The Sisters of Charity and their Service in the Civil War

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The Sisters of Charity and their Service in the Civil War


In Lincoln's inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he pronounced that the Union could not be dissolved by an act of secession (Ward 34). On April 12, 1861, the first shot was fired upon Fort Sumpter, and so began the Civil War in the United States. 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 Superior of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. 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 United States. "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 California 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. On 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 Albany, New York. 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 .

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.. 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 St. Vincent 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).

On September 17, 1862 the Maryland authorities petitioned the help of the Sisters at St. Joseph's of Emmitsburg, Maryland 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 New York riots in July of 1863, the rioters threatened to set St. Joseph's Military Hospital on fire. The Sisters of Charity refused to leave their patients. The fire was never set.

June 27, 1863, Union troops arrived surrounding St. Joseph's, at Emmitsburg, Maryland. 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 .

St. Joseph'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 Gettysburg" (Kelly 234). In fifteen minutes all Union soldiers were gone, and St. Joseph'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 Gettysburg raged. Gettysburg 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 to Gettysburg with supplies and remedies for the wounded. They were filled with remorse by what they saw.

"Finally 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).

One 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 Lincoln" (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.

Even 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.

The 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.


Works Cited

Adams, George. History of Civil War Medicine: Caring for Men. "Fighting For Time." Washington D. C.: National Historical Society, 1957.

Barton, George. Angels of the Battlefield. Philadelphia: Catholic Art Publishing, 1898.

Canton, Bruce. The American Heritage New History of the Civil War. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.

Fugazy, SC, M. Irene. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Italy: Editions du Signe, 1997.

Holland, Mary Gardner. Our Army Nurses. Canada: 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. Chicago: 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. New York: Alfred A. Knoff, Inc. 1990.


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