Daughters of Mother Seton in the War between the States

Editor’s Introduction: At the time of Mother Seton’s death in 1821, her original community of five had grown to fifty, and convents had been established in Philadelphia and New York. In 1850, twenty-nine years after the death of the Foundress, the Emmitsburg community chose to become affiliated with the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul in Paris, and adopted their blue habit and the white-winged headdress called the cornette. The New York and Cincinnati Sisters, preferring to remain unaffiliated, established independent mother-houses in 1846 and 1852 respectively. The Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia, did the same in 1855, and four years later those of Newark, New Jersey. Thus by 1861, when the War Between the States broke out, there were already five separate groups tracing their origin to Mother Seton.

The following excerpts, taken from a book entitled Angels of the Battlefield, published in 1898, illustrate the dedication and zeal for souls displayed by these daughters of Mother Seton toward both Union and Confederate soldiers in the Terrible War between the States.

Saint Louis Military Hospital – 1861-1864

It was on the 12th of August, 1861, that Major-General Fremont, commanding the Department of the West, established a military hospital in the suburbs of Saint Louis.

General Fremont desired that every attention should be paid to the wounded soldiers. He visited them frequently, and perceiving that there was much neglect on the part of the attendants, applied to the Sisters (of Charity) of Saint Philomena’s School for a sufficient number of them to take charge of the hospital. He promised the Sisters, if they would accept, to leave everything to their management. There was no delay in acceding to this request….

The Sisters had the superintendence of everything relating to the sick in the hospital. Some of the soldier attendants at first looked with wonder on the strange dress and appearance of the new nurses, asking them if they were Free Masons. The Sisters were, however, treated with the greatest respect, so much so that not an oath or disrespectful word was heard in the hospital during the three years that they were there.

The hospital was visited every day by the ladies of the Union Aid Society, who could not help admiring the almost profound silence observed in the wards. They could not understand the influence the Sisters exercised over the patients, both sick and convalescent, who were as submissive as children. The Archbishop of Saint Louis provided a chaplain who said Mass each morning in the oratory arranged in the Sisters’ apartment. After the Mass the chaplain visited every ward instructing, baptizing and reconciling sinners to God….The greatest number of the persons thus baptized died in the hospital.

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Father Burke was one of the priests who did a great deal of work at this hospital, and he bears testimony to the fact that the patients thought there were no persons like the Sisters. They would often say: “Indeed, it was not the doctor that cured us; it was the Sisters.”

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Sister Juliana…was the witness of many affecting death-bed scenes and many wonderful death-bed conversions. Fervent aspirations to heaven went up from the lips of men who had never prayed before. Soldiers from the back woods who had known no religion and no God were in a few hours almost transformed. It is estimated that priests and Sisters baptized between five and six hundred persons at this one hospital.

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Archbishop Ryan tells the following incident that came under his personal observation….,

“A Sister was passing through the streets of Boston with downcast eyes and noiseless steps when she was suddenly addressed in a language that made her cheeks flush. The insult came from a young man standing on a street corner. The Sister uttered no word of protest, but raising her eyes gave one swift, penetrating look at the brutal offender.

Time passed on; the war intervened. The scene changed to a ward in a military hospital in Missouri. A wounded soldier, once powerful but now helpless as an infant, was brought in and placed under the care of the Sisters of Charity. It was soon evident that the man’s hour had arrived; that he was not long for this world. The Sister urged the man to die in the friendship of God, to ask pardon for his sins, and to be sorry for whatever evil he might have done.

“I have committed many sins in my life,” he said to the Sister, “and I am sorry for them all and hope to be forgiven; but there is one thing that weighs heavy on my mind at this moment. I once insulted a Sister of Charity in the streets of Boston, Her glance of reproach has haunted me ever since. I knew nothing of the Sisters then. But now I know how good and disinterested you are and how mean I was. Oh! if that Sister were only here, weak and dying as I am, I would go down upon my knees and ask her pardon.”

The Sister turned to him with a look of tenderness and compassion, saying: “If that is all you desire to set your mind at ease, you can have it. I am the Sister you insulted and I grant you pardon freely and from my heart.”

“What! Are you the Sister I met in Boston? Oh, yes! you are – I know you now. And how could you have attended on me with greater care than on any of the other patients? – me who insulted you so.”

