Kate Cumming: Essential Worker for Three Long Years

Kate Cumming woke each morning and read the news. She scrolled the list of names, eagerly looking for loved ones. There were so many sick. So many dying. So many dead.

And then Kate went to work. Her family was well enough off that she could have stayed home. But, she didn’t. She was an essential worker. Kate Cumming was a nurse, and now her country was facing its severest test yet. She was living in truly unprecedented times.

When she got to work, she couldn’t help but be frustrated. Her country wasn’t prepared for the present catastrophe. Its medical system was in shambles. There wasn’t enough equipment to care for the sick. And they kept on flooding the hospital. At first it was a stream, and then a river, and if action wasn’t taken soon, it would become a deluge. The doctors had already been forced to make agonizing decisions—who would get the needed supplies? Who would be left to die?

Kate Cumming. National Park Service

Eventually, so many corpses left the hospital in which Kate worked, that they ran out of coffins. Her government, with all its wealth, power, and prestige, was forced to bury its citizens in mass graves.

Kate Cumming’s first exposure to Civil War hospitals came in the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh. She wrote: “But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here. I do not think that words are in our vocabulary expressive enough to present to the mind the realities of that sad scene. Certainly none of the glories of the war were presented here.” There weren’t enough medics, nor was there enough space or food. (A typical dinner was bread, butter, and coffee.)

Kate spent her first 24 hours like she would spend her next six weeks. Though utterly exhausted after staying up all night bathing wounds, she found time to record that first evening in her diary: “The men are lying all over the house, on their blankets, just as they were brought from the battlefield. They are in the hall, on the gallery, and crowded into very small rooms. The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk, and when we give the men anything kneel, in the blood and water.”

Library of Congress

While her government was woefully unprepared to deal with so many wounded and dying, private citizens began to chip in. Kate noted that a number of volunteers arrived from Natchez to relieve the labor shortage. In addition, citizens of Natchez began collecting supplies and sending them to the overcrowded hospitals in north Mississippi. In fact, Kate became friends with a handful of these Natchez volunteer-nurses. Inevitably, tragedy and national disaster brought out the best in many. Private individuals attempted to provide what their government could not.

After three years of hell—and surely the Civil War hospitals were as horrific as the battlefields themselves (for every soldier killed on the battlefield, two died in the hospitals)—the war mercifully came to an end.

Kate Cumming had taken care of the wounded and dying, without a respite, for three long years.

For more on Kate Cumming, check out Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War.

Or, better yet, read her journal yourself.

For an empathetic look at Civil War hospitals, read Howard Bahr’s excellent novel The Black Flower.

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