The charity of Christ impels us

with special thanks to Jim Schmidt for his guidance in matters of Civil War medicine and the role of the Sister-nurses in Army hospitals. See his blog on Civil War medicine: http://www.civilwarmed.blogspot.com.

In the spring of 1861, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Louisville, Martin John Spalding, offered the Sisters of Charity as nurses to the Union Army in Louisville, Kentucky. The offer was accepted by Gen. Robert Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame), in command of the department of Kentucky, in the following agreement:

The Sisters of Charity will nurse the wounded under the direction of the army surgeons, without any intermediate authority or interference whatever. Everything necessary for the lodging and nursing of the wounded and the sick will be supplied to them without putting them to expense; they giving their service gratuitously. So far as circumstances will allow, they shall have every facility for attending to religious and devotional exercises. –Robert Anderson, Brig. Gen., U. S. Army

Union Gen. Smith, in command of 7,000 Union troops in early 1861, appealed to the Sisters of Charity for their nursing aid at Paducah,Kentucky. Sister Martha Drury, the mother superior of St. Mary’s Academy at Nazareth, Kentucky, accepted the challenge of turning Sister-teachers to Sister-nurses. Paducah was filled with dying and wounded soldiers from the battles at Fort Donaldson, Fort Henry, and other battles early in the war.

The First Baptist church at the corner of 5th and Jefferson Streets in Paducah was converted into a military hospital. In Sept. 1861, Sister Martha Drury closed St. Mary’s Academy and led the teachers to Paducah: Sisters Sophia Carton, Justine Linnehan, Mildred Travers, Beatrice Skees, and Mary Lucy Dosh. They received brief training in first aid, from another Sister nurse. Their habits of black serge consisted of a plaited skirt and cape worn over black waist and sleeves; a neat white collar, and a simple, black cap (covered by nuns’ veiling on the street).

Sister Mary Lucy Dosh, a music teacher and one of the youngest of the religious, became a devoted nurse to the soldiers with typhoid fever. On Dec. 29, 1861, she died of the disease herself. The soldiers gave provided her coffin an escort in a gunboat from Paducah on the Ohio River to Uniontown, then a military escort carried her toSt. Vincent’s Academy for burial. The soldier guards kept vigil all night with blazing torches made of pine knots.

Many of the wounded Union soldiers were not Catholics and had never seen a religious. The Sisters had to overcome the distrust and prejudices against “Catholicity” by many of their patients, who would cover their heads with a blanket when they came near, or refuse treatment. The Sisters did not discriminate based on the patients’ religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs), or expect any to convert. Their charitable actions quickly earned them wide respect.

Army surgeons who worked with the Sisters of Charity praised their dependability and discipline. They eased the doctors’ work, were cooperative, and handled the men better than the surgeons. The medical men appreciated their “sturdy practicality in handling problems, in making the best of conditions, and their steadfastness in the accomplishment of their assigned tasks.”

“The charm the Sisters of Charity carried, as the soldiers soon discovered, were blameless lives, absolute devotion to duty, and entire self-forgetfulness.” (Barton) Their patience and sincerity is said to have brought out the best behavior of their soldier patients, curtailed cursing, and earned them gratitude, gifts, and the highest praise: “You are must like my mother.”

Additional sources: Angels of the Battlefield: A History of the Labors of the Catholic Sisterhoods in the Late Civil War, by George Barton (Philadelphia, 1897); To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War, by Sister Mary Denis Mayer, 1989; The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, by Anna Blanche McGill (Encyclopedia Press, 1917); Summer Winds: Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky 1859-1912, by James Spillane (Abbey Press, 1991).

 Facts to fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer, inspired by these historical facts and Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.

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