“It is our Lord’s way,” replied the Sister gently. “I did it for His sake, because He loved His enemies and blessed those who persecuted Him. I knew you from the moment you entered the hospital. I recognized you from the scar over your forehead, and I have prayed for you unceasingly.”

“Send for the priest!” exclaimed the dying soldier, “the religion that teaches such charity must be from God.”

And he died in the Sister’s faith, holding in his failing grasp the emblem of man’s redemption, and murmuring prayers taught him by her whose glance of mild rebuke had long filled him with remorse through every scene of revelry or of peril.”

Shiloh, Tennessee, 1862

The Battle of Shiloh, sometimes known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing, cost the Union Army 14,000 men in killed, wounded, and prisoners, while the Confederates lost 10,000 men including General Albert Sidney Johnston.

Sister Anthony, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, tells of her experiences during this battle:

“At Shiloh we ministered to the men on board what were popularly known as floating hospitals…Day often dawned on us only to renew the work of the preceding day without a moment’s rest. Often the decks of the vessels resembled a slaughter house, filled as they were with the dead and dying.

“There was one young man under the care of Sister De Sales. This Sister spoke to him of heaven, of God, and of his soul. Of God he knew nothing, of heaven he never heard, and he was absolutely ignorant of a Supreme Being. He became much interested in what the Sister said, and was anxious to know something more of this good God of whom she spoke. The Sister of Charity instructed him, and no priest being near, she baptized him, and soon his soul took its flight to that God whom he so late learned to know and love.

“Where I to enumerate all the good done, conversions made, souls saved, columns would not suffice. Often have I gazed at Sister De Sales as she bent over the cots of those poor boys, ministering to their every want, in the stillness of the night. Here is one to whom she gives a cool drink, here another whose amputated and aching limbs need attention, there an old man dying, into whose ears she whispers the request to repeat those beautiful words: ‘Lord, have mercy on my soul!’

Corinth, Mississippi, 1862

After the Sisters had finished their work at Shiloh, they followed the army to Corinth, where the Confederates had retreated. The river was blocked by obstacles in the stream, and progress by boat was necessarily slow. Finally the impediments became so thick that the boat was stopped altogether. The vessel was crowded and the situation was a critical one. The captain then said that it was a matter of life and death, and that the Sisters would have to flee for their lives. To do this it would have been necessary to abandon their patients, who were enduring the greatest misery on the boat. This the Sisters heroically refused to do. All expressed their willingness to remain with the “wounded boys” until the end and share their fate, whatever it might be. Such heroism melted the hearts of hardened men. The Sisters fell on their knees and called on the “Star of the Sea” to intercede for them, that the bark might be guarded from all harm. And their prayer was answered. Two brave pilots came, who steered the boat to their destination and to a place of safety.

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Reverend John Bannon, S.J., was one of the priests who performed efficient service as a chaplain during the war….Writing of this wartime experiences in a letter dated December 10, 1897, he says:

“Twice only did I come into relations with the Sisters’ hospitals. The first time was at Corinth, Mississippi, after my arrival with the Missouri troops from Arkansas. There I found the Sisters of Charity from Mobile, Alabama, in possession of a hospital, located in a large brick building on a hill overlooking a railroad crossing – for the town of Corinth was little more at that time. During the temporary illness of Father Coyle, who was chaplain of the nuns, I visited the hospital for him a few times. On one occasion a Sister indicated to me a cot in a distant corner of the ward, whereon lay a large, burly man, heavily bearded and of uncompromising aspect. He had been questioning the Sister about her religion and desired further explanations; so I was asked to go see him and give him satisfaction.

“After a few questions about his home and family, and wounds and personal comfort, I asked him about the nursing and treatment of the hospital, a question which brought him to ‘attention,’ for he sat upright in bed, looking at me sternly, and almost fiercely said:

” ‘See now, Mister, if you come here to spy after the Sisters you’re in the wrong shop. There’s not a man wouldn’t rise agin ye if you said a word agin them. Don’t do it, or I’ll -‘ and he fell exhausted.

“But, my friend,” I said, “I’m a friend of theirs; I’m a priest.”

” ‘A priest,’ he repeated, and them, sitting up again, he called out: ‘Sister, Sister, this man says he’s a priest; is he?”

“To which the Sister answered, ‘Yes,’ and he fell back saying, ‘All right, Mister, now I want to know if any man ever believed such things as the Sister told me.’

