Tuesday, October 29, 2013


By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

In both the North and the South, women with the title "matron" worked in general hospitals behind the lines. However, the two sides varied in their concept of a matron's duties.

The position of matron was established i the Confederacy by legislation passed on November 25, 1862. Each hospital was to have two chief matrons to supervise the entire "domestic economy" of the hospital. There were also supposed to be two assistant matrons in charge of the laundry and patients' clothing, and two ward matrons for each ward of 100 patients, who made sure that  each patient received suitable bedding, food, and medicine.

In practice, the number of matrons depended upon the size of the hospital and the willingness of the doctor in charge to appoint them. Their duties also varied, involving many kinds of hands-on hospital work in addition to their supervisory roles. Matrons often cooked for patients with special diet needs, making toddies, eggnog, or recipes that some soldier's mother used to make, in order to appeal to delicate appetites. Matrons sometimes fed the concoctions to the patients as well. In many hospitals matrons controlled the key to the medicinal liquor supply, dispensing whiskey only by proper prescription, Matrons sometimes did the same tasks as nurses, such as washing the hands, faces and wounds of patients. In addition, matrons comforted patients, offered spiritual counsel, sat with the dying, and wrote to patients' families to inform them about the soldier's location or, if necessary, his demise.

Matrons worked long hours, in some cases from 4:00 a.m. until midnight. Many matrons became ill from exhaustion, as well as disease, and had to leave the hospital to recuperate. Among the most famous of the Confederate matrons wee Phoebe Pember, at Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 in Richmond, and Ella Newsom, Fannie Beers, and Kate Cumming, who worked at various locations with the Army of Tennessee. Pember, Beers, and Cumming later wrote books about their experiences.

Officially, as of 1863, one Union matron was to be appointed for every twenty beds to perform the duty in hospitals that laundresses performed in the field. However, the term "matron" was also used in other contexts to apply to women working as nurses, cooks, chambermaids, or ward supervisors, a position similar to what Confederates meant by the term. Jane Woolsey, for example, seems to have served as a matron in the supervisory sense.

The position of matron evidently was more important and prestigious for the Confederates. Although some people objected to matrons, as they did to the presence of women in hospitals in any capacity, patients generally seem to have benefited from matrons' care.

IMAGE: Jane Stuart Woolsey

From: "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine"


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