Beautiful tribute to Catholic sisters in Civil War nursing

On this Independence Day, let’s look at a great story that appeared on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette really pulled out the stops for coverage of this Civil War anniversary and Sunday’s paper had a special section that covered various angles. I’m no Civil War buff but my visit to Gettysburg a few years ago was fascinating and informative.

In any case, Ann Rodgers had a piece in that special section on an under-covered religion angle. It’s fantastic:

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.

A dozen orders sent sisters to battlefields and military hospitals. Rodgers lays out the general nursing situation (such as that most nurses were men because it was considered disreputable for women to be exposed to nakedness and filth) and ads:

But among the most effective were 571 Catholic sisters, who were often appointed to oversee military hospitals. The Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh were twice personally requested by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to run military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.

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 Up 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.

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.

Then we get to the specifics of how they helped out at Gettysburg, overrun by 21,000 wounded men, by dressing wounds:

The sisters dressed wounds, fed patients, helped soldiers write letters home and tended to the spiritual needs of soldiers. They often baptized dying men.

There’s much more and I encourage you to read it. Nice to see a fresh religion angle on a 150-year-old story!

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  • FW Ken

    So when are ya’ll going to get Ann Rodgers to write for GetReligion?

    Good story about something I’d never heard about. I would have like to know what praise Lincoln didn’t direct towards the sisters, and as a Catholic, I always wonder what “anti-Catholic” means. Arguably, if Dorothea Dix refused the services of the nursing sisters, that could be evidence of “anti-Catholicism”, but it’s also an epithet easily used. It’s also a reality, then and now.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I tried to get part of the Lincoln quote in, because it shows up in almost everything you read about nurses and medicine. It got cut for length. It’s a lengthy quote, and it begins like this: “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of
    the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were the most efficient.”

    It was actually written a couple of decades after the war by a mid-level Treasury official who wrote a memoir about serving in the Lincoln administration. I double-checked after Sister Mary Denis Maher told me that Lincoln never said it, and it’s clear from the text that the words are the author’s and not even an attempt to recover something that Lincoln said. The error was made circa 1924 in a book “Nuns of the Battlefield” that came out around the same time the memorial was dedicated. The author mistakenly attributed the quote to Lincoln. “Nuns of the Battlefield” remained the best known work on sisters in the Civil War for decades, and so the errant quotation was cited, and re-cited and re-cited.
    Dorothea Dix’s anti-Catholicism is well known. Her letters contain descriptions of Irish immigrants who she regarded as hopelessly mentally deficient, because she said their religion had dulled their wits, and she would not trouble herself to help them. As I’m sure you know, virulent anti-Catholcism was rampant in the U.S. in that era, with many Protestants believing that women were held against their will and abused in convents. There was at least one case in Boston of a mob attacking a convent and burning it to the ground.

    • FW Ken

      Thank you for the additional information. I’d never heard of the false Lincoln write.

      As I said above, I know anti-Catholicism was (and is) a reality. When were the Know-Nothings? The 1840s? Still, I am loathe to label ignorance as malice. Sounds like Dix does fit the bill, though.

  • Sari

    Fantastic article about a little known topic. I liked the way individual stories were woven into the larger story.


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