“I assured him that I believed them all, and had come at the Sister’s request to explain them to him.

” ‘All right, Mister, go ahead now.’

“So I proceeded to speak of God and the Trinity and principal mysteries. He demurred to every word I said, especially to the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, and to each new installment of doctrine would sit up in bed and call to the Sister (at the other end of the ward), repeat to her my statement, and ask her was that true, to which, when she answered ‘yes,’ he would fall back on his pillow and with a sigh of resignation say: ‘All right, Mister, go ahead now, I believe it,’ and so on. He accepted my teaching only on the word of the Sister, and on his faith in the Sister I baptized him and left him happy. I had not reached the door of the ward when he called me back. ‘Say, Mister, do ye reckon I’ll git better?’

” ‘Yes, I think so; at least I hope so.’

“His countenance fell visibly. But after a few seconds he looked up and said:

” ‘Whisper down nearer tome,’ and so pulling my head quite close to his mouth he whispered: ‘If I get well, I’ll have to leave the Sisters. I’d rather stay and die than leave them. Good-bye. God bless ye. Pray for me,’ and so we parted.”

Frederick City, Maryland – 1862

General McClellan was at this time in command of the Union army. On one occasion he visited the barracks and was delighted with the order that reigned throughout. Before leaving he expressed a desire to have fifty additional Sisters sent to nurse the sick and wounded, but the scarcity of Sisters made it impossible to comply with his request.

White House, Virginia – 1862

On July 14, 1862, the surgeon general at Washington wrote for one hundred Sisters to be sent to a station called White House, in Virginia, then in possession of the Northern forces….General George B. McClellan, then chief in command, was some miles distant at the time, but sent orders that every possible care and attention should be offered to the Sisters….

They had passed only a few days here (at White House) when suddenly all hands were ordered to leave with the greatest haste – the enemy was only two miles distant. Then began confusion and additional suffering. The wounded and dying men were hurriedly placed upon transport boats. These vessels were so overcrowded that they seemed to be sinking rather than sailing. The Sisters were detailed to accompany the wounded to the several cities where they were destined, the work of transportation continuing for several weeks. The Sisters shared with their patients every horror but their bodily pains. They were in the under cabin, the ceiling of which was low and the apartment lighted by hanging lamps and candles. The men lay on beds on the floor, with scarcely enough space to walk between them. The Sister in charge of this lower ward was so persevering in her zealous attention that even the doctor declared he did not know how human nature could endure such duties. A few months later this Sister died from the effects of overwork – a martyr to charity…

Point Lookout, Maryland – 1862-1865

On the 14th of July, 1862,…twenty-five Sisters left Baltimore, and in twenty-four hours reached the hospital encampment of Point Lookout. The Sisters were soon destined to have another martyr in their band. They were at Point Lookout only two weeks when one of the Sisters, who had contracted typhoid fever on the transport boat, died from that disease. She gave up her whole being as generously as she had offered her zealous labors….A good priest, who came occasionally to the encampment, heard her confession, and she received Communion a day or two previous to her death. The priest, being stationed twelve miles distant, could not reach the encampment in time to administer the Last Sacraments, but arrived in time to perform the burial service. The kind doctors and officers made every effort to suitably honor the departed Sister. The men said they deemed it a great privilege to act as pallbearers. All of the soldiers who had died had been buried with only a sheet wrapped around them, but for the Sister a white pine coffin was procured. The authorities walked in procession, the drum corps playing a dead march. There on the banks of the Potomac rested the worn-out Sister of Charity.

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The Sisters, going to the Provost one day, were informed that a deserter was to be shot the next morning, and they were requested to see him. They visited the prison for the purpose of consoling the condemned, but the man showed no desire to see them, and they sorrowfully returned home. Later the prisoner regretted not having seen the Sisters, and asked to have them sent for. The kind Provost sent an orderly, telling the Sisters of the poor man’s desire. It was now very dark, and some of the authorities advised the Sisters not to go until the next morning. The orderly carried this message to his superior, but was sent back again with a note from the Provost, saying:

“I will call for you on horseback and will be your pilot with the ambulance. I will guide the driver safely through the woods and will also conduct you home safely. I think circumstances require your attendance on the prisoner.”

