Angels of the Battlefield: Catholic sisters as Civil War nurses
They comforted the dying. Nursed the wounded. Carried hope to the imprisoned. Gave in his name a drink of water to the thirsty.-Inscription on the Nuns of the Battlefield Monument, Washington, D.C.
When civil war divided the United States, among those answering the call to serve were nearly 600 Roman Catholic sisters, many of them new residents of the young nation.
War broke out before governments on both sides made detailed arrangements for hospitals and medical care for their soldiers.
Among some of the sisterhoods who brought their nursing skills to their new communities in the United States were the Sisters of Mercy.
"The Sisters of Mercy fulfilled a very important role with the military on both sides during the Civil War because there were very few trained nurses in those days," said Myra Joines with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.
Some of the European sisters learned nursing skills while serving in the Crimean War alongside nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. For centuries in Europe, members of religious communities visited the sick in their homes. American communities established as many as 28 hospitals in the United States before war broke out.
"One of the focuses of the Sisters of Mercy since their inception in Ireland was to care for the sick," said Joines.
Officials from both the Union and the Confederacy were hesitant to use female nurses, but they, including President Abraham Lincoln, requested help from the Catholic sisterhoods. In the South, it was considered inappropriate for women to be involved in the physical contact that nursing duties required.
About 9,000 secular women nursed for the Union Army. The Confederacy recorded the service of about 1,000 women. The catholic sisters served soldiers from both sides, many times under the same hospital roof.
"They simply did what was needed and without complaint," said Joines. "And they didn't ask for very much in return. Their needs were very basic. They worked extremely hard and extremely long hours and did whatever it took, whereas women from other walks of life, first of all, were not used to that type of discipline, those types of demands."
When diseases such as smallpox broke out, even doctors refused to help patients. Some sisters sacrificed their lives to nurse soldiers suffering from contagious diseases. Others died from exhaustion.
Sisters of Charity from Cincinnati were among the first medical teams to arrive by steamboat at the battle of Shiloh. The first U.S. Navy hospital ship, Red Rover, was staffed by Sisters of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame, Indiana as the first Navy nurses. Two days after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Daughters of Charity of Emmitsburg, Maryland traveled the 20 miles from their motherhouse to the battlefield to serve the wounded. Throughout the war, they asked for nothing other than food and supplies to help the soldiers.
Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, South Carolina, were sent to Greenbrier White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, to manage a hospital there. Those left behind visited soldiers held as prisoners-of-war. After the war, the Charleston sisters returned home to find their Queen Street convent and school destroyed.
The sisters' war experience led to breakthroughs and innovations in medicine.
"The sisters learned a great deal on the battlefield," said Joines. "One of the things they picked up from nursing the wounded as well as nursing the economically poor was the importance of cleanliness, and that so often what killed people was not so much the wound, but infection from unsanitary conditions."
They also established new roles for women in America's changing society.
"Sister Mary Collette O'Connor, who was Superintendent of Douglas Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. and apparently was not only an extraordinary nurse, but an extraordinary administrator at a time when you didn't find women in those roles," said Joines. "She was so honored by the military that they gave her the rank of Major in gratitude for what she had done on behalf of the soldiers."
Although the nation's Irish population was familiar with the works of the Catholic sisterhoods in the mid-19th century, they were sometimes the victims of anti-Catholic prejudice. The sisters' service to the sick, wounded and dead, no matter their race, religion, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, or the uniform they wore, helped alleviate some of the prejudice that victimized them.
"It was very unpleasant for a number of Catholics in this country," said Joines. "But because of the compassion they showed to the soldiers, whether the soldiers were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, had any religious affiliation, that touched the hearts of a lot of those men, as well as the hearts of their families."
"When the ministries were established in the 1800's, no one was doing that kind of work," Joines said. "So it was extraordinary for anyone to do it. It was unbelievable pioneering for women to do it."
After the war, the surviving sisters returned to their communities. Some continued nursing in hospitals, some returned to teaching, some headed west to establish new communities, and some cared for the widows and orphans of the soldiers they nursed.
To Bind Up the Wounds, Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War by Sister Mary Denis Maher was used as a resource for this story.
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