While Clara Barton treated the Union wounded on the battlefields of the Civil War, Sally Tomkins ran a hospital for the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.
Marilyn Iglesias of Gloucester, Va., portrayed Tomkins on Friday during a re-enactment marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. The event will continue this weekend on farmland just north of Antietam National Battlefield near Sharpsburg.
“She was just interesting,” Iglesias said of Tomkins. “The more you read about her, the more you want to know.”
Known as the Angel of the Confederacy, Tomkins’ hospital boasted the highest survival rate of any of its kind — North or South. Only 72 of the 1,333 patients whom Tomkins treated died.
When the Confederacy mandated that all hospitals were to be operated by the military, Confederate President Jefferson Davis commissioned Tomkins as a captain so she could continue her work. The commission made her the only female officer on either side during the Civil War.
“She signed her commission accepting the commission, but refusing any salary,” Iglesias said. “The only help she took from the (Confederate) government was in terms of supplies, medicines and that sort of thing that she was unable to obtain any other way.”
Iglesias said she depicts Tomkins at re-enactments and other events about 35 times per year.
Donning a black dress like the one Tomkins wore in photographs, Iglesias stood behind one of many tables set up by re-enactors and told the story of the Confederacy’s most celebrated nurse.
Iglesias said she learned through research that Tomkins had a penchant for compassion. She began treating animals as a child and progressed to humans. Tomkins finally found her niche when the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861.
“During the first Battle of Manassas ... she felt her prayers had been answered,” Iglesias said. “Now she knew how she could serve.”
Tomkins operated the Robertson Hospital in Richmond, Iglesias said. Although germs weren’t known about at the time, it is believed that Tomkins’ fanatical insistence for cleanliness helped lead to the high survivability rate of her patients.
“She boiled their uniforms, gave them clean clothes and fed them warm food,” Iglesias said.
Iglesias said Tomkins allowed a soldier who was one of her patients to stay on at the hospital to garden vegetables. The fresh produce was instrumental to the recovery of the wounded.
“She had one of the best nutrition programs of any hospital,” Iglesias said.
When the Confederacy finally surrendered in 1865, Tomkins defied Union orders to close the hospital, Iglesias said. Tomkins continued to operate the hospital until the last of her patients was discharged.
After the war, Tomkins received a number of letters from suitors, Iglesias said, but she always turned them down, saying, “The poor boys must still be suffering from their fevers.”
Tomkins never got married, Iglesias said. The Angel of the Confederacy was given a funeral with full military honors when she died in 1916.
“Her mission was to save her boys,” Iglesias said. “We’re doing our best to get her story told.”