Born on August 18, 1823, Phoebe Yates Levy grew up as the fourth of six daughters of a prosperous and cultured Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina.
Immediately after the outbreak of the Civil War, Phoebe's husband, Thomas Pember, died of tuberculosis. Moving form South Carolina to the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, Phoebe received an offer to serve as matron of the Chimborazo Military Hospital from Mrs. George W. Randolph, wife of the Confederate Secretary of War. Phoebe reported for duty in December 1862. The Chimborazo Hospital was reputed to be the largest military hospital in the world at that time. A sprawling institution located on the western boundary of Richmond, Chimborazo began receiving patients in 1862 and was eventually expanded to 150 wards. Each ward was a separate one story building thirty feet wide and one hundred feet long housing approximately forty to sixty patients. Only one surgeon was assigned to each division. A total of 76,000 patients had been treated at Chiborazo by the end of the Civil War.
The pain, suffering and death at Chimborazo from battlefield casualties was greatly compounded by severe shortages of personnel, medicine, food, and equipment. Primitive facilities, unsanitary conditions, and undeveloped scientific knowledge of medical treatments added to the tragedy and pathos.
Operating in this atmosphere of misery and despair, Phoebe Yates Pember dedicated herself to doing everything possible to relieve the suffering of the soldiers, administering medication, assisting surgeons in operations (frequently without anesthetic), patching wounds and caring for patients. Often, Phoebe simply served as a final companion to the dying - writing letters, reading stories, playing cards, holding hands, praying, talking.
At the conclusion of the war, Phobe Yates Pember wrote her memoirs of the hardships of life in Confederate Richmond, including her experiences as matron of Chimborazo Hospital. First published in 1879, A Southern Woman's Story is rated by Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman as "the most realistic treatment of the war" ever published. A Southern Woman's Story also became a landmark work in women's history through Phoebe Pember's vivid descriptions of the difficulties encountered by one of the first women to enter the previously all male domain of nursing.