CHICAGO — In the face of adversity and danger during the American Civil War, the Daughters of Charity, a Roman Catholic community of religious women, served as nurses, tending to the physical and spiritual needs of wounded soldiers — both Confederate and Union.
Their compelling experiences and handwritten accounts of conditions on the battlefields, in hospitals and camps, are compiled in a new tome, “Balm of Hope: Charity Afire Impels Daughters of Charity to Civil War Nursing.”
“The voices of women, particularly Catholic sister nurses, are seldom recognized by public historians who present battle strategies and outcomes, military maneuvers, and celebrated Civil War heroes,” said Sister Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., a Vincentian Scholar-in-Residence at DePaul University who compiled and annotated more than 500 pages of original source documents and published them in “Balm of Hope.”
“Every victim needed a caregiver, a nurse, a listener, a scribe and someone to care about the sick or wounded soldier,” said McNeil, a former provincial archivist for the Daughters of Charity “Medical authorities of both armies requested the services of the sisters, already distinguished as nurses and hospital administrators.
“The unique focus of this work is due to the approximately 310 Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul whose chief concern was to serve the sick, treating them with compassion, gentleness, cordiality, respect and devotion,” added McNeil.
Voices of sister nurses
The book “presents a tapestry of their heroic charity through the memoirs of sister nurses and correspondents in their own words,” McNeil said.
One recollection, from Sister Angela Heath and Sister Ann Louise O’Connell who served in military hospitals in Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, between 1861-65, read: “A Sister was applying cold applications to the head of a fevered man, when bursting into tears he exclaimed: ‘Oh! if my dear Mother could see your care of me, She would take you in her heart!’”
McNeil noted that “The sisters felt responsible for the body, mind and spirit of all whom they touched. They medically cared for both Confederate and Union soldiers. Strangers reviled, feared and berated them because of their faith, yet they continued to serve the sick and dying without discrimination.”
That devotion is reflected in another account from Sisters Heath and O’Connell, after a naval shipyard was attacked and set on fire: “The confederate troops were filling Norfolk and our Hospital was crowded with sick, and many died, but Baptisms and conversions were numerous. Those who recovered and left us, have given evidences that a true idea of our holy Religion [Roman Catholicism] had done its salutary work on their souls.”
The discovery of source material
“Prior to coming to DePaul, I was archivist for the Daughters of Charity Province of Emmitsburg, Maryland,” noted McNeil. “One fall afternoon I was looking through archival boxes and noticed a bulging folder. In the folder was a scrapbook-like volume with these words inscribed by hand in India ink on the cover: ‘Notes of the Sisters’ Services in Military Hospitals, 1861-1865.’”
In that volume were original manuscripts of memoirs, letters and accounts relating to the Civil War.
“What a gold mine for researchers interested in Catholic Sisters who nursed sick and wounded Civil War soldiers,” McNeil wrote in the preface of “Balm of Hope.”
Daughters of Charity and The War Between The States
Some 30 years prior to the start of the Civil War, the Daughters of Charity had been staffing, filling and creating American health care services, McNeil explained.
“They administered 12 hospitals and had served in several public hospitals,” she noted.
Union and Confederate officials, politicians and surgeons requested the sister nurses to manage and staff military hospitals, travel with ambulances and treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield, according to McNeil.
“The medical community already had recognized the sisters for their expertise and it was a logical decision to invite them into the military medical system,” she said.
The first-hand accounts show that throughout the war the sister nurses were overwhelmed and grappled with unthinkable challenges, according to McNeil. They were worried about relieving the soldiers of their physical and mental anguish amid desolation and devastation, she noted.
“I wanted to write ‘Balm of Hope’ to tell the sisters’ stories and share their experiences with the public. Each account is annotated. Each sister nurse is identified including year of birth and death, if known. An appendix, glossary and index are included so readers may also study the text more deeply,” said McNeil.
The Daughters of Charity were co-founded in Paris in 1633 by Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul, who later became canonized saints in the Roman Catholic Church. The order of sisters shared a dedication of caring for vulnerable populations of 17th century France, including unwanted infants and persons who were sick, poor, aged, illiterate or living with mental illness.
“Balm of Hope” recounts the sisters’ continued dedication many centuries later and across the ocean. Not only is the book an important work of Civil War history, but also of Vincentian heritage. More about the book is online at http://bit.ly/balmhp2.
Sister Betty Ann McNeil, D.C.