Tuesday, January 5, 2016


In this past year, there were some remarkable BBC presentations of women nurses on the battlefield of various wars, most notable was "The Girls of Anzac".  I find their stories, based on letters and journals, worthy of Blogs as they epitomize mercy under stress. I will convey these fascinating tales between Blogs on the Year of Mercy and how relevant they are in our modern world.

The Memorial- Jerome Connor artist
Recently, I saw a photo of a lovely  monument  in Washington, D.C., across from St. Matthew’s Cathedral,  which  is dedicated to the women religious who ministered to wounded and dying soldiers, North and South, during the American Civil War. Unveiled on September 20, 1924, the inscription reads:

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.

Between 1861 and 1865, approximately 640 women from twenty-one different religious communities volunteered their nursing services. Mary Livermore, a future women’s rights leader who worked with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, said:

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.

Before the Civil War, nuns often didn’t wear habits in public or when traveling, because of anti-Catholic hostility. But when the war came, they were desperately needed. In general, nursing wasn’t considered a respectable profession for women. Nor were there many hospitals; most people were cared for at home. The exceptions here were the Sisters, who operated twenty-eight hospitals nationwide as of 1861. While other churches had women nurses, including the Lutherans and Episcopalians, Catholic nuns constituted the single largest pool of experienced nurses in America on the eve of the Civil War.

Altogether on both sides, over 4,000 women served as nurses; more served as nurses’ assistants, cooks, and laundresses. They cleaned wounds and bandaged them, helped doctors in surgery. It wasn’t easy work, and the turnover rate was high. All in all, it was hard, ugly work.

The turnover rate may have been less for the Sisters. For centuries, historian George Stewart writes, nursing was a “religious ministry rather than a profession.” One Sister, asked how she gathered strength to do her work, said: “I thought of the cruel wound in the side of our dear Lord, and my strength was restored.” And they asked little remuneration beyond necessities.

 In some quarters, however, particularly among Protestant nurses,  prejudice still lingered. One woman, describing the Sisters’ habit, said: “What looking objects to wait upon our sick and dying boys!” Dorothea Dix, the Superintendent of U.S. Army nurses, was said to be particularly hostile to Catholics. Part of the reason for this hostility may have been just plain jealousy.

The Sisters evangelized by their example. In many places, they were the first nuns, let alone Catholics, that some soldiers had ever seen.

They were there on the war’s bloodiest battlefields. At Shiloh, where some 25,000 fell, Sister Anthony O’ Connell, a Cincinnati-based Sister of Charity, said she was 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.

One soldier said of Sister Anthony:

Amid this sea of blood she performed the most revolting duties for these poor soldiers. She seemed like a ministering angel, and many a young soldier owes his life to her care and charity. Happy was the soldier who, wounded and bleeding, had her near him to whisper words of consolation and courage. She was reverenced by Blue and Gray, Protestant and Catholic alike; and we conferred on her the title of the ‘Florence Nightingale of America.’ Her name became a household word in every section of the North and South.

When surgeons wanted to amputate a soldier’s limb, she would say: “Wait and let me see what I can do for him.” And she often saved it. In 1897, she was buried with a full military honor guard.

Sister Anthony developed the “Battlefield Triage”. Her method was “the first recognizably modern triage techniques in war zones, saved countless lives through faster hospital treatment and won her praise from President Lincoln”. .

In addition to her courageousness and innovation, some even said that  Sister Anthony’s word was treated as law among officers, doctors and soldiers after establishing herself as a prudent and trusted administrator and nurse. She and other sisters were also often selected to treat wounded prisoners of war due to their showing no bias between Union and Confederate soldiers. She became personally acquainted with Jefferson Davis and knew a number of generals on both sides of the conflict.

Sr. Anthony on the Battlefield
Sister Anthony went on to serve at the battlefields of Winchester, Virginia; the Cumberland Gap, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Gallipolis, Ohio; Culpeper Court House, Virginia; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee; and Lynchburg, Virginia. She also served on a hospital ship on the Ohio River.

After the war, in 1866, Joseph C. Butler and a friend, Louis Worthington, purchased a large building at Sixth and Lock Street, to present to Sister Anthony as a gift in recognition of her and the sisters service during the war. This was given with two conditions: that no one be excluded from the hospital because of colour or religion, and that the hospital be named “The Hospital of the Good Samaritan,” to honour the sisters’ kindness. Sister Anthony was also recognized for her work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1877.

She passed away in her sleep in December 1897 in Cumminsville, Cincinnati, Ohio.It should be noted that she came from the same Community that produced Sr. Blandina Segale (see Fastest Nun in the West- Blog  7/3/14)

In his eulogy for Sister Anthony at her funeral in 1897, Bishop Thomas Byrne of Nashville, Tennessee, one of the cities where she nursed the wounded during the Civil War, reminded mourners of her motivation:

 “Christ was her inspiration, and for this reason she trod the battlefield and entered hospitals pregnant with pestilence. Her presence was more to those brave sons of America than that of an angel. Yet she was only a type of many.”