A Civil War Biography

Sally Louisa Tompkins

Tompkins was born into a wealthy family on 9 November 1833 at "Poplar Grove" in Mathews County, Virginia. Following her father's death, Tompkins moved with her family to Richmond where she was living at the outbreak of the Civil War. After First Manassas the Confederate government asked the public to help care for the wounded. Tompkins responded by establishing Robertson Hospital in a house at the corner of Third and Main Streets in Richmond. The house was donated by Judge John Robertson of the Circuit Court of Richmond and Henrico County. The hospital, equipped and subsidized largely with Tompkin's inheritance, opened on 1 August 1861. A few weeks later the Confederate Congress passed legislation putting all military hospitals under the control of the Confederate Medical Department.

Tompkins used her high rate of success to convince President Jefferson Davis to allow her hospital to stay open although many other were ordered shut. Regulations required that all military hospitals be run by military personnel. To circumvent the regulation Davis appointed Tompkins captain of cavalry, unassigned, on 9 September 1861, making her the only woman to hold a commission in the Confederate States Army. The woman that her patients called "the little lady with the milk-white hands" became affectionately known as "Captain Sally." The military rank allowed Tompkins to draw government rations, medical supplies, and a salary which was used to help defray operating costs.

Until it discharged its last patients on 13 June 1865, two months after Union forces occupied the Confederate capital, Robertson Hospital had treated 1,333 Confederate soldiers with only 73 recorded deaths, a 94.5 percent survival rate. Tompkins was a beloved celebrity in postwar Richmond. She was active in the Episcopal church and a popular guest at veterans' reunions and United Daughter of the Confederacy meetings. By 1905 she had exhausted her fortune, giving most of it away to veteran causes, and moved into the Confederate Women's Home in Richmond. She died at the home on 26 July 1916. "Captain Sally," an honorary member of the R.E. Lee Camp of the Confederate Veterans, was buried with full military honors.

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