Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Brava for the Brave Ladies of the American Civil War--the Battlefield Nuns

When the Civil war began with the shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12th 1861, there were Sisters with nursing training and experience—Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Saint Joseph, Sisters of Mount Carmel, and various other congregations both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.   At various points in the war Union and Confederate officers alike asked Church officials for Sisters to nurse the sick and wounded  in army hospitals, barracks, transport ships and hundreds of improvised field hospitals set up along the shifting battle fronts.   
Nuns—or actually Religious Sisters—had advantages that most laywomen, Catholic or Protestant, lacked.  Not having families of their own (other than their respective religious communities) they had a freedom to leave and go where they were needed.  They were used to a Spartan life and the hardships accompanying a military force on the move were no more demanding—and probably much more exciting—than the convent life they were used to.  Many of them, especially those whose communities maintained hospitals,  had professional training and experience in assisting with surgical procedures in addition to post-operative care as well as the care of disease infected patients.  And probably most important they didn’t feel constrained by the societal norms that regulated the lives of Middle Class and Upper Class “ladies.”  They weren’t above getting their hands dirty or bloodied, living in a tent or crowded into a barn or cabin, not being able to change their clothes or bathe for days on end, and dealing with the grit of camp life.  And so Sisters of various congregations—but most notably the Charities—could be seen at Antietam, Natchez, Richmond, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg, Frederick, Holly Springs.  And whichever side brought them to the battle, in their work they made no distinction between the Blue and the Grey. 
One of the most noted-by-history nursing sisters was Mary O'Connell  (Sister Anthony) (1814-1897) known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”  Born in Limerick Ireland  she migrated to the United States where she entered the American Sisters of Charity at Cincinnatti.   During the Civil War she served at Camp Dennison (OH) and at the battlefields or hospitals  of Winchester VA, Cumberland Gap (TN), Richmond (VA), Nashville (TN), Gallipolis (OH), Culpeper Court House (VA), Murfreesboro(TB), Pittsburgh Landing (TN) and Lynchburg (VA).  She later received recognition for her work in the yellow fever epidemic of 1877.

On September 17, 1862 the Maryland authorities petitioned the help of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Seton's origional foundation, at St. Joseph's, 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" Courage and commitment to duty were a few of the solid characteristics of the Sisters.

Emmitsburg is so close to Gettysburg, that when the war moved to that theatre the first day of July 1863, the sisters could hear the cannon of the battle.  When the fighting ended on the evening of July 3rd  the skies opened and  it began to rain and rained through the night and all the next day. This didn’t daunt Mother Seton’s daughters who came up to the site in wagons and borrowed carriages with nursing supplies and a readiness to care for the wounded.  The scene which greeted them was a hell-on-earth
"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" 
Over a hundred field hospitals were established quickly at Gettysburg and the surrounding areas.  What patients could be transported back to Emmitsburg were.  In Gettysburg itself 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.  The Sisters "knew that they had a sincere friend in Lincoln
Gettysburg, because of its proximity to the Motherhouse at Emmitsburg, saw the most activity by the nuns, but it was not only the Emmitsburg Charities who stepped up to the needs created by the War.   “ By the end of the war, more than 280 Mother Seton's Sisters of Charity from a variety of the diferent congregations that had their roots in Emmitsburg , 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.”  This last point is very important as much of the anti-Catholic bias was overcome by the gentle and compassionate nursing of the Sisters.  
Among the other Religious Congregations that helped out with battlefield nursing were the sisters of Charity of Nazareth—founded by Mother Catherine Spalding, not by Mother Seton, who maintained four military hospitals in Kentucky during the Civil War
The nursing needs of the Civil War opened a role of independence for women that had not previously existed in our society.   With the exception of Catholic Sisters, relatively few women stepped into the new roles available to them.   For almost a century more, the only women in the United States who took key administrative roles in public institutions—particulalry hospitals and women’s’  colleges were Catholic Religious Sisters.  Religious life was an area where the Catholic Church helped women break through the “glass ceilings” that put men in charge and left the work to women.  That, of course, has changed in the last fifty years as women have been able to enter the professions and sidle up the bar with the old boys. 
The image today is the plaque on a monument to the various Sisters who stepped up to the challenge of nursing the soldiers of both armies during the American War.  Each Sister in the plaque wears the habit of one of the various Congregations who supplied nurses.  This picture is not as clear as one might wish it be, but if you double-click on the photo you should get a larger (and more clear) version.   

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