Bookshelf Notes: Kate Cumming’s Civil War Journal

This was one of the first Civil War diaries that I read when I was starting to look at women and their roles in Civil War medicine. Kate’s journal is particularly valuable since it is a Confederate perspective, written in “real time” (not a memoir), and published around 1866.

Kate Cumming was born in Scotland in 1828 and emigrated to Canada and then the United States with her family. By the 1840’s, the family had settled in Mobile, Alabama, and after living in the South for nearly twenty years, Kate called Alabama home literally and ideologically, causing her to enthusiastically support the Confederacy by 1861.

Inspired by a patriotic address and public appeal from Reverend Benjamin M. Miller to the women of the South to volunteer as nurses to aid the sick and wounded soldiers, Kate believed she had found her calling to support the war effort. Her family strongly discouraged her from the effort, citing a prevalent belief in that era that nursing outside the home was not the role of “respectable ladies.” She waited at first, trying to be content with helping other nurses prepare to go to the hospitals.

However, in April 1862, Kate agreed to journey to northern Mississippi with other volunteer female nurses under the guardianship of Reverent Miller to help care for the casualties from the Battle of Shiloh. With that beginning, she served in hospitals in Okolona, Corinth, Chattanooga, and in campaign field hospitals with the Confederate Army of Tennessee. Throughout her experiences, Kate wrote regularly in her private diary, keeping a record of hospital conditions, treatment of patients, incompetence of some surgeons, and the hardships and inequalities that female nurses endured. Her writings create a rare glimpse inside the Confederate medical facilities in the Western Theater.

Kate first published her journal in 1866 and later released an edited version in 1890 which she titled “Gleanings from Southland.” She lived in Alabama until her death in 1909.

An edited/annotated version of Kate Cumming’s Diary is available through HathiTrust – Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse

In her preface, Kate offered these words of advice in face of judgement from the future and the pages of history:

Let us cease to live on the surface; let us do and dare—remembering, if we are true to ourselves, the world will be true to us.

Have you read it or referenced it? What other Civil War nurses’ diaries have you found helpful?


Published by Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?

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