The Sisters of Charity in the Civil War
The Love of Christ Urges Us
The motto of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, “The love of Christ urges us,” was embodied in the selfless ministry of the Sisters of Charity during the Civil War. But from their inception the Sisters had dedicated their service to those most in need, inspired by their seventeenth century patron, St. Vincent de Paul, who counseled, “Let us love God, my brothers and sisters, but let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows.”
The Sisters’ ministries were never confined solely to one work. Their goal was to go where they were needed, again heeding St. Vincent’s words, “I am not for this place or that, but for any place that God wishes to send me.”
When St. Elizabeth Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland, she shared St. Vincent’s vision. She anticipated the Sisters serving in schools, orphan asylums and, from the beginning, had a “view to providing nurses for the sick and poor.” Even before her death in 1821, the Sisters had assumed the responsibility for the Infirmary at Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary. By mid-century they were operating hospitals in seven cities and were providing nursing during the periodic epidemics that swept the country.
Within the first year that the Sisters of Charity established a diocesan congregation in Cincinnati, they opened St. John’s (later The Good Samaritan) Hospital. Thus, when the Civil War began, a number of the Sisters were experienced nurses.
Not two months passed from the time war was declared in April 1861 until the Sisters received a summons to serve. An ‘earnest request’ for some Sisters to attend the sick troops stationed at Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, was sent by Cincinnati Mayor George Hatch and Cincinnati Archbishop John Purcell to Mount St. Vincent, Cedar Grove, the Sisters’ Motherhouse. Mother Josephine Harvey informed the Sisters of this call for help and told them that “some of their band would leave home on the morrow to attend the troops who had been stricken with measles.” “There were no orders, no commands – all were willing – I may say anxious to go.” Five volunteers left the following morning, June 1, 1861, taking the Little Miami Railroad to the site of the Camp, fifteen miles from Cincinnati where 12,000 men were stationed.
The Sisters were recruited to come to Camp Dennison due to an outbreak of measles. New recruits gathered in the camps often became victims of contagious diseases that were easily spread. Of more than 600,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War, two-thirds died of disease.
In her article, “Angel of the Battlefield,” (St. Anthony Messenger, April 1962, 8-12) Sister Marie Emmanuel Streit describes the conditions in the camps: “Because of insufficient ventilation, the lack of provisions for hygiene, the lack of plumbing and at times even cots for the sick and wounded, epidemics flourished in military hospitals. Smallpox especially hit one camp after another, and the men stood in terror of that scourge. Victims were often herded into isolated barracks and left without care until the sisters came. Sister Anthony [O’Connell] mentions in her diary walking into one such ward where a score of smallpox victims lay huddled together, without ventilation or plumbing. ‘The odor from their poor, suppurating [festering] flesh was so terrible,’ she admitted, ‘that I did not think I could endure it.’
“At another camp she got wind of a plan to burn a tent – and the unfortunate patient in it – because the men assigned to work were afraid to approach a smallpox case. ‘That’s murder!’ she told the officers indignantly, and then volunteered to care for the man herself until his recovery.”
By early 1862 battles were raging. The need for nurses was desperate and the Sisters again responded. Through the course of the war they served both on the eastern front in parts of Ohio, Virginia and Maryland, and on the western front in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. In all, more than forty Sisters served in army encampments, on battlefields, in tent hospitals and warehouses set up to receive casualties, and on the floating hospitals transporting the sick and wounded along the river system. In addition, St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati was overflowing with military personnel needing attention. Many of the Sisters from the schools were called upon to assist there in addition to the regular nursing staff. With about one-hundred Sisters in the Congregation, it is safe to estimate that well over half nursed in some capacity.
Some of these Sisters left first-person accounts of their experiences, others wrote letters describing them. In addition, the Congregational Archives has newspaper articles and testimonies of soldiers and eyewitnesses to document their service. With this small book, we wish to share how these women witnessed to their Community motto: “The Love of Christ Urges Us.”
To read more, the book is available for $10 in the Motherhouse Gift shop at the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. It may also be ordered by calling the Archives department at (513) 347-4058.