The Daughters of Charity at their provincial house in Emmitsburg, Md., could hear the cannons of Pickett’s Charge 10 miles off. They helped their chaplain pack a wagon with medical supplies and, when the cannons were silenced, a dozen sisters rode with him to tend to the wounded.
“They had already been on battlefields in the North and the South,” said Lisa Shower, who gives Civil War tours at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 1863, nuns were the nation’s only trained nurses.
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“Nursing was deeply rooted in their heritage. Even before the Civil War they were active in hospitals in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” she said of the Daughters of Charity.
The Daughters of Charity were among a dozen orders, including the Sisters of Mercy, who sent sisters to battlefields, military hospitals, and hospital ships. The Navy has recognized the Sisters of the Holy Cross as pioneers of the Navy Nurse Corps for their work aboard a ship that ferried wounded soldiers up the Ohio River.
“The work of the sisters really changed the view of Americans of Catholics in general,” said Kathleen Washy, who until recently was the archivist at UPMC Mercy. “There was a lot of anti-Catholicism in the United States leading up to the Civil War, but people got a very different view when they had a nun taking care of them after they were wounded.”
Most Civil War nurses were men. Nursing anyone other than family was deemed disreputable for women because it exposed them to nakedness and filth.
Nevertheless, about 9,000 women — half of them freed slaves — provided nursing care for the Union and another 1,000 for the Confederates. In Washington, public health advocate Dorothea Dix appointed 3,214 official military nurses. Others were part of civilian relief organizations.
But among the most effective were 571 Catholic sisters, who were often appointed to oversee military hospitals.
Because many religious orders were founded to care for the sick, the sisters had accumulated centuries of experience. By 1860, they ran 28 American hospitals. They were the only trained nurses in the nation.
“The sisters didn’t have what we would consider today to be professional training, but the documents of every community had ... a section on care of the sick,” said Sister Mary Denis Maher, archivist of the Sisters of Charity in Cleveland and author of To Bind of the Wounds about sisters in the Civil War.
While no one yet understood infection, their time-honored practices stressed cleanliness and good food, she said.
Ms. Dix, who was anti-Catholic, didn’t recruit sisters, but generals and cabinet members begged for their services. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan asked the Daughters of Charity for every available sister.
“He wanted hundreds of them in the hospitals,” Ms. Shower said. They took charge of Satterlee Hospital, the Union’s largest military hospital, in Philadelphia.
So the Emmitsburg sisters knew what to do for the soldiers, thousands of whom had camped on their grounds just before the battle at Gettysburg. As the soldiers marched away on June 30 and July 1, the sisters and their students knelt along the road to pray for the men, Ms. Shower said.
The Rev. Francis Burlando and the first dozen sisters entered Gettysburg early on July 5.
“Along the road they saw bodies and dead horses,” Ms. Shower said. The town of 2,400 was overrun with 21,000 wounded men, every building serving as a hospital. Three dozen sisters served over several months. They are known to have worked in St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, the Methodist church, the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College.
The government paid for the sisters to share a room at what is now the Gettysburg Hotel and gave them food. They were entitled to wages but refused to accept them, Ms. Shower said.
The sisters dressed wounds, fed patients, helped soldiers write letters home, and tended to the spiritual needs of soldiers. They often baptized dying men.
Throughout the war sisters earned a reputation for competency and courage, staying to tend victims of typhoid and smallpox when others fled. The wife of Union Gen. Lew Wallace said that other nurses went home when they got tired.
“But the Sisters of the Holy Cross live among the patients without the thought of deserting infected places,” Susan E. Wallace wrote in December 1861.
Mr. Stanton, the secretary of war, twice asked the Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh to run military hospitals. He knew them from his decade as an attorney in Pittsburgh. He arrived in 1847, when the sisters provided heroic care during a typhoid epidemic, founding Mercy Hospital.
As the military scrambled to build more hospitals, one in Washington, D.C., was named for Mr. Stanton, who asked Pittsburgh’s Mercy sisters to run it. Eight sisters, including the former head of Mercy Hospital, arrived in late 1862, taking charge before the 500-bed hospital was furnished and equipped.
A history of Mercy Hospital describes wounded men arriving in “pitiable” condition after days-long train trips without nursing care or, often, food.
When the hospital couldn’t obtain nourishing food, Sister Otillia Duche set off to outwit the military procurement officer. She and another sister left in a wagon and returned with eggs, chickens, and produce. Days later a letter arrived, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, authorizing the military steward to buy whatever the sisters asked for and to charge it to the War Department.
It’s unknown which strings Sister Otillia pulled, but speculation centers on Mr. Stanton or Pittsburgh’s former Bishop Michael O’Connor, who had become a Jesuit and was active in Washington relief work.
The letter was lost in a fire, Ms. Washy said.
Records survive of an 1864 visit to the hospital by Mr. Lincoln, who tried to cheer the wounded soldiers with jokes, and extended solicitude to wounded Confederates.
However, according to Sister Mary Denis, he never uttered some widely cited praise of the Sisters of Mercy that was misattributed to him.
He did appoint a White House artist to paint a Sister of Mercy tending to a wounded soldier in a tent hospital, according to Sister Patricia McCann, archivist of the Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh. The painting — whether it is the original or a copy is unclear — hangs in the Mercy convent in Oakland.
The painting is probably set in Vicksburg, Miss., site of another pivotal Civil War battle and where the Pittsburgh sisters had a daughter community that had tended to wounded from both sides. Sister M. Stephana Warde was taken prisoner by Union forces when she was found caring for Confederates. After her release from prison she arrived at the Pittsburgh convent in cast-off soldiers’ clothing, so starved that other sisters didn’t recognize her. After a short recovery, she went to care for the wounded at Stanton Hospital in Washington.
In 1863, West Penn Hospital was converted to military use. Secretary Stanton again asked the Sisters of Mercy to run it, Ms. Washy said. It soon overflowed with soldiers brought by train from hospitals near the front.
Sister Madeline O’Donnell wrote that “every available spot, including the corridors, was occupied by some soldier.” So many hospital tents were erected that it was called the City of Tents.
Ultimately the sisters were recognized as veterans. Mercy Sister Mary DiPazzi Russell, who died in 1915 and was buried in Latrobe, has a grave with a military decoration for her Civil War service. According to a eulogy, she was “a woman absolutely fearless in the presence of disease.”
In 1924, a congressional monument to the “Nuns of the Battlefield” was erected near St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington. The organizers were surprised to learn that among the 5,000 people at the dedication was a surviving Civil War nurse, 81-year-old Sister O’Donnell from Pittsburgh. She was given a seat among the dignitaries.
The inscription says, “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in his name a drink of water to the thirsty.”
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.