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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Kate Cumming: Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

By Patrick Young, Esq., 1-14-16

More than 16,000 men were wounded at Shiloh, the bloodiest battle in American history up to that time.

Kate Cumming was a child in Scotland when her family immigrated to North America. They did not come to the United States, but to Montreal in Canada. She then moved with her family to Mobile, Alabama. Although her days in her native Edinburgh were short, throughout her time in the United States she identified herself as a Scottish immigrant and sought a sense of identity in the culture of her homeland.

Unlike many immigrants in the South during the 1850s, she came to embrace the cause of secession in the late 1850s when she was in her late twenties and early thirties. When war broke out in 1861, she decided that she wanted to follow in the path of her role model Florence Nightingale and become a nurse. The problem was that women were not considered fit to nurse men in the 1860s.

It may seem strange that a profession that in the 20th Century was identified as a field for women once closed them off from serving wounded men. To become a military nurse Cumming did not have to overcome only the objections of the army, she also had to defy her own family. Handling men’s bodies and assisting them with their bodily functions was not considered the sort of respectable occupation that would suit a middle-class woman for marriage. Perhaps the objectors were right, for this woman who tended thousands of wounded men would never marry.

Early in April of 1862, Kate Cumming and a small band of women recruited by a minister who insisted the Confederate armies needed the work of women nurses headed out from Mobile by train, hoping to assist a large Confederate army in Tennessee. As they neared the army, they heard news that a great battle had just been fought at a place called Shiloh. 

The women were not certain what they would find when they arrived at their destination. Their services had not been solicited by the Confederate government. They did not even know of the help they offered would be accepted by the men running the army.

As they headed towards the scene of the fighting, the women passed a train carrying the wounded away from Shiloh. Brief glimpses of the suffering patients presaged the horrors they were to see a couple of days later.

When the nurse cadets presented themselves at a military hospital they were rebuffed.  Cumming said that “the surgeons entertain great prejudice against admitting ladies into the hospital in the capacity of nurses.” In fact, the chief surgeon “has carried this so far that he will not even allow the ladies…to visit his patients,” she wrote in her Journal. Frustrated, Cumming wrote, “I only wish that the doctors would let us try and see what we can do!” 

On April 10th the women nurses were allowed to proceed to the main Confederate hospitals at Corinth. During the final stage of their journey, Cumming confessed, she became nervous about what her reaction to seeing the hospitals after a battle would be. 

The scene Cumming saw when she arrived in Corinth was worse than she could have imagined. The camp of the Confederate army was all mud. “As far as the eye could reach, in the midst of all this slop and mud,” she wrote, were the tents of the men, “suggestive of anything but comfort.” Although Kate Cumming had tried to prepare herself emotionally for the work she was about to begin, she wrote that “nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here.” Romantic notions fell away quickly, she wrote, saying that “none of the glories of the war were presented here.” She wondered if she could ever adequately describe what she saw, because, she wrote, “I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene.”

Battlefield wounded were often left outdoors and unattended in the first year of the war. Medical services were inadequately staffed and inefficiently run. The photograph of Union wounded in a “hospital” is from 1862 after the Battle of Savage Station.

Cumming wrote in her Journal that she saw old men and “beardless boys,” Union and Confederate soldiers alike, “mutilated in every imaginable way,” just lying on the floor untreated. They were crammed together so closely, she said, “that it was almost impossible to walk without stepping on them.” She was so overcome by the scene that she wrote that “I could not command my feelings enough to speak, but my thoughts crowded upon me.”

The Confederates, like their Union enemy, had completely underestimated the physical toll in wounded men that the war would eventually claim. Shiloh was the first massive battle in the Western Theater of the war, and it left more than 23,000 men killed, captured, or wounded. The untried Confederate medical system collapsed before the end of the battle. For example, while Kate Cumming arrived at Corinth three days after the battle, wounded men were still arriving at the hospitals there. Many of those men who had arrived a day or two earlier and who were too badly injured to take care of themselves, had not been even been fed, let alone treated, when Cumming got there.

The first thing Nurse Cumming did was to try to feed the men. Supplies were so inadequate that all she had to offer them was some bread, a biscuit, and coffee or tea. The hospital did not even have plates, so she passed out the meager food to the men from her hands to theirs.

Sanitary conditions in the hospital were deplorable. There were no cots for the wounded and dying, or any order to where the men were placed. Cumming wrote that “the men are lying all over the house, on their blankets, just as they were brought from the battle-field.” Because the hospital lacked attendants, they were lying in their own filth and blood. “The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick,” she recalled. To help the men, she had to walk through blood and mud on the floors. When she fed those unable to feed themselves she had to kneel in the slops.

Two days after she arrived at Corinth, Cumming wrote that even then “There seems to be no order” in the hospital. “All do as they please,” she observed. “The men doing the nursing knew nothing of caring for the sick.” She said, and they were never given the time to learn. They were just common soldiers who would work a few hours in the hospital and then be given a new assignment and be replaced by new and equally inexperienced men. “I cannot see how it is possible for them to take proper care of the men, as nursing is a thing that has to learned,” she remonstrated.

The next day, April 13, Cumming wrote in her Journal, “The confusion and want of order are as great as ever.” She was beginning to see men die from lack of care. Although resources were increasing at the hospital, they were not being used properly. “The amount of good being done is not near what it might be, if things were better managed,” she wrote. She said that “Some one is to blame for this state of affairs.”

When some beds arrived that day, Nurse Cumming was happy, both because it meant that the most severely wounded could have some comfort and because elevating the men would allow her to clean up some of the filth that had accumulated on the floors over the last three days.

When a surgeon learned that some wounded Union prisoner was given a bed, he ordered the women to remove the enemy so that a Confederate could take his place. Cumming went to carry out the directive, but she found that she could not do it. “Seeing an enemy wounded and helpless is different from seeing him in health,” she wrote. The hated enemy soldier was, she discovered, a boy with a “childish face” whose eyes teared up when she asked him about his mother. “His lips quivered so that he was unable to speak” about the mother he might not see again, she told her Journal. “I was deeply moved myself,” she says, “spoke a few words of comfort, and left him. I would not have had him give up his bunk for the world. Poor child.”

Image 1: More than 16,000 men were wounded at Shiloh, the bloodiest battle in American history up to that time.

Image 2: Kate Cumming was a Scottish immigrant with a brother serving in the Confederate army.

From: longislandwins.com

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