Catholic Nuns during the Civil War
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Catholic Sisters of Charity and the Civil War
's inaugural address on
March 4, 1861
, he pronounced that the
could not be dissolved by an
act of secession (Ward 34). On
April 12, 1861
, the first shot was fired upon
, and so began the Civil War in
. On April 9. 1865, Grant and
Lee met at the Appomattox Court House, for the surrendering of the Confederate
Army, and then the Civil War officially ended. In the four years of conflict
between these dates, our nation lost by death and disease 600,000 men. The task
of caring for so many dying, sick and maimed men was an ordeal. Four Orders of
Catholic Sisterhoods participated in caring for the wounded and dying. The
orders were: Sisters of Charity, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Mercy, and
the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The work of the Religious Catholic Sisters during
the Civil War was commendable . When the war began, the Sisters were the only
organized and trained female nurses. The surgeons "liked them because they
had been bred to discipline". Even President Lincoln had a high opinion for
the tremendous service of the Catholic Sisters during the Civil War.
"Mother", Elizabeth Ann Seton, was the
founder and first
of the Sisters of Charity in
. In March, 1850, the American
Community of The Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's of Emmitsburg, MD united
with the French Daughters of Charity, co-founded by St. Louise de Marillac and
St. Vincent de Paul. The merger and growth of the religious community resulted
in the establishment of more providences throughout the
. "Their mission was to
serve persons marginalized by poverty, illness, ignorance, disability and
injustice". The "black caps" as they were called by the soldiers,
lived out their mission to its fullest during the Civil War. The Civil War
separated the American Sisters of Charity geographically because their community
had houses in the North and the South. The Sisters in
functioned outside the
conflict, but they did contribute personnel and resources. When President
Lincoln sent forth an appeal for volunteer nurses, nearly every Sister answered.
June 1, 1861
, Brigadier General John F.
Rathbone wrote to Bishop John McCloskey to request Sisters of Charity to assist
at the military hospital in
. One Sister went, and after a
few days, Rathbone declared: "The superiority of the Sisters of Charity as
nurses is known wherever the name Florence Nightingale is repeated ... the
soldiers feel encouraged by their kindness and care" (Kelly 213). In
September of 1861, Father Burlando sent a twelve page letter of instructions to
the Sisters at military hospitals about their conduct toward their soldier
patients on both sides and observance of their religious duties. He recommended
"the virtues of humility, modesty, and charity" (Kelly 215). Father
Burlando writes: "The work you engage in is God's own work,.... When you
bandage a wounded foot or hand, think of the Sacred hands and feet of our Lord
pierced by the sharp nails,... then you may justly hope that these will be
genuine Acts of Charity. It is my duty to remind you of the maxim of
which was to refrain from
uttering political sentiments" (Kelly 215). To stay neutral politically was
very important advice because in December of 1861 a scandal ensued. Two women
dressed up as Sisters of Charity were caught giving information to the
Confederate States. In response to this situation, the Sisters at St. Joseph's
expressed their mortification to General Dix and restated their duty, which was,
"to strive to save souls by the exercise of charity towards... the poor and
suffering of every nation, independent of creed or politics" (Kelly 218).
September 17, 1862
authorities petitioned the help
of the Sisters at
after the Battle of Antietam.
When the Sisters went to the battlefield, they found wounded of both armies on
the ground; many were moved to hospitals. "For six days, the Sisters went
from farm to farm, seeking wounded and sick and risking their own lives because
of unexploded bombshells" (Kelly 226). Courage and commitment to duty were
a few of the solid characteristics of the Sisters. During the
riots in July of 1863, the
rioters threatened to set
on fire. The Sisters of Charity
refused to leave their patients. The fire was never set.
June 27, 1863
, Union troops arrived
. They came up to the Sister's
door and asked if they could have the privilege of stopping there. The Sisters
said yes, even though they were fearful of a battle ensuing on their property.
General Howard with his staff stayed in the Sister's house. General Shurtz and
his officers stayed in the house that was formerly for an orphan asylum .
