A Story Hardly Known

Years after Kate Cumming published her diary, she returned to it to write an author’s introduction. While still lamenting the outcome of the war, her emotions had cooled somewhat, and she reflected on causes of the South’s failure. As she did, she also extolled the virtues of many people she had worked with, saying, “Whole books might be written recounting the heroic deeds and patient suffering, amid trials seemingly impossible to endure. The names of Newsom, Hopkins, Gilmer, Evans, Harrison, Walke, Monroe, and I might mention a host of others, will live in the hearts of the South as long as there is a heart here to beat” (Cumming, ed. by Harwell, p. 5).

Cumming might be disappointed at the length of that heartbeat. Early in her tenure at the Old Tishomingo Hotel, Cumming encountered a Mrs. William P. Gilmer who had already served a substantial amount of time in Mississippi hospitals and was headed home to visit relatives. Gilmer anticipated that her families’ homes might soon fall to Union forces, and she wished to visit before that happened.

Gilmer returned to service and surfaces over and over in Cumming’s narrative. In fact, Gilmer’s work for the cause was so noteworthy that Dr. William Hollingsworth Stout named one of the Chattanooga hospitals after her:

A[n] . . . important hospital first organized under my direction was the Gilmer Hospital, named in honor of Mrs. Gilmer of Pulaski, Tennessee, who performed noble service as matron and nurse, serving chiefly at camps Cheatham and Trousdale in Tennessee, and at Bowling Green, Ky., with Brown’s Tennessee Regiment, of which I was then the surgeon.

(Stout, “Some Facts . . .,” Southern Practitioner, XXV (1903), 522

A later hospital at Marietta, Georgia, would also be named for Gilmer. Notable works, notable name. So who was Mrs. William P. Gilmer?

Once again, the patriarchal nature of our records makes this difficult to discover. The 1850 Census shows Mary Gilmer living with her husband, William, and her two children, William and Mary, in Pulaski, Tennessee. The record notes that William Sr. was born in North Carolina in 1803, while the elder Mary was born in Missouri in 1815. How did they meet? What is her maiden name? Where were they married? What became of Mary Gilmer and her family after the war?

Various records of William Gilmer persist after the war, and it’s likely some of these pertain to her son. However, records of William and Mary’s marriage are, at best, difficult to find (records before 1840 are very spotty). With the South in ruins in 1865, William and Mary may well have moved from Pulaski. Where might they have gone? It’s hard to say without definitive records or genealogies to trace them. It’s possible Mary might have wound up back in her native state: a Mary Gilmer is buried in the Gilmer plot in Lebanon Cemetery in Lebanon, Missouri. Is this our Mary? Remember, her husband was native to North Carolina, and the plot is the Gilmer plot. So if this is our Mary, the Gilmer family would have moved en masse to Missouri. That would be easier to believe if William were also buried in the plot. Alas, no record shows that he is. So is this the wrong Mary? Or is it the correct Mary and her husband is here but his burial record has disappeared (burial records disappearing happens a lot)? Or did William die elsewhere, leaving Mary a widow, and did she return to Missouri to be closer to her and her husband’s family?

Contrary to Kate’s assertion, the Gilmer name barely resonates today. Google “Gilmer Hospital,” and the results are paltry. For now, one of the true leading medical lights of the South in the Civil War is close to anonymous, the hospitals named for her barely remembered, her maiden name erased, her grave uncertain, her story hardly known.

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