By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
The Roman Catholic nuns who went to war (American Civil War 1861-1865) to help out as nurses were the most highly praised and prized of the female attendants.
Doctors, Sanitary Commission members and the men themselves generals to privates commented on the efficiency of the nuns.
Many of the nuns did not come from nursing backgrounds or formal nursing training, but they had learned the “basics” of care in their large Catholic families. Many were fairly well educated, for women of the time. Some were teachers.
Above all, the nuns were quiet, cooperative and, to use a more modern term, “low maintenance.” Some women who volunteered as nurses from civil life did not adapt easily to a demanding and regimented military environment.
At the Mound City, Ill., military hospital, Dr. John Brinton called most female volunteers “terrible, irritable and unhappy.”
The work was tough, disgusting and fatiguing. Brinton heard about the Catholic nuns and asked if any could assist him:”In answer to my request to the Catholic authorities of South Bend, Indiana, a number of sisters were sent down to act as nurses in the hospital. Those sent were from a teaching and not a nursing order, but in a short time they adapted themselves admirably to their new duties.”
The sisters were from the Holy Cross Order of Catholic nuns at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame. Brinton continues: “When I asked the Mother [Superior] who accompanied them, what accommodations they required, the answer was, ‘One room, Doctor,’ and there were, I think, fourteen or fifteen of them.”
The nuns shared the bed, sleeping in shifts and sometimes on the floor.
More than 600 Catholic nuns went to war as nurses, including in the Confederacy, from 21 different religious communities and 12 different orders. They almost always took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They had a deep sense of duty and worked long hours without complaint.
This certainly is not to denigrate the contributions of so many other women during the war.
British observer George Augustus Sala called the Civil War “a woman’s war.” Thousands of women contributed by sewing, making bandages, cooking and providing food, and in other ways. When it came to nursing, however, discipline and a keen understanding of medicine was in order.
Union nurse Jane Woolsey said the problem was that often volunteer groups of eight to 20 slightly educated women were turned loose in a hospital without guidance or supervision. Some had questionable motivations.
The famed Dorothea Dix tried to correct this problem by creating standards for the nurses. The “fine print” in Dix circulars seeking nurses included the paragraph: “No women under thirty need apply to serve in the government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts.”
In 1921, Rhode Island Rep. Ambrose Kennedy referred to, “the ‘nuns of the battlefield,’ whose services were not only conspicuously national; they were also singular and unique.” This is high praise, but usually the nuns were in hospitals. Perhaps less than one in five saw battlefield conditions, in which soldiers usually assisted the doctors.Confederate nurse Kate Cumming said, “It seems strange that [the sisters] can do with honor what is wrong for other Christian women.”
The nuns came from a church that was a male-dominated hierarchical organization not unlike the military. The nuns could take orders and were used to the gradations of place and status rank in the military culture.
The first nurses at sea served aboard a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Red Rover, a specially configured hospital ship operating in the Mississippi River and Western theater of war.
The nuns, also from St. Mary’s College, established a military-style “chain of command.” They answered to the ship’s captain for routine items, to the chief surgeon for medical matters and to their order for religious issues.
They established the nursing routine in the ship and organized the black women who assisted them as attendants. They were Sister Mary (often abbreviated as M.) Adela (Catherine Morane), Sister M. Callista (Esther Pointan), Sister M. John of the Cross (Catherine McLoughlin) and Sister M. Veronica (Regina School).
After the Civil War, The Rev. William Corby, chaplain to the Irish Brigade during the war and later president of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a tribute honoring the Sisters of the Holy Cross, of St. Mary’s Convent at Notre Dame, and to the Sisters of Charity.
Nuns turned nurses put together the first hospital ship, USS Red Rover
This tribute is published in “Our Army Nurses: Stories From Women in Civil War,” edited by Mary Gardner Holland (Edinborough Press, 1998 and 2000).”Sixty Sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross from Saint Mary’s convent … went out under the intelligent Mother Mary Angela as superioress. These sisters volunteered their services to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers, hundreds of whom, moved to sentiments of purest piety by the words and example of their angel nurses, begged to be baptized in articulo mortis’ at the point of death.
“The labors and self sacrifices of the Sisters during the war need no praise here. Their praise is on the lips of every surviving soldier who experienced their kind and careful ministrations,” Father Corby continued.”Many other Orders made costly sacrifices to save life and to save souls, notably the noble Order of the Sisters of Charity. To members of this Order I am personally indebted. When prostrate with camp-fever [malaria], insensible for three days, my life was entrusted to their care. Like guardian angels, these daughters of Saint Vincent watched every symptom of the fever, and by their skill and care I was soon able to return to my post of duty.”
* John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.