“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: