The Church is sometimes depicted as somehow an alien presence in this fair land of freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics, beginning with Christopher Columbus, have played a vital role in American history from the beginning. Such was the case with the nuns who attended wounded and sick soldiers during the national nightmare known as the Civil War.
Visitors to Washington DC might be surprised at first to encounter a monument to nuns and sisters entitled Nuns of the Battlefield. It was erected by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1924 to honor the some 600 Catholic nuns and sisters who during the Civil War nursed soldiers on both sides. It bears this inscription:
THEY COMFORTED THE DYING, NURSED THE WOUNDED, CARRIED HOPE TO THE IMPRISONED, GAVE IN HIS NAME A DRINK OF WATER TO THE THIRSTY
Anti-Catholic propaganda prior to the Civil War often focused on alleged lurid misdeeds involving nuns, the completely fictional account written by Maria Monk being a typical example, thus combining both bigotry and near pornography. A convent was burned by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, their minds poisoned by just such allegations.
Nuns and sisters prior to the Civil War would not wear their habits outside of their convents for fear of insult or attack. Then, in the words of Lincoln, the war came.
Nuns on both sides swiftly volunteered to served as nurses, and they proved superb at this task. Mary Livermore, who served on the United States Sanitary Commission and who would later win fame as an early fighter for the rights of women, wrote this tribute after the War:
“I am neither a Catholic, nor an advocate of the monastic institutions of that church . . . But I can never forget my experience during the War of the Rebellion . . . Never did I meet these Catholic sisters in hospitals, on transports, or hospital steamers, without observing their devotion, faithfulness, and unobtrusiveness. They gave themselves no airs of superiority or holiness, shirked no duty, sought no easy place, bred no mischiefs. Sick and wounded men watched for their entrance into the wards at morning, and looked a regretful farewell when they departed at night.”
Soldiers were impressed both by the quality of the nursing they received from the nuns and their good cheer and kindness. Generations of bigotry melted away by the ministrations of these women of God. A Confederate chaplain recalled this incident between a soldier and a sister:
“Sister, is it true that you belong to the Catholic Church?”
“Yes, sir, it’s true. And that’s the source of the greatest happiness I have in this life.”
“Well, I declare. I’d never have suspected it. I’ve heard so many things . . . I thought Catholics were the worst people on earth.”
“I hope you don’t think so now.”
“Well, Sister . . . I’ll tell you. If you say you’re a Catholic, I’ll certainly have a better opinion of Catholics from now on.”
At the battle of Shiloh Sister Anthony O’Connell earned the title of the American Florence Nightingale by her tireless efforts to tend the wounded of both sides, her name becoming a household word in the North and the South.
Generals, seeing the results of the nursing that the Catholic nuns bestowed, demanded that their governments send forward every Catholic nun and sister willing to volunteer. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton placed two military hospitals, one in Washington, DC and one in Pittsburg, under the supervision of the Pittsburg Sisters of Mercy. Abraham Lincoln paid this tribute to them:
“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. … More lovely than anything I had ever seen in art, so long devoted to illustrations of love, mercy and charity, are the pictures that remain of these modest sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying.”