Blue, Gray, and Red

This month I offer comments about a great reference book which I recently completed: Blue, Gray, and Red: Two Nurses’ Views of the Civil War. I received this book as a gift from my good friend, John P., whom you may recall gave me Statesmen of the Lost Cause, a reference source about political events at the highest level within the Confederacy.

Blue, Gray, and Red provides us with the reminiscences of two women, one from Concord MA and one from Mobile AL, who went to work in the army hospitals for each side. Most people will recognize the Massachusian: Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), but I suspect fewer know of Kate Cumming (1836-1909). The book is actually a reprint of their two memoirs originally printed in 1869 and 1866 (reprinted in 1895) respectively.

The book’s premise seemed promising in comparing the circumstances of women in parallel situations but that promise is not kept. The two women had vastly different experiences. Alcott served but six weeks in a Georgetown DC hospital (Dec 1862 – Jan 1863) before she contracted typhoid fever and was sent home, while Cumming served in numerous army field hospitals in the Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 until she was ordered home from Georgia in May 1865. Alcott’s story suffers further from the fact that she chose to tell the story as a novel, Hospital Sketches. This, she wrote in the florid and profligate style of late 19th century novelists with run-on sentences and paragraphs which cover entire pages. Also weakening the narrative is the fact that of the 58 pages assigned to Alcott’s story, nearly a quarter describe how she made the decision to serve and her difficulties in traveling from Concord to Georgetown.


By comparison, Cumming’s writing style, although covering essentially the same topics, flows easily and is quite modern, except for its biblical and mythological references. Cumming saw enough of the destruction of war that her narrative becomes more mature in its outlook as the work progresses.

Unlike Alcott, Cumming’s family found themselves dispersed in England and New York at the start of the war and later, she had a brother and many close friends in the same army where she served. Here is a summary of Cumming’s service, taken from the University of Alabama Reynolds-Finley Historical Library:

Kate Cumming was born in Scotland and, as a child, moved to America with her large family, first to Montreal, then to New York, and finally in the 1840’s to Mobile, Alabama. There she spent the remainder of her youth and early adulthood.  By the 1860s, Cumming had been in the South for many years and identified the Confederacy as home and “the cause” as her own. Several months after the start of the Civil War, Kate was much inspired by an address given by family friend, Reverend Benjamin M. Miller, at a local church. In his speech, Miller called for Southern ladies to help the wounded and sick by becoming nurses at the war front. Cumming was discouraged from volunteering by her respectable Southern family, who thought that “nursing soldiers was no work for a refined lady,”. Therefore, initially she relegated her involvement to assisting other volunteers in their preparation to leave for the hospitals. However, when a regiment of old school and church friends were sent off to war, Cumming was compelled to offer her services to Mr. Miller despite her family’s disapproval and her own lack of hospital training. In April of 1862, Mr. Miller summoned his volunteer ladies to head north to Mississippi to help those returning from the battle at Shiloh.

Conditions in the hospitals of Okolona and Corinth, Mississippi were so horrible that only Cumming and one other nurse stayed beyond a week. Despite the hardships, Kate remained through June and returned to serve in Chattanooga that fall. Her duties were many faceted – delivering food and medicine, managing laundresses, writing letters, keeping clothing and bedding fresh, and even cooking. In September of 1862, new laws allowed the employment of women to be officially recognized by the Confederate medical department, and at that time, Cumming received the rank of matron, or hospital supervisor. She worked in Chattanooga until the summer of 1863, and then traveled with Surgeon Samuel Stout’s medical corps in the Army of Tennessee, which was constantly moving as General Sherman swept through Georgia and the Carolinas. Stout was first hesitant to accept the role of women in the hospital, but was soon convinced, and commended them in his personal narrative. He specifically names Cumming and two others as “the first refined, intellectual, self-denying ladies, who in the midst of the suffering soldiers, served at their bunkside at night as well as day. Their self-denying and heroic benevolence inspirited many other educated and refined ladies to imitate their examples,”.

While traveling with the Army of Tennessee, Cumming faithfully recorded her experiences in a journal, which became her great contribution to history. Hastily published within a year of her return to Mobile after the war, Kate Cumming’s journal did not receive the readership it deserved, perhaps because it was too close to the events or because of the influx of Confederate narratives at the time. However, the journal is invaluable from a historical perspective because it is the most complete and realistic record of the workings of Confederate hospitals and the services of matrons. Later, in 1890, she republished the journal under the title, Gleanings from Southland. This shortened, edited version experienced more success in a market “hungry for ‘the romance of reunion’” . Cumming moved to Birmingham in 1874, where she remained until her death in 1909.

I found Cumming’s narrative both informative and compelling in an area of the Civil War where I had never before paid much attention. Furthermore, in the events she describes, we catch glimpses of the social standards of the era and relationships among the Southern upper class and between the upper class and the lower orders. The reader is also treated to Kate’s understanding of the meaning of the war which I found worth consideration. Throughout the narrative, Kate keeps a restrained tongue in describing the Federal soldiers.  I suspect that in the 1890 edition used in this book, she edited-out the more “colorful” names she may have used at the time. Of course, every single one of the Southern soldiers in her book is a hero.

While she remained a patriot to her state and to the Confederacy, one cannot help but be impressed at the hardships she and the others overcame. The descriptions of the fear of marauding Federal raiders and war-time destruction in Georgia and Alabama at the end of the war were particularly moving for me. As a citizen of a united America, I find it a great shame that the service the Kate Cumming and those women who served with her are not as well recognized as those of Clara Barton or Mary Ann Bickerdyke.

Cumming returned to Mobile after the war, and in 1866 she first published her journal. In 1874 she moved with her father to Birmingham, Alabama. She never married but resided in Birmingham as a teacher and active member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy until her death on June 5, 1909. She is buried in Mobile.


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