Catholic Sister Nurses of the Civil War

“They are not ladies or women, but Sisters of Charity.”

To Bind Up the Wounds, Maher

Most female Civil War nurses did not work on battlefields, but one of my favorite stories about the Catholic Sister nurses takes place on the field after a battle. A doctor and his wife brought a Sister along to minister to the wounded and dying. Passing a man whose face had been mangled, the doctor’s wife tugged at the sister’s sleeve in repulsion. “Leave that one alone,” she advised. But the Sister rushed in despite her friend’s entreaties.

“Oh, how could I leave him? What we do unto the least of these brothers that we do unto Him,” the Sister said.

From that day forward the doctor’s wife sought out the worst and most loathsome duties as a sort of penance.

“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.”

Abraham Lincoln

The Catholic Sisters were loved and requested by Civil War doctors on both sides of the conflict for their humility and sacrificial service. Unlike the civilian female nurses, they were not prone to getting in the way of the surgeons’ orders.

Your Protestant [civilian] nurses are always finding some mare’s-nest or other, that they can’t let alone. They all write for the papers, and the story finds its way into print, and directly we are in hot water. Now the “Sisters” never see anything they ought not to see, nor hear anything they ought not to hear, and they don’t write for the papers and the result is we get along very comfortably with them.”

To Bind Up the Wounds, Maher

The Sisters were unlikely to run off with handsome convalescents as well (though a few times this did happen). The Sisters wrote of their amusement when male nurses jumped into bed with their boots on when pretty civilian nurses arrived with their sweets and fans while the Sisters tended to the too repulsive or too sick. It was not uncommon for Sisters to die of the same diseases they treated their patients for when no one else would.

Once a group of civilian nurses had come to help load and care for men on a hospital transport boat. When it was discovered that the boat carried patients with highly dangerous and transmittable diseases the civilians balked and fled. The Sisters did not. The surgeons noted these acts of bravery and begged for more Sisters at every turn.

Soldiers were at first reticent and in some cases “skert” of the Sisters with their bonnets that looked like wings. They asked if they were men. They asked why the Sisters didn’t marry. “If I were married how could I serve you?” was often the reply.

Over time the men grew to love and respect the Sisters and even ask to be sent to a favorite sister’s ward when returning to the hospital. It did not go unnoticed by the men that the Sisters brought order, peace and better prepared food wherever they went. Even the civilian nurses remarked that the Sisters were always smiling despite working all hours of the day and night.

“We were not prepared as nurses, but our hearts made our hands willing and our sympathy ready, and so with God’s help, we did much towards alleviating the dreadful suffering.” 
 Mother M. Augusta (Anderson), CSC

Not everyone was impressed. Dorothea Dix was not a fan. Some men held strong prejudices against Catholics, yet many of these men were so impacted by the Sisters’ sacrificial love and humility that they converted on their deathbeds. Many others kept in touch with the Sisters years after their discharges and credited these women with saving their lives. One convalescent spent an entire day roaming the city looking to buy a clean bonnet for his favorite sister after noting the blood on the one she wore. He could not find one, but this admission must have been more than enough of a thank-you for the Sister.

TO BIND UP THE WOUNDS by Sister Mary Denis Maher




For further reading about Civil War nursing in general:

6 responses to “Catholic Sister Nurses of the Civil War”

  1. We often forget that no one knew yet about germs. As the Civil War was raging, Pasteur was only just figuring out how contagion worked, and even simple tactics such as hand-washing were sneered at in hospitals — waste of the doctor’s time. During the American Revolution, your chance of surviving being wounded was far greater if you were treated in the field, rather than being taken to the hospital, where one was expose to disease. Not much had changes by the Civil War. But the care of the nurses did make a difference for those who didn’t catch whatever disease the previous occupant of the bed had. Believing in heaven makes it a lot easier to take on potentially fatal tasks. But thanks for the reminder of both how hard times were and how good people can be.


    • There are so many accounts of men preferring to be nursed by their mess mates than to be sent to the hospitals. But there are countless stories of really devoted doctors and nurses making a difference. Walt Whitman wrote about a boy who was so weak, depressed and neglected that he was certain to die of sorrow. Whitman’s simple act of buying him a cup of milk changed everything. The man recovered and went on to have a full life. I’ve had a few such experiences with doctors and nurses — but I also have found that in many ways the medical profession is still in the dark about healing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post with lots of interesting information! What an interesting field of study and one could delve into the information for years! Even now, the influence of Catholic ministries has reached my life. When my father was dying in the hospital, one established by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the chapel and chaplain there helped all of us. The chaplain visited daily to pray with us, and the chapel was a place of peace while waiting. He passed away there, and the following week they had a beautiful service for all those who had died at their hospital in recent months.


    • Thank you for sharing that! There is so much negativity associated with the Church but there are so many things the Church has done right throughout history. The vocations are so interesting. After reading about the CW nurses I was a little sad I hadn’t known about their heroism when I was young and thought the church was stupid.

      Liked by 1 person

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