As Virginia’s next governor, Ralph Northam will take part in the 2019 dedication of the Virginia Women’s Monument on Capitol Square, which is to include a statue of a Confederate captain.
Sally Louisa Tompkins, a Richmond hospital administrator renowned for her facility’s low mortality rate, was one of 12 women from 400 years of Virginia history chosen in 2013 for bronze statues as part of the monument.
Northam, like members of the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission interviewed for this story, appears to see a distinction between Tompkins and other Confederate officers.
“The governor-elect recognizes that the women who were selected for this monument contributed to Virginia at different times in our history and in different ways,” said Ofirah Yheskel, Northam’s press secretary.
“We should continue the conversation about monuments that were erected expressly to glorify individuals who fought a war against their own country to protect the institution of slavery, but we should also be honest about the difference between that and the recognition of a woman who only accepted her commission when it was the only way to keep her hospital open.”
Five members of the commission interviewed for this story affirmed their support for including a statue of Tompkins as part of the women’s monument, noting her pioneering achievements and that she refused pay and used her own money to equip the hospital. Some cite accounts that Tompkins might have accepted the Confederate commission in order to continue her work as the Confederate government shut down private hospitals.
Tompkins was not chosen for her service to the Confederacy but for her work “in service of saving people’s lives,” said former state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington, vice chair of the Women’s Monument Commission. Tompkins “was so respectful of hygiene” that her hospital is said to have had the highest survival rate of any during the Civil War, Whipple said.
Between August 1861 and June 1865, Tompkins and her staff treated 1,333 patients and only 73 died, according to the Virginia Women in History Project, presented by the Library of Virginia.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe officially heads the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission, a role that will pass to Northam after he takes office in January.
Following the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August, Northam said Confederate monuments “should be taken down and moved into museums.” He said that as governor he would “be a vocal advocate for that approach and work with localities on the issue.”
About two months later, during a forum at the University of Richmond, Northam said he is “not going to meddle” in the decisions of localities and universities regarding Confederate statues.
Tompkins came to Richmond from Mathews County at the age of 28 after her father died. Working with other women who attended St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Tompkins opened a private hospital in 1861 in a two-story house at Third and Main streets. Judge John Robertson offered his home for the facility, which became known as Robertson Hospital.
The small hospital could handle up to 22 patients, according to the Civil War Richmond website, which cited a 1964 publication of the Richmond Civil War Centennial committee.
In September 1861, the Confederate secretary of war appointed Tompkins a captain in the Confederate army, “in a possible ploy” so that Tompkins and the hospital could get supplies from the Confederate Quartermaster Office, according to Tompkins’ biography from the Virginia Women in History project.
Tompkins spent the last 10 years of her life at Richmond’s Home for Needy Confederate Women. Some contemporary news accounts variously referred to her as the Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton of the Confederacy, or “the angel of the Lost Cause.”
“My aim and object was to help all I could, not be paid for it,” Tompkins said in a 1907 interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “What I did for the wounded and ill Confederate soldiers was entirely a work of love; I never took any pay — never.”
She added: “The dangerously wounded or ill Confederate soldiers were sent to me, because President (Jefferson) Davis said they received such careful attention in my hospital.”
Tompkins died in July 1916. Her obituary said she was the only woman who received a commission in the Confederate army. (Some other accounts say that Lucy Mina Otey of Lynchburg, who founded another hospital, also was commissioned as a Confederate captain and that J.E.B. Stuart named Antonia Ford, a Confederate spy in Fairfax County, as an honorary aide-de-camp for her bravery in carrying state papers.)
Confederate veterans attended Tompkins’ funeral and accompanied her body to its final resting place in Mathews County. Tompkins’ coffin was to be “draped with the Confederate colors in accordance with the custom observed at all funerals of Confederate officers.”
In 1937, The Times-Dispatch interviewed Emmie Crump Lightfoot, a cousin of Tompkins who had worked with her at the hospital. Lightfoot’s father, W.W. Crump, was a judge and a Confederate assistant secretary of the treasury. When the Confederates decided to close private hospitals, Tompkins first turned to Crump, Lightfoot said.
“She begged father to help her and together they set out for the White House to see President Davis,” Lightfoot recalled. “He was much impressed with what he heard: Most of the men who had been treated at Robertson Hospital had been returned to service. There was a low percentage of deaths.
“He paced the floor and tried to think of a way to save Cousin Sally’s hospital. Then he stopped short and said to her: ‘I will make you a captain in the army of the Confederacy. In that way your hospital can be saved.’
“In a way, it was true that she ruled her hospital with a stick in one hand and a Bible in the other,” Lightfoot recalled. “She was a devout woman and the discipline at the hospital was rigid. But the men adored her — even when she scolded them.”
The story concludes by noting that Tompkins “was no reconciled, reconstructed Virginian after the war.” Richmond residents recalled that they carried her mail “all over town” because “Captain Sally would not use a Yankee stamp.”
In a 1966 story, Tompkins’ great-niece, Nellie Tompkins, said Sally Tompkins “remained a Confederate always.”
“Once when we were children, we were excited about going to New York City,” Nellie Tompkins recalled. “She asked us why we would have any desire to cross the Mason-Dixon Line.”
‘Courage and tenacity’
Susan Clarke Schaar, clerk of the Virginia state Senate and a member of the Women’s Monument Commission, said that in addition to Tompkins’ achievement of the lowest mortality rate at a Civil War hospital, “we were impressed with the fact that she started this hospital at the time and the fact that she used her own money” to equip it.
