteer as a nurse at the front after hearing a speech by the Reverend Benjamin M. Miller, an advocate of female nursing. It should be remembered that until 1853, nurses were primarily men. As the Civil War intensified, able bodied men could not be spared as nurses and women were pressed into this duty.

Kate's family objected, mainly because from the 1600s to the 1800s, nurses were not viewed as professionals as they are today. Most female nurses were nuns. Those that were not nuns were often considered as having low morals, since in that day and time women were not supposed to touch men, especially not perform care on men who would be even partially unclothed. To this Kate once replied: "....from my experiences since last writing on that subject, that a lady's respectability must be at a low ebb when it can be endangered by going into a hospital."

Inspite of her family's protest, Kate eventually joined a party of around 40 women who ventured into Corinth, Mississippi, after the April 1862 battle of Shiloh, in which more than 23,700 soldiers were killed or wounded.

For four months Kate braved the dismal conditions in Corinth, then briefly returned home. Most of her companions did desire a permanent nursing position, but Kate and two other women visited hospitals in Chattanooga, Tennessee seeking permanent nursing positions. Finally, they found a physician willing to accept their services in August 1862. The conditions were poor and the death rate was high, but the gratitude of the soldiers convinced Kate to persevere.

When the Civil War first broke out, the Confederate Medical Department was small and disorganized. For the first year and a half of the war, efforts by volunteer nurses such as Kate, filled the gaps in medical care. In September 1862, the Confederacy reorganized its medical department and in recognition of the volunteer nurses' efforts,( and based on statistics showing better survival rates in female-run hospitals,) the Confederate Congress created official positions for such women, who became known as matrons.

While a matron, employed with the mobile hospitals of Dr. Samuel Stout, medical director for the Army of Tennessee, Kate maintained a personal diary that provides a detailed and honest account of female nursing in the South during the war.

In April 1862 she nursed the wounded at Shiloh and worked that summer at Corinth, Okolona, and Chattanooga. In her diary she noted in January and April of 1863 that there were so many wounded they could "scarcely take note" of their names. However, she listed the veterans who died, many which are buried in Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery. This compassionate act has allowed many families to find their loved ones, even if it took generations to do so.

Kate published her diary 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.

The inspiration for the title of the series, "Kneeling in Blood" will be discovered in Part 3.

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