Nuns of the Battlefield: A Tribute

March is Women’s History Month and a fitting time to recall the important contributions of Catholic nuns and sisters during the U.S. Civil War. Often neglected in studies of women or gender during the war, these courageous Catholic women cared for thousands of sick and wounded Confederate and Federal soldiers in every theater of the war. About 700 women religious altogether volunteered their services in dozens of hospitals and locations across the North and South, serving men on both sides without distinction as to politics, race, or religion.

In a conflict that claimed the lives of at least 620,000 men, two from disease for everyone who died of battlefield wounds, the sister nurses were in high demand. Many of them, unlike most women at the time, had practical training in taking care of and nursing the sick from before the war. While post-war accounts written by the sisters themselves or their historians such as George Barton, Ellen Ryan Jolly, and others seem to our skeptical minds to border on hagiography, the sheer amount of evidence and similar stories women from different religious orders or communities told means their accomplishments should not be easily dismissed.

In fact, what these women did was to change the minds of many of the Protestant soldiers that they came in contact with, helping to dispel prejudices against both themselves and American Catholicism as a whole. There can be no doubt that their service as nurses was more effective than the presence of Catholic soldiers, officers, and chaplains in fighting anti-Catholicism rife in American society at the time. The sister nurses are truly the highlight of the Catholic Church’s participation in the Civil War.[1]

While much of what we know about their services comes from their own accounts or those of other Catholics, there is a considerable body of testimony from Protestant Americans that corroborates their stories and praises them for their selfless service to others. Here are a few of these tributes:

 

“Of the Sisters of Mercy there is little need for me to speak. Their good deeds are written in the grateful hearts of thousands of our soldiers, to whom they were ministering angels.”

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, U.S.A.,

to David P. Conyngham, May 28, 1870[2]

“We have for attendants in this Hospt several “Nuns” or Sisters of charity as they are otherwise call[ed.] They are members of the Roman Catholic church who have retired from the vanities of the world & vowed to live a life of seclusion & peity lending a helping hand wherever suffering humanity may be found[.] They infuse life into the sick room & scatter comfort with a generous hand in many a lowly cottage[.] However much I differ with them in there religious belief I cannot but think them honest in there crede.”

Corporal Spencer Bronson (7th Wisconsin)

to Amanda Bronson, May 19, 1864[3]

“From my own observation and the unanimous testimony of all whom I have heard speak on the subject, I regard the conduct of the Catholic Sisters associated with the army during the late war as one of the highest and noblest exemplifications of the Christian religion, of which we have any knowledge in our age of the church. The missionaries among the heathens give us, perhaps, the only higher example of practical Christianity.”

Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, U.S.A.,

to David P. Conyngham, January 31, 1870[4]

“I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th inst. relative to the proportion to be maintained between Catholic & Protestant nurses.

I think it is a fact that the Catholic nurses predominate. This is because we found in the Sisters of Charity, a corps of faithful, devoted and trained nurses ready to administer to the sick & wounded[.] No such organization exists among the Protestants of this country, and those whom we have employed cannot compare in efficiency and faithfulness with the Sisters of Charity. The latter are trained to obedience, are of irrepro[a]chable moral character and most valuable are their ministrations.

I am a Protestant myself and therefore cannot be accused of partiality.

I know, Sir, you would not have me discharge these faithful women to make way for others whose religious faith is different but whose qualities cannot be compared with those of the Sisters. For the future, however, I will endeavor to obtain Protestants; but it will be a difficult task, as they will not submit to the same discipline, nor undergo the same hardships. I have a large experience with both kinds and, therefore, speak what I know.”

Surgeon General William A Hammond, U. S. A.,

to President Abraham Lincoln, July 16, 1862[5]

“The ‘Sisters of the Holy Cross’ were employed as nurses, and by their skill, quietness, and tenderness, were invaluable in the sick-wards. Every patient gave hearty testimony to the kindness and skill of the ‘Sisters.’ … If I had ever felt prejudice against these sisters as nurses, my experience with them during the war would have dissipated it entirely.”

Mary Livermore, Union nurse[6]

“The Catholic sisters in Richmond devoted themselves to the sick and wounded in the hospitals and I was told were unremitting in their attentions to the soldiers generally.”

General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee, C.S.A.,
to David P. Conyngham, February 8, 1870[7]

 


NOTES

[1] William B. Kurtz, Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 80-87. The best single study of Catholic sisters during the war is Sister Mary Denis Maher’s To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989).

[2] Ambrose Burnside to David P. Conyngham, May 28, 1870, “Soldiers of the Cross,” University of Notre Dame Archives, http://www.archives.nd.edu/Conyngham/index.html, accessed on 3/8/2018. Conyngham, a veteran of the Irish Brigade, never published his last book, Soldiers of the Cross, a tribute to Catholic chaplains and sister nurses on both sides of the Civil War. For more on this book, please see my previous blog post: http://www.wkurtz.com/blog/soldiers-of-the-cross/.

[3] Spencer Bronson to Amanda Bronson, May 1864, Michigan Civil War Collection,  http://micivilwar.com/letter/bronson-spencer-may-19-1864/, accessed on 3/8/2018.

[4] John M. Schofield to David P. Conyngham, January 31, 1870, “Soldiers of the Cross,” UNDA Archives, http://www.archives.nd.edu/Conyngham/index.html, accessed on 3/8/2018.

[5] William A. Hammond to Abraham Lincoln, July 16, 1862, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mal&fileName=mal1/171/1714000/malpage.db&recNum=0, accessed on 3/8/2018.

[6] Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War: A Woman’s Narrative of Four Years and Personal Experience as Nurse in the Union Army (Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington, 1887), 218-219.

[7] Robert E. Lee to David P. Conyngham, February 8, 1870, “Soldiers of the Cross,” UNDA Archives, http://www.archives.nd.edu/Conyngham/index.html, accessed on 3/8/2018.