Angels on the Battlefield

Sisters, such as this Daughter of Charity—one of 300—ministered to soldiers on both sides.

150 years after Gettysburg, we remember 16 Catholic sisters who ministered to Civil War soldiers.

Two years after the first shots were fired in the United States Civil War, thousands of war-weary Americans joined a grieving president on a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

They were war-weary because few had imagined that those shots fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, would have resulted in a protracted war for which neither army was prepared nor equipped. They were grieving because the human cost had been astounding, and there was no resolution in sight. For many, including Catholic sisters from many communities nurses by training it was a time of heroic service. In his brief and memorable address at the Gettysburg cemetery, Abraham Lincoln told those gathered that “this great civil war” was testing whether this nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure.”

In dedicating a portion of the field “as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” he said, the world “can never forget what they did here.”

Sisters on the Battlefield

The remarkable women who nursed soldiers wounded in that war or who consoled them as they met their death are worthy of memory, too. Many of the nurses were Catholic sisters from 21 congregations who answered the pleas of governors, mayors, and bishops to contribute their nursing skills and compassion to heal soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

These women certainly caught Lincoln’s attention and admiration.

“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals,” he wrote in his diary, “those of Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their order. . . . As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicine prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy. . . . How oftentimes have I seen them exorcise pain by the presence of their words.”

In Lincoln’s words, they were all “sisters of mercy.” But to many soldiers, these unpaid religious women were, no matter what their order, “sisters of charity.”

Sister Anthony’s Mission

One of the most famous was actually a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, Ohio: Sister Anthony O’Connell. She ministered not only in hospital tal wards, but also in camps to measles-plagued soldiers on battlefields, in field hospitals, and on floating surgery ships.

In his eulogy for Sister Anthony at her funeral in 1897, Bishop Thomas Byrne of Nashville, Tennessee, one of the cities where she nursed the wounded during the Civil War, reminded mourners of her motivation: “Christ was her inspiration, and for this reason she trod the battlefield and entered hospitals pregnant with pestilence. Her presence was more to those brave sons of America than that of an angel. Yet she was only a type of many.”

Born Mary O’Connell in 1814 in Ireland, little could Sister Anthony have imagined that after her mother died she would emigrate to the United States only decades into the life of this new nation. When she joined Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, at age 21, she bound herself to an American community whose motto proclaims, “The charity of Christ urges us.”

At that time she could not have foreseen that this charity would urge her out of her convent into a conflict that, in four years, would slay 620,000 citizens.

To this conflict, Sister Anthony and 600 other sister-nurses brought knowledge and experience unmatched by many of the army doctors and other volunteers. At the start of the Civil War, nursing was not yet a profession. There were only 68 hospitals in the country, according to Sister Judith Metz, archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.

“The ‘nurses’ in these crude institutions were frequently tough charwomen, undisciplined and untrained, for whom nursing was a distasteful drudgery rather than a humanitarian calling. Catholic congregations of sisters founded hospitals which provided the only good hospital nursing at that time,” she says.

No wonder Sister Anthony and other sisternurses were in demand. They immediately and generously answered the call for volunteers.

Two months after war was declared, five Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, including Sister Anthony, were invited by the archbishop and mayor of Cincinnati to Camp Dennison, situated on a railroad line 15 miles outside Cincinnati, “to attend to the sick soldiers, the worst form of measles had broken out among them and they needed immediate attention,” according to Sister Anthony’s journals. Many of the 12,000 Union soldiers stationed there suffered or died from measles before they were able to set foot on a battlefield.

“Twice as many Civil War soldiers died of disease as of battle wounds,” writes historian Drew Gilpin Faust. “The war, Union Surgeon General William A. Hammond later observed, was fought at the ‘end of the medical middle ages.’ Neither the germ theory nor the nature and necessity of antisepsis was yet understood.

“A wave of epidemic disease measles, mumps, and smallpox swept through the armies of volunteers in the early months of war, then yielded precedence to the intractable camp illnesses: diarrhea and dysentery, typhoid and malaria.”

“The battlefield of Shiloh,” wrote Sister Anthony, “presented the most frightening and disgusting sights that was ever my lot to witness.”

Many of the mortal injuries were caused by a new generation of rifles, ammunition, and cannons introduced in what historian Victoria L. Holder labels “the first modern war.” This war had new rifles using bullets called mini Ž balls that “were designed to spin as they were fired from the barrel, giving them more speed and accuracy.” These balls caused “94 percent of all the Civil War injuries.”

“Caregivers had no knowledge of how to suture major blood vessels or repair fractured bones, so amputation was performed in an attempt to save lives,” Holder reports, but amputation was no guarantee of survival, since “approximately one out of every four young men died from amputation.”

Many soldiers never made it to field hospital tals. Winston Groom, in his book Shiloh 1862, quotes a survivor of Shiloh’s two-day massacre: “The blue and the gray were mingled together, side by side. Beneath a great oak tree I counted the corpses of 15 men, lying as though during the night, suffering from wounds, they had crawled together for mutual assistance, and there all had died.”

‘Our Nation’s Best Blood’

Little wonder that words failed Sister Anthony in her remembrance of that battle: “Whilst at Shiloh we were often obliged to move further up the river, owing to the terrible stench from the dead bodies on the battlefield, but what we endured on the field of battle whilst gathering up the wounded from among the dead is simply beyond description. At one time there were seven-hundred of these poor creatures crowded into one boat.”

Sister Anthony’s first patient on the hospital boat was a “poor fellow whose nose had been shot entirely off, and was nearly missed, and when found, was placed in a hogpen, the only place of shelter and repose remaining. Before he could be brought to the boat, he had lost blood enough, one would think, to cause death; his clothes were saturated, the blood had even reached his boots.”

One of Sister Anthony’s companions, Sister Theodosia, provides more details of the scenes on the boats that carried the wounded upriver to hospitals in Nashville, Louisville, and Cincinnati: “At one time our boat’s deck looked like a slaughter-house, ‘wounded’ everywhere! I am sure some of our nation’s best blood was poured out on that deck. There seemed to be scores of wounded and dying. I have seen Dr. Blackman cut off arms and limbs by the dozen and consign them to a watery grave. Oh, Sister, many of these men were young and beautiful who had left their dear mothers, to die, pains and anguish, often alone.”

How these sisters’ routines communal and private must have been altered by their acceptance of this previously unimagined ministry. At home in Cincinnati, though, nurses probably had a less predictable pattern of community living than sisters in other ministries. Nevertheless, theirs would have been knit together by a pattern of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, daily examination of conscience, and, just before bed, preparation for the next day’s morning meditation.

Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pa. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)

Although Sisters of Charity were not cloistered, frequently interacting with patients, doctors, and merchants in the city, the structured world of these sister-nurses was turned topsy-turvy by the living and working conditions of the war.

The sister-nurses’ “community room” was shared with sick and dying soldiers, overworked surgeons lay and military and thousands of other volunteers. Their “chapel” was a makeshift one, wherever they could carve out a spot for a quick and silent prayer among the moans and sobs of their patients.

In an era of anti-Catholic feeling, women religious, like Sister Anthony, were at first met with skepticism: Who were these strangelygarbed women, professing an unfamiliar religion? Early suspicions to the contrary, they were not mingling or proselytizing among these wounded, terrified soldiers. They were there as nurses, not as preachers. Lincoln’s diary entry suggests that theirs was “value-added” nursing.

“More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art,” he writes, “so long devoted to the illustration of love, mercy, and charity, are the pictures that remain of those modest sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and dying. Gentle and womanly yet with the courage of soldiers leading a forlorn hope, to sustain them in contact with such horrors.”

What the sisters brought to these scarring four years in the country’s history was efficient and compassionate care of the body. But it was also, indirectly, care of the soul.

When the faith of so many soldiers and survivors was teetering, perhaps the sisters’ reverent care for those at the end of life bore quiet witness to their well-grounded belief in a compassionate God and, in the words of St. Paul to the Philippians, the promise of “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”

Continuing the Service Tradition

A hospicentury and a half separates Sister Sarah Mulligan from Sister Anthony O’Connell, but Sister Sarah is spurred on by the same “charity of Christ” that motivated sister-nurses during the Civil War. The 74-year-old Sister of Charity, who by now might feel entitled to retire, still has a passion for her nursing and administrative work with Mayan indigenous people in Guatemala a ministry she embraced in 2004.

Sister Sarah and a staff of 24 work in a clinic opened in 2005, providing complete outpatient health services including a laboratory, pharmacy, and dental care at minimal cost to low-income patients.

“Although the average annual income in Guatemala is listed as $6,300, the truth is that six of every 10 persons receive $730 a year or less,” she says.

In the aftermath of a 36-year civil war in Guatemala that ended in 1996, the country is still plagued by economic woes and violence that make life difficult for the people her clinic serves.

“The Mayan people have been repressed and abused for years,” she says. “They have not had sufficient opportunities for education, health, and employment.”

In addition to ministering to her patients’ physical needs through regular care and a diabetes-education program, Sister Sarah and her staff have made education a priority. Working with the government, they have enrolled over 200 adults in weekend classes to provide an education from first grade through high school in a country where the average education ends at fourth grade. They provide some vocational services and an outreach program for abused women.

They also conduct a violence-prevention/ education program, supported with funds from a Cincinnati-based health-care system. They call the program La Pax inicia con una sonrisa (“Peace begins with a smile”).

“Basically, we serve the community in a variety of ways to help them live in a more peaceful environment,” Sister Sarah says.

Although Guatemala is known for its high level of violence, Sister Sarah feels safe in her neighborhood, which is a 10-minute walk from the clinic.

“Every day,” she reflects, “is like responding to the grace of the moment.”

Her clinic serves about 15,000 patients a year.

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