On this day: Civil War Sisters

by Gerelyn Hollingsworth

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On this day, 150 years ago, Alabama seceded from the Union, the fourth state to do so. South Carolina had gone out on Dec. 20, Mississippi on Jan. 9, and Florida on Jan. 10. States were rushing to dismantle the Union in order to preserve their rights to own and buy and sell other human beings.

As Catholics reflect on the Civil War in this sesquicentennial year, it is fitting to recall the women religious -- Nuns, Sisters, Daughters -- who nursed the wounded on both sides.

The numbers are inexact, of course, but about six hundred nuns and sisters from twelve orders were Civil War nurses -- about one hundred in the Confederacy and about five hundred in the Union. Several died of contagious diseases contracted during their service. Among the dead were: Sr. Lucy Dosh, SCN; Sr. Consolata Conlon, DC, nineteen years old; Sr. Xavier Lucot, DC; Sr. Elize O'Brien, CSC; Sr. Fidelis Lawler, CSC; Sr. Gerard Ryan, RSM; and Sr. Coletta O'Connor, RSM.

--To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U. S. Civil War, by Sr. Mary Denis Maher, CSA, Greenwood Press, 1989.

The chapter in Maher's book on "Contemporaneous Attitudes About the Catholic Sisters in the Civil War" will be of interest to anyone unaware of how the nursing sisters were regarded by doctors, including the Surgeon-General, and by some Protestant nurses, including Dorothea Dix.

Maher's book describes the care with which Sisters of St. Joseph "prepared the corpses for burial and made the shrouds", and how Sisters of Providence "beautifully arranged the dead rooms, hanging them with 'white muslin, festooned with crepe, and at the head of each room are the Stars and Stripes also draped in mourning'."

The Sisters wrote letters for dying men. They baptized soldiers who requested the sacrament. They cared for female soldiers, who often were "not discovered until they were wounded or sick. . . . several different communities of sisters noted their care of such women".

Nuns of the Battlefield, by Ellen Ryan Jolly, 1927, contains chapters on twenty-three congregations whose members nursed in the Civil War. Scrolling through the book will bring you to lists of names of sisters, the hospitals where they nursed, and their places of birth. See, e.g., pp. 81-83 for the long list of Daughters of Charity who nursed at Satterlee Hospital in Philadelphia. Most were from Ireland; from Kerry, Tipperary, Galway, Kilkenny, Down, Donegal, Armagh, Dublin, Waterford, Kildare, Roscommon, Cork, Carlow, Wexford, Westmeath, Limerick, Cavan, Antrim, Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh. They must have encountered many of their countrymen among the patients they nursed.

Click here to read Angels of the Battlefield, by George Barton, 1897

Click here to see the stained glass window in St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, depicting Daughters of Charity nursing soldiers from the North and the South.

Click here to see the Nuns of the Battlefield monument in Washington, D.C.

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