Lisa Hicks-Thomas, another member of the commission, previously led the panel as secretary of administration in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration.
The commission’s goal in erecting a women’s monument on Capitol Square was “to recognize and celebrate the many contributions made by a diverse group of women to the commonwealth over the past 400 years and to tell the story of Virginia’s history honestly, even when that’s hard,” Hicks-Thomas said.
“We honor Sally Louisa Tompkins for her courage and tenacity in establishing and running a hospital in Richmond,” said Hicks-Thomas, now a senior adviser at Dominion Energy.
Localities across Virginia have undergone a reappraisal of how to present Confederate iconography since the August white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly.
On Monday, the Richmond City Council rejected a proposal to request that the General Assembly give the city authority to remove the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. The majority wished to wait on recommendations from Mayor Levar Stoney’s Monument Avenue Commission.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, assistant secretary of the Richmond Branch NAACP, who’s been following the planning for the women’s monument, thinks it’s inappropriate to include a statue of Tompkins.
“We’re not honoring losers anymore. And I understand that she has a great record as a medical professional, but they still lost,” she said.
“At the end of the day, if you were fighting for the Confederacy you were fighting for black people to be kept as slaves.”
“How can we honor slaves and people that were fighting to keep people as slaves right beside them?”
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, chairwoman of the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, has a different view. She said that her initial impression is that she does not have a problem with a statue of Tompkins.
“I think she’s a little different from Jefferson Davis and Civil War generals,” McClellan said, adding: “I don’t think being commissioned by the Confederacy undoes the good work she did to save lives.”
The General Assembly created the Women’s Monument Commission in 2010. The 18-member commission chose the design in March 2013 and by the end of that year it had selected the 12 women to be honored with statues. The list generated some public controversy at the time, not for Tompkins’ inclusion, but because Pocahontas was excluded.
Virginia officials say the women’s monument — with its breadth of recognition — is believed to be the first of its kind at any state capitol.
Some of the dozen Virginia women to be memorialized in bronze include first lady Martha Washington of Fairfax County, Jamestown settler Anne Burras Laydon, and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley of Dinwiddie, a slave who bought her freedom and became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress.
A few of the others include Cockacoeske, a Pamunkey chief; Adele Goodman Clark of Richmond, a suffragist who became president of the League of Women Voters in 1921; and Maggie L. Walker of Richmond, the first black woman in the U.S. to charter a bank.
Earlier this month, McAuliffe attended the groundbreaking on the first part of the monument, the plaza that will be home to the 12 statues. Tompkins’ brief bio in the program for the event noted her pioneering achievements at Robertson Hospital, but did not mention the Confederacy.
The monument’s dedication will come in 2019, a pivotal year for Virginia, marking milestones such as the 400th anniversary of the General Assembly, and the first documented arrival of Africans in English North America.
“It would be impossible to understand Virginia women’s history without taking into account the Civil War period,” said women’s commission member Lissy S. Bryan, an advocate for affordable housing and child welfare and widow of J. Stewart Bryan III, former chairman of the board of Media General Inc. and former publisher of The Times-Dispatch.
Bryan added in an email that “the monument will also include women contemporary with Tompkins who felt differently about the war.”
Bryan notes that the glass wall that will surround the monument’s plaza will bear the names of more than 200 other women across Virginia history. They will include Richmonders who were spies for the Union — Elizabeth Van Lew, and Mary Richards Bowser, who was born into slavery and informed for the Union on activities in the Confederate White House.
“The Virginia Women’s Monument is a very different kind of monument from others in Richmond,” Bryan said. “The women depicted on this monument are not being placed on pedestals, literally or figuratively. They were real people whose contributions made Virginia what it was and is.”
Other tributes to Tompkins
There have been other efforts to honor Tompkins in Richmond. Third Street Diner occupies the spot at Third and Main where Robertson Hospital once stood. High on a brick wall outside the building that now houses the diner is a plaque placed in 1910 by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society. It notes that on that site stood Robertson Hospital “in charge of Captain Sally L. Tompkins C.S.A.”
A stained-glass window memorializing Tompkins was dedicated at St. James’s Episcopal Church in September 1961. It was unveiled by a great-great-granddaughter of Judge John Robertson, who had donated use of his home for the hospital.
One of Richmond’s odder episodes occurred in 1966, when a Richmond committee approached surrealist painter Salvador Dali about creating a statue of Tompkins that would join the stately statues on Monument Avenue.
Dali’s unrealized vision was of a statue featuring a likeness of Tompkins atop a 20-foot-tall pedestal of Dali’s little finger. Tompkins would have been depicted as something akin to St. George, holding a sword above her head while fighting the “dragon” of disease.
A ‘complicated legacy’
Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant, R-Henrico, an obstetrician and a member of the Women’s Monument Commission, said Tompkins “was an accomplished medical professional who was responsible for saving lives in the most difficult of conditions by improving the quality of care.”
In paying tribute to Tompkins’ pioneering role in lowering mortality rates, Dunnavant added: “I am inspired by the humanitarian compassion that marks her entire life.”
Hicks-Thomas — the commission member who was secretary of administration for McDonnell — said of Tompkins: “Her legacy is complicated, just like everything that’s happened in 400 years of Virginia history. We chose to honor the contributions of women who did great things, even if history wants to ignore them for being imperfect. That’s an old Virginia legacy too.
“As Jefferson said, ‘We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.’”