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Nuns During the Civil War

“They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in his name a drink of water to the thirsty –

To the memory and in honor of the various orders of Sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War.”

These words, on a memorial in Washington D.C, describe the 640 Catholic Nuns who served on both sides of the war. The sisters from more than forty religious orders had to overcome both gender and religious biases in order to serve God through the meeting the needs of the wounded.

Before the war, nuns would almost never leave their convent in their habit because of the persecution they faced as Catholics. People would throw things at them and insult these gentle sisters who patiently bore the derision of their fellow Americans.  Because of the animosity towards them, the sisters initially had trouble joining the war effort.

At the beginning of the war only men were allowed to be nurses.  As the war progressed the need for nurses as well as soldiers increased.  Since there weren’t enough men to fill these roles, the religious sisters stepped forward and humbly offered their services.  When their service commenced, these sisters provided comfort and joy to the sick and dying men and gave them renewed strength. They would often work night and day without rest in order to take care of the wounded soldiers.  One nun, Sister Anthony O’ Connell, a Sister of Charity, described her work at the Battle of Shiloh:

“….unable to bear the terrific stench from the bodies on the battlefield. This was bad enough, but what we endured on the field of battle while gathering up the wounded is beyond description ….Day often dawned on us only to renew

the work of the preceding day without a moment’s rest.”

Many of these nuns hailed from the State of Maryland which had traditionally been less openly prejudiced to the Catholic Church.  A large number of the nuns serving as nurses, including Sister O’Connell, were part of the Sisters of Charity, the order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  Sisters like her who took on the thankless tasks of war.  They tended the mortally wounded, assisted at amputations, bathed men covered in filth and gore, served those in unendurable pain and brought love and strength to soldiers as they provided for their corporal and spiritual needs.  Both the North and South, recognizing their valor and loving service united to honor them following the war with a much deserved monument in Washington D. C.

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