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.

Empty Churches

St. Mary’s Cathedral in Natchez. Library of Congress

A reporter once asked Eudora Welty on a Sunday morning why the streets were so empty. She simply looked at him, and said, matter-of-factly, that it was Sunday.

It is eerie to drive by the churches of the most religious state in the nation on a Sunday morning, and see empty parking lots. Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, it will be a hundredfold more eerie. Empty churches? In Mississippi?

It won’t be the first time Mississippi’s citizens have had to worship from home. It will not be the first Easter a church has no congregation. Disease, epidemics, and wars have periodically forced Mississippians to worship distantly.

Americans, and specifically Mississippians, have grown spoiled over the past three generations in terms of variety of and opportunities for worship. We take for granted that we can go to church any Sunday (or Wednesday) we wish. Just half a mile from my house stand six different churches—all of which have full parking lots Sunday mornings. And yet, the ability to worship, hear a sermon, and break bread together with a church family has not always been so accessible.

One particularly powerful example for Mississippi was the Civil War. For instance, at the onset of war, Catholic Bishop William Henry Elder had twelve priests to serve the entire state. During the course of the war, he lost five of those priests. Of the remaining seven, the Bishop was forced to perform a spiritual triage. He sacrificed Sunday services to send many of his priests to the battlefield where he believed his priests would be of more value and comfort to a dying soldier. Inevitably, his decision left Sunday worshippers without the comfort of a service.

And then there were the times of panic and chaos and social disruption in which Elder would have to say a Sunday Mass with a limited or no congregation at all. On such Sundays, the Bishop would set up a makeshift altar and celebrate the Mass alone, sometimes in a church, sometimes, at home, sometimes in prison.

Finally, there were the slaves themselves who all too often lived spiritually isolated when their masters denied them the comforts of Sunday services. Bishop Elder met one such black man in a Federal concentration camp. The recently freed black man explained to Elder that he had been a devout Catholic in Kentucky and attended Mass and received the sacraments. But then he was sold down south, and his new master refused to allow him to attend Catholic church. Nor would he allow a priest on his land. The black man was relieved that Elder had visited his camp. The Bishop explained to him that he was still a Catholic and that he would be welcomed at Elder’s home anytime he felt he needed the sacraments or instruction.

Elder also believed that the third commandment was always being honored, whether there is a crowded church or a solitary pastor saying the Mass. Furthermore, that service was being celebrated on behalf of the slave denied the opportunity to attend. Or the wounded on the battlefield. Or, today, the homebound, forced to miss the service. He believed that the Church was much, much larger than the slave could imagine, full of good men on earth, those climbing toward heaven in purgatory, and the saints themselves in heaven. And they all celebrated each Mass on behalf of the universal Church, those physically present and those unable to attend.

Mural at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Jackson. Josh Foreman

In Elder’s worldview, because the Mass was universal in nature, no Church service was ever ill-attended. It was being celebrated by countless hosts of angels and saints.

And so, tomorrow, 155 years—eight bishops and six generations—removed from the war that devastated Elder’s adopted state, priests all over Mississippi will be celebrating Mass in Elder’s Natchez Basilica, at the twice-burned St. Peter’s in Jackson, and in churches all over the state.

The pews will be empty. But the service will be well attended.

And the next Easter.

And the next.

And the next.

Altar at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans. Josh Foreman

Pandemics from the Past

News arrived in Jackson of a dangerous and dreaded disease spreading rapidly two hundred miles south in New Orleans. And then, word spread that the pandemic had arrived in Memphis. Jacksonians began to panic. Many still held out hope that the disease would bypass the capital city. But when Vicksburg reported one hundred cases of the deadly sickness, the writing was on the wall.

New Orleans in 1880. Library of Congress

Those who could, fled Jackson. Those with means, half of the city’s 6,000 inhabitants, three quarters of them white, fled to the countryside. The Mayor of Jackson declared a quarantine three days later, and detectives and investigators began roaming the streets looking for quarantine violators. When the first death was reported one week later, the quarantine was tightened. In fact, a double quarantine was established. There was a great fear of “idle blacks” before the scare, and now that fear extended to the disease. Thus, frightened whites began to patrol the country roads to keep the black residents of Jackson from spreading the disease to the countryside. At the same time, the residents of Jackson quarantined themselves to keep rural blacks from bringing the disease into the city.

Finally, after eight weeks of isolation, the quarantine was lifted and life went back to normal. Normal, minus the new reality of all those who lost loved ones. While New Orleans reported 3,929 deaths (out of 13,083 confirmed cases) and Memphis suffered somewhere between 5,000-6,000 deaths, Jackson lost only 69 persons out of the 3,000 who stayed in the city (a 2% death rate and 15% infection rate.) Because there were more poor black persons in the city, the majority of deaths were among the black population.

Display at the Yellow Fever Martyrs Church and Museum in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Library of Congress

And because priests and nuns were the de facto frontline healthcare workers, they, too, were infected and died in disproportionate numbers. Otherwise, the Yellow Fever struck democratically. As Sister Mary Bernard, who stayed behind to nurse the sick, would record: “There was not a household that did not mourn one or two loved ones who had fallen victim to the plague. The first Sunday they had assembled for holy Mass the scene in the Church was pathetic; every pew held more than one black-robed figure and when the ‘Kyrie eleison’ sounded, a pitiful wail of grief mingled with the words.”

Still, Jackson survived the quarantine and the isolation and the deaths.

Read more about Jackson’s 1878 (and 1872) Yellow Fever epidemics in Hidden History of Jackson.

Or, how a yellow fever outbreak in 1905 threatened to derail the construction of a Gulf Coast wonder in Hidden History of the Mississippi Sound.

Or, Bishop William Henry Elder, Mississippi’s bishop during the 1872 and ’78 Yellow Fever epidemics—who contracted the disease himself and read his own obituary in the paper before recovering and leading his dioceses for another quarter century—in Mississippi Bishop William Henry Elder and the Civil War.

Or, sixteen year old Clara Solomon and her plan to save the Confederacy by utilizing mosquitoes against occupying Federal troops in Hidden History of New Orleans.

Or, read about the man who helped win World War II—New Orleans’ unsung hero, Denton Crocker, and his battle with mosquitoes and malaria in 1940s New Orleans—in Hidden History of New Orleans.