This was enough for the Sisters, and they were soon at the prison, but found a minister of the prisoner’s persuasion with him. After he had finished his interview, the Sisters were taken to the man, who apologized for not seeing them sooner. One of the Sisters asked him if he had been baptized. He said, “No, never.” then she informed him of its necessity, and he regretted, with much fervor, that he had not known this sooner. The Sisters remained with him some hours, giving him such instructions as his condition required. After being baptized, he expressed his desire to see a priest. The Provost, looking at his watch, replied that the priest could not be there in time. It was now late and the execution must take place early in the morning. The young man resigned himself fully to his fate, saying:

“I deserve death, and freely pardon anyone who will take part in it. I know I must die by the hand of one of my company, but whoever it may be, I forgive him.”

Then he returned to his devotions with such a lively faith that the Sisters had no fear for his salvation. They bade him adieu and promised to assemble before the altar in his behalf when the hour of his trial drew near, and to remain in prayer until all would be over with him. The kind Provost made all arrangements for the Sisters’ return home, and said, when leaving the prison:

“May I have such help at my death and die with such a good disposition.”

At the dreaded hour in the morning the Sisters knelt before their humble altar, most fervently imploring the Redeemer to receive the soul of the poor deserter. They continued very long after the sound of the fatal fire had told them that his destiny had been decided. The soldiers remarked afterwards that everyone on the Point was present at the execution with the exception of the Sisters, who had retired to pray for the doomed man.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – 1863

The Catholic Church in Gettysburg was filled with sick and wounded. The Stations of the Cross hung around the walls, with a very large oil painting of Saint Francis Xavier holding in his hand a crucifix. The first man placed in the sanctuary was baptized, expressing truly Christian sentiments. His pain was excruciating and when sympathy was offered him, he said: “Oh what are the pains I suffer compared with those of my Redeemer!” Thus disposed he died.

The soldiers lay on the pew seats, under them, and in every aisle. They were also in the sanctuary and in the gallery, so close together that there was scarcely room to move about. Many of them lay in their own blood and the water used for bathing their wounds, but no word of complaint escaped from their lips. Others were dying of lockjaw, making it very difficult to administer drinks and nourishment. Numbers of the men had their wounds dressed for the first time by the Sisters, surgeons at this juncture being few in number. When the Sisters entered in the morning, it was no uncommon thing to hear the men cry out: “Oh, come, dress my wound,” and “Oh, come to me next.” To all the pain suffered by the soldiers was added the deprivations of home, friends and home comforts, which in such times come so vividly to the mind.

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Four of the Sisters attended the sick in the Transylvania College building, which for the time being was used as a prison for about six hundred Confederate soldiers….

There was quite a sensational scene in this prison one morning. One of the Sisters, hearing a great noise among the patients, looked to see the cause. She discovered a group of men with guns aimed at one poor, helpless man. There had been a quarrel, and no one attempted to stop the strife. The Sister promptly and with no thought of personal danger hurried over to the group and placed her hand on the shoulder of the prospective corpse. Then she pushed him back into the surgeon’s room, holding her other arm out to hinder the men from pursuing him. There was a dead silence. The poor man was put safely inside the doctor’s room and his tormentors retired without a word, quietly putting away their guns. The silence continued for some time. The Sister resumed her duties in the mess room.

Presently the doctor came to her and said: “Sister, you have surprised me. I shall never forget what I have witnessed. I saw their anger and heard the excitement, but feared that my presence would increase it. I did not know what to do, but you came and everything was all right. Indeed, this will never die in my memory.”

“Well,” replied the Sister calmly, “what did I do more than any other person would have done? You know they were ashamed to resist a woman.”

“A woman!” exclaimed the doctor, “why, all the women in Gettysburg could not have effected what you have. No one but a Sister of Charity could have done this. Truly it would have been well if a company of Sisters of Charity had been in the war, for then it might not have continued so long.”