's at Emmitsburg was selected by
the Union army because "the Southern Army was a few miles West of
Emmitsburg" (Kelly 232). In order to safeguard the property and Sisters at
Emmitsburg, the Union generals stationed guards at various points. General R. de
Trobriand said to Mother Ann Simeon, "Permit me to make one request. Ask
St. Joseph to keep the rebels away from here; for, if they come before I get
away, I do not know what will become of your beautiful Convent" (Kelly
233). Father Burlando and the two other priests went about hearing the
confessions of the Catholic men while the Sisters got together as many scapulars
and medals as they had. The Sisters also went about "slicing meat,
buttering bread and filling canteens with coffee and milk for the famished
soldiers" (Kelly 233). "The soldiers came in throngs to the house. One
squad succeeded another and each squad seemed hungrier than the last... All were
bountifully supplied" (Kelly 232). Early on
June 30, 1863
, "a sudden order war given
to strike the tents and march for
" (Kelly 234). In fifteen
minutes all Union soldiers were gone, and
's convent grounds were quiet
again. A few hours later Father was halted by some Confederate pickets demanding
to know about the Union Army. From July first to the third the Battle of
was about nine miles from
Emmitsburg . Amidst the roar of cannons and weapons of destruction and clouds of
heavy smoke, the Sisters prayed without ceasing in the Chapel "imploring
mercy for all" (Kelly 234). The fighting ended on the evening of July
third. It rained during the night and through the next day, which hampered the
efforts of the Sisters and others to care for the wounded. Many died from lack
of care. In a horse-drawn carriage, Father Burlando and some of the Sisters went
with supplies and remedies for
the wounded. They were filled with remorse by what they saw.
we reached the scene of combat. What a frightful spectacle met our gaze! Houses
burnt, dead bodies of both Armies strewn her and there, an immense number of
slain horses, thousands of bayonets, sabres, wagons, wheels, projectiles of all
dimensions, blankets, caps, clothing of every color covered the woods and
fields. We were compelled to drive very cautiously to avoid passing over the
dead. Our terrified horses drew back or darted forward reeling from one side to
the other. The farther we advanced the more harrowing was the scene; we could
not restrain our tears" (Kelly).
hundred and thirteen emergency hospitals were established quickly at Emmitsburg.
Every available building was used . At one point they ran out of supplies. When
the Sisters appealed for supplies, they were told that there would be no more.
"Is that your final decision?", Sister asked the officer. "Then I
shall speak to the President." Before the day ended, supplies were
delivered and the soldiers cheered(Tedesy 4). The Sisters "knew that they
had a sincere friend in
" (Tedesy 3). By the end of
the war, more than 280 Mother Seton's Sisters of Charity had nursed both Union
and Confederate soldiers in military and local hospitals, on transport boats on
the Atlantic coast and on the Mississippi, and at temporary military
encampments. Many soldiers forgot about their anti-Catholic feelings because of
the Sister's devoted care.
though these valiant Sisters risked life and limb to serve the sick and wounded
soldiers physically, emotionally and spiritually from both sides, through the
years, their contributions have frequently been overlooked in printed history
and filmed accounts of the Civil War (Kelly 245). The Sisters' effort in the war
was for the love of God and love of humanity. The high motives that inspired
them to volunteer their services at the crisis in our nation's history has also
prevented them from recording or publishing the amount and character of their
services. Their good work has been literally hid books.
Civil War did much to advance the best interests of women. More than 5,000 women
served as nurses. It created a necessity for a woman's labor in a new way. It
gave many women an opportunity to prove their ability and courage. Many entered
history books. Many after serving, returned home to their quiet life or quiet
convents. To this day the Sisters Of Charity are still serve persons
marginalized by poverty, illness, ignorance, disability and injustice" and
helping to fight other wars more silent, but just as deadly to the soul.
Adams, George. History of Civil War Medicine: Caring for Men. "Fighting
D. C.: National Historical Society, 1957.
Barton, George. Angels of the Battlefield.
: Catholic Art Publishing, 1898.
Canton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War.
: Viking Penguin, 1996.
, M. Irene. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
: Editions du Signe, 1997.
, Mary Gardner. Our Army Nurses.
: Edinborough Press, 1998.
Kelly, Ellin. Numerous
Choirs: A Chronicle of Elizabeth Bayley Seton and Her Spiritual Daughters Volume
II: Expansion, Division, and War 1821-1865.
: Abbey Press, 1996.
Tedesy, Ann. Lincoln and Nuns - Civil War Medicine. http://www.rsa.lib.il.us/ilwomen/files/qu/htm2/qutansey1.html
10 February 1999
Ward, Geoffrey. The Civil War: An Illustrated History.
: Alfred A. Knoff, Inc. 1990.
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