Sisters of Mercy Union's Top Military Nurses Were Nuns

By Rodgers, Ann | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Sisters of Mercy Union's Top Military Nurses Were Nuns


Rodgers, Ann, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The Daughters of Charity at their provincial house in Emmitsburg, Md., could hear the cannons of Pickett's Charge 10 miles off. They helped their chaplain pack a wagon with medical supplies and, when the cannons were silenced, a dozen sisters rode with him to tend to the wounded.

"They had already been on battlefields in the North and the South," said Lisa Shower, who gives Civil War tours at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In 1863, nuns were the nation's only trained nurses.

"Nursing was deeply rooted in their heritage. Even before the Civil War they were active in hospitals in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.," she said of the Daughters of Charity.

The Daughters of Charity were among a dozen orders, including the Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh, who sent sisters to battlefields, military hospitals and hospital ships. The Navy has recognized the Sisters of the Holy Cross as pioneers of the Navy Nurse Corps for their work aboard a ship that ferried wounded soldiers up the Ohio River.

"The work of the sisters really changed the view of Americans of Catholics in general," said Kathleen Washy, who until recently was the archivist at UPMC Mercy. "There was a lot of anti-Catholicism in the United States leading up to the Civil War, but people got a very different view when they had a nun taking care of them after they were wounded."

Most Civil War nurses were men. Nursing anyone other than family was deemed disreputable for women because it exposed them to nakedness and filth.

Nevertheless, about 9,000 women -- half of them freed slaves -- provided nursing care for the Union and another 1,000 for the Confederates. In Washington, public health advocate Dorothea Dix appointed 3,214 official military nurses. Others were part of civilian relief organizations.

But among the most effective were 571 Catholic sisters, who were often appointed to oversee military hospitals. The Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh were twice personally requested by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to run military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh.

Because many religious orders were founded to care for the sick, the sisters had accumulated centuries of experience. By 1860, they ran 28 American hospitals. They were the only trained nurses in the nation.

"The sisters didn't have what we would consider today to be professional training, but the documents of every community had ... a section on care of the sick," said Sister Mary Denis Maher, archivist of the Sisters of Charity in Cleveland and author of "To Bind Up the Wounds" about sisters in the Civil War.

While no one yet understood infection, their time-honored practices stressed cleanliness and good food, she said.

Dix, who was anti-Catholic, didn't recruit sisters, but generals and Cabinet members begged for their services. After the Battle of Antietam in 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan asked the Daughters of Charity for every available sister.

"He wanted hundreds of them in the hospitals," Ms. Shower said. They took charge of Satterlee Hospital, the Union's largest military hospital, in Philadelphia.

So the Emmitsburg sisters knew what to do for the soldiers, thousands of whom had camped on their grounds just before the battle at Gettysburg. As the soldiers marched away on June 30 and July 1, the sisters and their students knelt along the road to pray for the men, Ms. Shower said.

The Rev. Francis Burlando and the first dozen sisters entered Gettysburg early July 5.

"Along the road they saw bodies and dead horses," Ms. Shower said. The town of 2,400 was overrun with 21,000 wounded men, every building serving as a hospital. Three dozen sisters served over several months. They are known to have worked in St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, the Methodist church, the Lutheran Theological Seminary and Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College.

The government paid for the sisters to share a room at what is now the Gettysburg Hotel and gave them food. …

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