Sister Eleanor Casey, DC
In the summer of 1863 the Civil War was well into its second year. The war, which optimists expected to end in a few weeks, would last two more years and cost thousands more lives. Almost from the first shots at Fort Sumter, Daughters and Sisters of Charity and sisters of many other communities answered the call to nurse in military hospitals and on the battlefield. Many sisters worked in the cities where they were missioned. Others traveled from battlefield to battlefield north and south.
One Daughter of Charity, Sister Mary Conlan, died of typhoid at Point Lookout, MD while nursing the wounded. In late June 1863, the war came to Emmitsburg. The armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia succeeded each other at St. Joseph’s. The sisters fed the soldiers encamped on the grounds. So many were hungry that Sister Mary Jane Stokes feared that there would be no bread for the sisters for breakfast. When she went to the bake-house, she found the next day’s baking intact. “I did not see it multiply, but I did see it there.”
The brick house on tollgate hill and St. Joseph’s Rectory were requisitioned for military headquarters. General Howard, later the founder of Howard University in Washington, DC, was among those at the rectory. Surrounded by soldiers, the sisters prayed that the battle they knew was coming would not be fought on their land. The armies moved north to Gettysburg. There on July 1 the battle, which most historians consider the turning point of the war, began.
Above: A painting of cornette-wearing Daughters of Charity byArmand Gautier (1825–1894)
Writing on July 8 to Father Jean Baptiste Etienne, Superior General of the Vincentians, Father Francis Burlando, the director of the Daughters of Charity, attempted to describe conditions. “On July first the battle commenced about nine miles from Emmitsburg; it continued three days. Two hundred thousand men were in the field and on each side there were from one hundred to one hundred-thirty pieces of cannon. The roar of these agents of death and destruction was fearful in the extreme, and their smoke rising to heaven formed dense clouds as during a frightful tempest. The Army of the South was defeated and in their retreat left their dead and wounded on the battlefield. What number of victims perished during this bloody engagement? No one yet knows but it is estimated that the figures rise to 50,000!”
During the battle the sisters prayed for the combatants. On Sunday, the day after the battle ended, several sisters and Father Burlando set out for Gettysburg. Amid the carnage they began to care for those who had been moved to the churches and hotels of the city. Sisters were assigned in pairs to various locations. The next day more sisters arrived, some from Baltimore and others from St. Joseph’s. Government supplies began to arrive to supplement what the sisters had been able to provide. For as long as there were wounded, the sisters nursed the sick, and comforted and baptized the dying of both armies. One group of nearly 200 men was cared for in the field for three weeks until they could be taken to hospitals in New York and Philadelphia.
Above: The Daughters of Charity (formerly Sisters of Charity) at Satterlee Military Hospital, Philadelphia. The sisters ministered to thousands of wounded and dying Civil War soldiers from 1862 until the hospital closed in 1865.
Gettysburg conjures up visions of Pickett’s Charge, the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, and Big and Little Round Top. Cannon balls can still be seen in the walls of the Lutheran Seminary. Among the victims of the battle was Gen John Reynolds. Reynolds was born in Lancaster, PA in 1820. He was a graduate of West Point and served in the Mexican War. On his way from California, where he had been stationed, to become commandant of West Point he met Mary Catherine Hewitt. She was a young woman from Oswego, NY. She had been working as a governess in California but was from a wealthy family. Although she was much younger than Reynolds, he fell in love with “Fair Kate.” Kate was a Catholic.
John a Protestant. He had a reputation for reserve. They planned to announce their engagement after the battle, when John would be on leave. John gave Kate his West Point ring. She gave him a medal and a ring which he wore on a chain around his neck. They agreed that if he were killed she would join a religious community. Reynolds’ brothers and sisters were astonished to learn that he had a fiancée, but were kind to her after his death. According to her promise Kate entered the Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg later in July. She was given the name Sister Hildegarde, and assigned to teach. She persevered for five years, but left the community in 1868 due to illness. The Reynolds family attempted to trace her and Civil War buffs have tried as well. To date no one has solved the mystery.
This 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will be celebrated belatedly this year by thousands of re-enactors. Rain, which also followed the battle in 1863, made the ground too wet this year for a July commemoration. Those who fought and died, those who cared for the dead and wounded will be remembered. In Lincoln’s words, at the dedication of the cemetery in November 1863, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton, was the founder and first Superior of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. According to Daughters of Charity and the Civil War an article written by S. Helms, the author wrote; “On September 17, 1862 the Maryland authorities petitioned the help of the Sisters at St. Joseph’s of Emmitsburg, Maryland after the Battle of Antietam. When the Sisters went to the battlefield, they found wounded of both armies on the ground; many were moved to hospitals. “For six days, the Sisters went from farm to farm, seeking wounded and sick and risking their own lives because of unexploded bombshells”. Courage and commitment to duty were a few of the solid characteristics of the Sisters. “Their mission was to serve persons marginalized by poverty, illness, ignorance, disability and injustice”. The “black caps” as they were called by the soldiers, lived out their mission to its fullest during the Civil War. The superiority of the Sisters of Charity as nurses is known wherever the name Florence Nightingale is repeated … the soldiers feel encouraged by their kindness and care.”
