St. Mary's Goes to War: The Sisters of the Holy Cross as Civil War Nurses

By Intravartolo, Cindy | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Fall/Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

St. Mary's Goes to War: The Sisters of the Holy Cross as Civil War Nurses


Intravartolo, Cindy, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


IN 1914 WHEN ELLEN RYAN JOLLY, then president of the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, proposed to the War Department in Washington, D.C. a monument in the nation's capital to honor those sister-nurses of the Civil War, the government refused, stating that there was no documentation of such activities of the sisters. Mention Civil War nursing and for most people women such as Clara Barton, Dorothea Dix and Mother Bickerdyke come to mind. The history books rarely, if ever, mention the lesser-known groups of women who also contributed significantly to Civil War nursing. These women included those in religious communities, particularly, the Catholic sisters.

During the course of the war approximately 617 sisters representing twelve different orders from twenty-one separate communities nursed the sick and wounded soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies. The largest group was the Daughters of Charity (232) whose headquarters was in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The second largest group was the Sisters of the Holy Cross (63) of St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.1 The other orders that participated in the war included the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Sisters of St. Dominic, Sisters of St. Ursula, Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (KY) and the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy.2 In 1861 when the Civil War broke out in Charleston Harbor, the Catholic sisters were almost the only women in America with any nursing experience.

When Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, the government was ill-prepared to manage the affairs of war. The Union army could not outfit men with adequate uniforms, weapons or horses and had not given any thought to caring for battlefield casualties. In January 1861, the medical corps consisted of one surgeon general, thirty surgeons and eighty-three assistant surgeons. Of these, within a few months, twenty-four resigned to join the Confederacy and three more were dismissed for disloyalty.3 In 1861 the army operated one military post hospital in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.4 The army medical director was a seventy-two year old veteran of the War of 1812, Colonel Thomas Lawson, who passed away on May 15, 1861 nearly one month after the firing on Fort Sumter. The Union army had no plans in effect to care for the large numbers of casualties following the battles that were to come.

However, the Catholic sisters at the time ran more than twenty-eight hospitals in the country.5 Although many sisters were practicing as nurses they had no formal training as nurses because no nursing schools existed prior to the Civil War.6 The first formal school of nursing was established in Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1873. Of the twelve orders that participated during the war, only two were non-nursing orders, the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Sisters of Providence, both from Indiana. This article will examine the wartime activities of the Holy Cross Sisters from Notre Dame, Indiana who served primarily in the western theater of the war.

The Origin of the Sisters of the Holy Cross

The Congregation of the Holy Cross was founded in Le Mans, France in 1841 by Father Basil Moreau. It was one of his dreams to send his priests and sisters to labor for God in foreign missions. America in 1841 was to him a foreign mission. That year he sent Father Edward Sorin (Figure 1) and six brothers to the United States to establish a school for boys and young men. They acquired land in northern Indiana and their school would later become known as the University of Notre Dame. In 1843 Father Sorin requested some sisters to assist the Holy Cross men in their school. That year Father Moreau sent four Holy Cross sisters to not only assist the priests but also establish their own school for girls. They estab- lished their school in Bertrand, Michigan. …

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