For the next four years — 2011 through 2015 — the United States will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, so brace yourself for a blizzard of books, articles and documentaries about battlefields and generals. But there is one story that may be overlooked in all the hoopla — the more than 600 Catholic nuns who nursed the wounded, the sick and the dying throughout the war.
In the mid-19th century, Catholics were almost universally despised in America. Typical of the time was an editorial published in The New York Times, which linked Catholicism — “popery,” the newspaper called it — with slavery as two institutions “incompatible with the spirit of the age, and liberty and civilization.” The editors went on to say that they looked forward to the “speedy destruction” of both. Such notions were dispelled in part by the selflessness and tender patient care of the nursing sisters who treated the most gruesome wounds, risked their lives to care for men suffering from contagious diseases, and looked after patients written off as hopeless cases by the physicians.
Most orders of nuns in the United States in the mid-19th century operated hospitals, and, as a result, many of the sisters had medical training (unlike most of the laywomen who volunteered as nurses). Glenna Schroeder-Lein, author of The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine, observes that the nuns “were the only trained, experienced nurses in the nation when the war began.”
Very quickly, military surgeons and civilian doctors came to prefer the nursing nuns to laywomen nurses. In addition to their medical skills, the nuns were patient, efficient and tireless. They followed the doctors’ orders, were never argumentative, and never complained about their accommodations (although they did insist upon a room that would serve as their chapel). In contrast, many physicians complained that laywomen nurses were quarrelsome, defiant and dissatisfied. Worst of all were the nurses who formed romantic attachments with their patients — something that was not an issue with the nuns. The federal government discovered yet another quality that made the nuns superior: Laywomen demanded a salary of $12 per month, but the nuns worked for free.
According to historian Ellen Ryan Jolly, who in 1927 compiled the first comprehensive history of the nursing nuns of the Civil War, sisters of a dozen religious orders, including the Ursulines, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Sisters of Mercy, worked in the hospitals during the war, but Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Daughters of Charity supplied the largest number of nurses: 270 sisters.
The Daughters of Charity motherhouse is only 15 miles from Gettysburg. The first Daughters of Charity arrived on the scene the day after the battle to find 50,000 wounded men, many of them still lying on the fields. Sister Petronilla Breen, Sister Juliana Chatard and Sister Emerito Quinlan went immediately to the battlefield, where they cleaned and bandaged soldiers’ wounds, administered painkillers and prayed with the dying. In the days that followed, more sisters from Emmitsburg, Md., came to Gettysburg. They were assigned to the hospital in the Methodist church and the hospital in the Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier. The wounded filled every pew in the nave and the gallery and lay side by side on the floor, even inside the sanctuary. The church vestibule was used for surgery.
One of the nursing nuns is on her way to sainthood. In the summer of 1863, Blessed Mother Mary Frances Schervier, foundress of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, traveled from Germany to her order’s convent in Cincinnati with four sisters who were trained in surgery. When they arrived, they found the wards of St. Mary’s Hospital crammed with wounded soldiers, so the German nuns went to work immediately. One night a young soldier was brought in; his wounds were so severe and gruesome that he begged the doctors to let him die. Mother Mary Frances had him carried to a quiet alcove, where she managed to get some broth into him. Next, she persuaded him to at least let her clean his wounds. Then she convinced him to let her apply some salves and clean bandages. Blessed Mary Frances spent the entire night with the young man, and in the morning she had him bandaged, medicated, fed and lying in a clean bed. Then she walked across the corridor to the hospital chapel to join her sisters in morning prayer.
Sisters in the South
Although most Catholics and most religious communities were in the North, there were convents in the South. About 35 sisters of Our Lady of Mercy from Charleston, S.C., served in the city’s hospitals. Food was in short supply in the South, especially during the final months of the war. Whenever an ambulance stood idle, Sister Xavier Dunne drove around Charleston, begging butchers and grocers for meat or produce they could not sell. One of her greatest triumphs was the day a butcher gave her the head of a steer, which she used to make beef stock.
In July 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg; the Confederate forces retreated, and a handful of Sisters of Mercy followed the army, tending the wounded who had been loaded into rickety wagons and carts. At Oxford, Miss., they found hundreds of wounded men in the classrooms and administration buildings of the University of Mississippi. As a Union army advanced on the town, the Confederates fell back again. The sick and wounded were to be evacuated by train, and not until all their patients had been loaded on the train did the nuns finally climb aboard the last car.
In 1914, Ellen Ryan Jolly, president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, proposed that the organization release funds to erect a monument in Washington, D.C., in honor of the nursing sisters of the Civil War. Ten years later, the “Nuns of the Battlefield” monument was unveiled. The bronze bas-relief depicts sisters of the 12 religious orders who served in the battlefields and in the hospitals. Visitors to Washington will find the monument in an appropriate spot: across the street from St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Stealing Lincoln’s Body and the
forthcoming The Greatest Brigade: How the Irish Brigade Cleared the
Way to Victory in the Civil War.