Kate Cumming: Confederate immigrant nurse and the Shiloh disaster

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

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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.1

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.2

kate-cumming-photo

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

 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.3

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. 4

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.5

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.6

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!” 7

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. 8

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.”9

union-hospital-savage-stationBattlefield 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.”10

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.11

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.12

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.13

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.14

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.”15

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.16

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.”17

Video: Medicine During the Civil War

 

Resource:

You can read Kate Cumming’s book for free online.

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 (1866)

Sources:
1. 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 (1866);Georgia Encyclopedia ; Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004).
2. Georgia Encyclopedia
3. Georgia Encyclopedia
4. 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 (1866) Kindle Loc 140-170
5. 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 (1866)  Kindle Location 170-200
6. 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 (1866)  Kindle Location 170-200
7. 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 (1866) Kindle Loc 200-211
8. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 200-257
9. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 245-257
10. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 257-268
11. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 260-280
12. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 260-285
13. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 260-280
14. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 260-305
15. 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 (1866)Kindle Location 316-320
16. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 320-330
17. 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 (1866) Kindle Location 320-340

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

 

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