Catholic sisters are known to many Americans for their service in education, health care and other ministries. But what might not be as well known is the selfless and heroic work of these women religious as nurses during the U.S. Civil War.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the war. This anniversary and the Year of Consecrated Life, now being observed in the Catholic Church, are occasions for recognizing the contributions of the more than 600 sisters from 21 religious communities who ministered to the wounded, sick and imprisoned of both Union and Confederate armies during the four-year conflict.
Their service to the wounded and dying on battlefields and their tireless work on medical transport boats, makeshift field hospitals and countless other hospitals in the North and South won acclaim from Civil War veterans and others.
President Abraham Lincoln described the sister nurses as “veritable angels of mercy.”
Sisters ministered at some of the major battles of the war and in hospitals far removed from the fighting. They served wherever they were needed, sometimes enduring personal hardships and laboring in crude and overcrowded medical facilities that often lacked essentials needed to care for patients. Some stories of their service are legendary.
One such story is of Sister of Charity of Nazareth Mary Lucy Dosh, who died at age 22 of typhoid fever the first year of the war in 1861 while ministering to Union and Confederate fever patients at a hospital in Paducah, Ky. She was given a funeral with military honors.
Sister Dosh was a music teacher at St. Mary’s Academy in Paducah when a Union general asked the sisters at the school for help at a hospital in the city. Sister Martha Drury, superior at the school, and six companions closed their school and took on nursing duties.
Accounts from this period note that Sister Dosh sometimes sang softly as she worked in the hospital and that she ate less food so patients could have more. At Christmas she decorated the hospital’s fever ward with streamers to remind the patients of home.
She contracted the fever herself and died on Dec. 29, 1861. Hospital staff and the soldiers in both armies were grief stricken by her death because she was held in such high esteem.
An honor guard of Union and Confederate soldiers at the hospital was formed to accompany Sister Dosh’s body on a gunboat, under a flag of truce, on the Ohio River to Uniontown, Ky., and then across country for burial at St. Vincent’s Academy in Union County, where she had attended school. Her burial was described as a day “the war stopped in Kentucky.”
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth also began their war-time nursing in Louisville in 1861 when Bishop Martin John Spalding offered their services to minister at Union hospitals. These hospitals were created in manufacturing establishments in Louisville. The sisters also ministered to wounded in other Kentucky cities, including Bardstown,
Lexington, Owensboro and Calhoun. All told, about three dozen or so SCNs volunteered as nurses during the war.
Some requests for their services came unexpectedly, as on an evening in September 1862 when a dozen Confederate soldiers came to the community’s motherhouse near Bardstown to ask the superior at the time, Mother Columba Carroll, for sisters to serve at a military hospital in Lexington.
Mother Columba agreed immediately to the request, according to an account in Ana Blanche McGill’s history of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. When asked how many sisters could be spared at the hospital, Mother Columba replied, “Six now and more later if necessary.”
The next morning six sisters and the soldiers left Nazareth for Lexington. They spent the first night of their journey in a farmhouse, the second night in Frankfort. They arrived in Lexington the following day and began ministering to patients.
The “more later” promise Mother Columba had made was filled shortly afterward when she received notice of the “sad condition” of Union soldiers in wards at a hospital at Transylvania College (Transylvania University) in Lexington. A group of sisters also ministered in this hospital.
Women religious responded to requests for help during the war from various sources, including military leaders, bishops and public officials. The Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Ky. (now the Dominican Sisters of Peace) answered a call when a major battle was fought near their motherhouse in Central Kentucky.
The battle of Perryville, the bloodiest fought in Kentucky, took place in October 1862 not far from the sisters’ doorsteps.
The Dominican Sisters went to the battlefield, giving water to soldiers, binding wounds and comforting the dying. At night they carried lanterns as they ministered to fallen soldiers on the battlefield.
Dormitories at the Dominican motherhouse and students at St. Catharine Academy were transformed into hospitals. Soldiers of both armies were transported to these treatment centers from the battlefield in wagons and other farm vehicles. Sisters rode with the wounded in some wagons.
St. Catharine Academy, which was closed to students at the time, was opened to the services of the armies in providing food, shelter and first aid to thousands. To make room for the wounded, the sisters gave up their own beds and slept, when possible, on the floor with bags of leaves for a pillow.
“Everything the sisters possessed was at the disposal of the soldiers,” Ellen Ryan Jolly writes in her 1927 book “Nuns of the Battlefield.”
Kentucky Dominican Sisters also ministered as nurses during the war at hospitals in Memphis, Tenn.
The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, provided the largest number of women religious nurses during the Civil War — about 270. They served at hospitals in the North and South and ministered to the wounded at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
The community’s motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Md., was located near Gettysburg, and the Daughters of Charity mobilized in large numbers to minister to soldiers of both armies on the battlefield and in the many temporary and makeshift hospitals set up in churches, private homes and other structures in the area.
“To see the men lying dead on the road … it was beyond description,” Sister Camilla O’Keefe is quoted as saying in a 2007 article in the Vincentian Heritage Journal. “Impossible to describe the condition of those poor wounded men.”
About 80 members of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame, Ind., served as nurses at hospitals in Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Washington, D.C. In a 1931 history of the sisters, “On the King’s Highway,” Sister M. Calista Pointen described conditions at one hospital in Mound City, Ill., following a battle: “There were 700 in the hospital and only four sisters to wait on them. It was a heart-rendering sight to see the poor men holding out their hands to the sisters to attract attention.”
Members of half a dozen or so communities of Sisters of Mercy also answered calls for nursing assistance. One group that endured considerable personal hardship was the community in Vicksburg, Miss. The Sisters of Mercy school was closed and converted into a military hospital after the war started in 1861, and the sisters became nurses. Later, the small band of sisters began a nursing journey that took them to Confederate military hospitals in three Southern states.
The sisters lived a nomadic existence as they served at hospitals in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. They moved from place to place, sometimes traveling in freight cars, faced shortages of food and encountered poor facilities as they nursed wounded soldiers. They eventually returned to Vicksburg and reopened their school.
The sister nurses during the Civil War also confronted prejudice from soldiers and others who viewed Catholics — and Catholic women religious in particular — with suspicion and mistrust. But through the sisters’ acts of caring, kindness and love shown to patients in hospital wards, these women gained the admiration of soldiers and helped to reduce the prejudice.
Mary Rice Livermore, a nurse who was co-director of the Chicago branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, wrote: “If I had ever felt prejudice against the sisters as nurses, my experience with them during the war would have dissipated it entirely. The world has known no nobler and more heroic women than those found in the ranks of the Catholic sisterhoods.”
A memorial, named “Nuns of the Battlefield,” was dedicated in 1924 in Washington D.C., in honor of the Catholic sisters from 21 communities who served as nurses during the Civil War.
Joseph Duerr, a former editor of The Record, adapted this story from research he’s conducted over the last several years on the role of the Catholic Church in the Civil War.