Beautiful tribute to Catholic sisters in Civil War nursing

Beautiful tribute to Catholic sisters in Civil War nursing July 4, 2013

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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