Satterlee Hospital, Philadelphia – 1862-1865

The following notes from the diaries of the Sisters are of interest:

“Among the soldiers, who were of many nations, there was a young Indian named James Wise, who was far gone in consumption. The doctors thought he could not live very many days. A Sister sent for Charles Corbin, another Indian, who was in Ward U, to speak to him of his condition. Charley was a well-instructed Catholic, and understood the French language, through which he communicated to Sister the dispositions of the poor sufferer, who did not know that he had a soul, or that there was a God. In fact, to use Charley’s own words, ‘He was a perfect savage.’ He would not listen to anything Charley had to say, either in regard to the existence of a God or the immortality of the soul. On leaving him for the night, Charley told Sister what little hope there was of his conversion. But how mysterious are the ways of God! On his return next morning he found him with very different dispositions. The poor, sick one had had a dream, which he relates as follows: He had thought he saw our Lord coming toward him with a priest ready to baptize him, thinking he was an infant and heaven was open to receive him. This he described to Charley as minutely as if he had seen the priest in reality, at the same time requesting him to bring him to the chapel to be baptized. The next time Father McGrane came to say Mass, Charley brought his ‘poor little savage’ as he still called him, although he was almost too weak to walk to the chapel. Here there followed a scene which I must describe. Three interpretations were needed in order to perform the ceremonies of administering the Sacrament of Baptism. First Charley, who understood the Indian language, interpreted it to Sister in French; then Sister translated the French into English for Father McGrane, who thus learned the desire of the ‘little savage,’ the third in the circle. He lingered for two weeks after his baptism and was interred in Cathedral Cemetery. Since his death Charley has often expressed wish to be one day as happy as he believes him to be. May he rest in peace.”

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“September 27. – Quite an excitement was created about two o’clock on the 27th of September, caused by the visit of Generals Sigel and Hammond. The former lost a leg in one of the late battles of Gettysburg and has been since that time under the care of the Sisters in Washington. He is now able to go about on crutches. Doctor Hayes, with the principal surgeons, accompanied them in walking the circuit of the hospital. The patients, who were all eager to see once more their good old generals who had stood by them so valiantly in the terrible engagement, came out of the wards as best they could, many of them also on crutches, and crowded in the corridors to cheer and welcome them as they passed along. One poor young lad, who was very sick, who Sister thought would feel the privation of not being able to see them, replied to her words of consolation: ‘Do not feel sorry on my account. I would any time rather see a Sister than a general, for it was a Sister who came to see me when I was unable to help myself, in an old barn near Gettysburg. She dressed my wounds and gave me drink, and took are of me until I came here.’ The poor boy is a Protestant, and never saw a Sister before that time.”

Cumberland, Maryland – 1862

The weather was cold, the accommodations poor and the hospitals, of which there were twelve, were some distance from each other. There were crowded into these hospitals at one time 2200 poor soldiers, suffering from typhoid fever, pneumonia, erysipelas, etc….

Sister Jane says: “I had in my ward a droll boy named Billy. Now, our Billy had watched the Sisters for some time and addressed me thus: ‘Lady, what is that I hear the boys call you? Ah, that is a beautiful name. Well, Sister, will you have me your Bible? I would like to know something of your religion.’ Billy received the little Bible, or rather a small catechism, of which he made good use. He was soon baptized, made his first holy communion, and his zeal did not end here. Often have I seen him on a platform explaining the words of his catechism to his comrades, many of whom became fervent children of the Church.

Richmond, Kentucky – 1862

The following anecdote from the diary of a Sister (of Mount Saint Vincent) illustrates the influence that the religious possessed with the soldiers:

“It is midnight. The moon sends her welcome light to cheer my watching hours. There is stillness all around, although many soldiers are suffering. But listen! I hear moans. A poor soldier is dying; must away to his cot. Yes, he was dying. I prayed, then spoke: ‘Now, my young friend, you are going home. ‘Home!’ said the boy; ‘What do you mean, Sister?’ “Why, would you not like to go to heaven?” ‘Sister, are you going there when you die?’ I assured the boy that I sincerely hoped to go there. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘so do I.’ I called the chaplain, had the soldier baptized and ere the morning dawned this beautiful soul was in heaven.”

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In 1865 the War came to an end, and the daughters of Mother Seton, along with the Sisters of other orders, returned to their duties in the classroom and hospital ward.

They had been inspired to offer their services at this time of crisis in our nation’s history by the lofty motive of love of God and neighbor. This same motive kept them from publishing the details of their heroism. Undoubtedly there were at least a hundred Sisters who either perished on the battlefield, or fell prey to one of the many epidemics that raged through camp and hospital. The actual number of those who lost their lives will never be known. In the words of the author: “Their names are not cut upon any earthly monuments, but they are surely emblazoned in letters of gold in the great book of the Recording Angel.”