In a letter Lieutenant William Ballentine of the 82nd Ohio Infantry describes the grounds of Saint Josephs and the Sisters of Charity. He wrote on June 30th: “Well at 4 o’clock that morning (the 29th), we began our march to this place and arrived here last night about 6 o’clock and stayed in that place until this morning when we moved to this place, a Shady Grove, near a Nunnery or rather on the farm and near the buildings belonging to the Sisters of Charity.”
“This institution of the Sisters of Charity (whose grounds we are now on) farm and buildings (especially the latter) is the finest I ever saw. Nothing in Ohio will compare with it; I was astonished to find such magnificence in such a place, a place I have never heard of before. The buildings cover about a square of ground, the same as a square in a town, built entirely of brick and ornamented with marble carvings. The main buildings are 4 stories high, built in splendid style, Before the war began, there were 500 Sisters of Charity of this institution. But all but about 60 are with the army in the various hospitals, taking care of the sick and wounded, and they are said to be very good nurses and very kind.”
General (then Colonel) Philippe Regis de Trobriand, commander of the 3rd Brigade of Birney’s Division wrote about his experience with the Sisters of Charity during his encampment near Saint Joseph’s on June 30th. “When I arrived at a gallop in front of the principal door, the doorkeeper, who had ventured a few steps outside, completely lost her head. In her fright, she came near being trampled under foot by the horses of my staff, which she must have taken for the horses of the Apocalypse, if, indeed, there are any horses in the Apocalypse, of which I am not sure. The superior, on the contrary, with whom I asked to speak in the parlor, came down calm and dignified. Her conversation betrayed neither fear nor even inquietude. When I asked her to send me up to the belfry, from which the whole surrounding country was visible, she sent for the chaplain, and ordered him to act as my guide.”
“The chaplain was an Italian priest, who did not sacrifice to the graces, and whose sermons would never have set the Hudson on fire. He led us through the dormitories and the class-room of the boarding-school, at that moment deserted, the superior having very wisely sent all the scholars to their relatives. There remained but five or six, belonging to Southern families, who had not heard from their friends in a long time.”
“We reached the belfry by a narrow and winding staircase. I went first. At the noise of my boots sounding on the steps, a rustling of dresses and murmuring of voices were heard above my head. There were eight or ten young nuns, who had mounted up there to enjoy the extraordinary spectacle of guns in battery, of stacked muskets, of sentinels walking back and forth with their arms in hand, of soldiers making coffee in the gardens, of horses ready saddled eating their oats under the apple trees. We had cut off their retreat, and they were crowded against the windows, like frightened birds, asking Heaven to send them wings with which to fly away.”
“Ah! Sisters,” I said to them, “I catch you in the very act of curiosity. After all, it is a very venial sin, and I am sure that the very reverend father here present will freely give you absolution therefore. The poor girls, much embarrassed, looked at each other, not knowing what to reply. The least timid ventured a smile. In their hearts, they were thinking of but one thing: to escape as soon as the officers accompanying me left the way clear. They immediately disappeared, crowding each other along the staircase. I have never returned to Emmittsburg; but it would astonish me very little to hear that the two armies had gone to Gettysburg to fight, on account of the miracle performed by St. Joseph, interceding in favor of these pious damsels.”
As the Sisters at Saint Joseph’s watched the troops of the Army of the Potomac march by they were terrified at the sight of the artillery rolling by. It was about noon on July 1st when the Sisters heard the boom in the distance from the artillery engaging in the battle that was opening at Gettysburg. They heard the booms until they ceased during the afternoon of July 4th. Many of the Sisters simply prayed that the terrible noise of the battle in the distance would go away.
In a letter Father Francis Burlando, the director of the Sisters of Charity, described conditions after the battle of Gettysburg. “On July first the battle commenced about nine miles from Emmitsburg; it continued three days. Two hundred thousand men were in the field and on each side there were from one hundred to one hundred-thirty pieces of cannon. The roar of these agents of death and destruction was fearful in the extreme, and their smoke rising to heaven formed dense clouds as during a frightful tempest. The Army of the South was defeated and in their retreat left their dead and wounded on the battlefield. What number of victims perished during this bloody engagement? No one yet knows but it is estimated that the figures rise to 50,000!”
After the battle ended, several Sisters and Father Burlando set out for Gettysburg. Once there they began to care for those who had been moved to the churches and hotels within Gettysburg. The Sisters were assigned in pairs to attend the wounded at various locations throughout town. The next day more Sisters arrived from St. Joseph’s. As long as there were wounded, the Sisters nursed and comforted them on both sides of the army, caring for one group of nearly 200 men in the field for three weeks until they could be taken to hospitals in New York and Philadelphia.
Catholic nuns at war:
Catherine “Kate” Mary Hewitt who was secretly engaged to Major General John F. Reynolds. Kate joined a convent after Reynolds perished in the Battle of Gettysburg.