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Daughters of Charity: Courageous and Compassionate Civil War Nurses

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 51-72 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0001

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The Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul served as nurses during the Civil War, providing a neutral relief corps to both Northern and Southern armies. Found at triage and treatment stations at sixty sites in fifteen states and the District of Columbia, their service ran the gamut of settings, from civilian and military hospitals, to medical transports along waterways, on blood-soaked battlefields, and in prisons and isolation camps. Setting former loyalties aside, the Daughters of Charity cared equally for victims of war whether they themselves sympathized with the Union or Confederate cause. The sisters' non-discriminatory care for wounded or sick soldiers earned them near-universal respect, often countering prejudices of religion, region, politics, and gender.

Regrettably, the charitable endeavors of these sister nurses have often been overlooked by modern historians. Their stories remain significantly under-told and unexplored. The first attempt to tell their story, George Barton's Angels of the Battlefield (1897), recounted the contributions of four congregations of religious women, including the Daughters of Charity. Twenty years later, Ellen Ryan Jolly highlighted twenty-one congregations in Nuns of the Battlefield. More recently, Mary Denis Maher examined this important topic in her study, To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War.

Dear Masters: Daughters of Charity as Civil War Nurses, published in 2011, provides a fuller appreciation of the community's wartime role. The work draws for the first time from the 500-page three-volume manuscript Daughters of Charity Civil War Annals, discovered in 2000, containing "Notes of the Sisters' Services in Military Hospitals, 1861-1865, Annals Civil War, 1861-1865—War Between the States." This major source consists of a redacted version of the sisters' original reports sent to their superiors in Emmitsburg. These accounts of the sisters' service make a unique contribution to the historical record. An unidentified sister secretary (with a preservationist's perspective) of the late-nineteenth century left a message for posterity: "This collection is valuable ... and are ... the original notes ... unretrenched—unvarnished."

This article draws on the rich tapestry of charity woven by first-hand accounts, recollections, and correspondence contained in this unpublished source document. As much as possible, we have allowed the sisters' own voices to convey their mission and ministry, joys, struggles, and sorrows. Herein are heart-wrenching stories reveal their compassion for war casualties and of human endurance: a tribute to the labors of more than 300 Daughters of Charity during the Civil War.

Establishment of the U.S. Daughters of Charity

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774-1821) founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph's, the first native sisterhood established in the United States, near Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1809. The French Daughters of Charity served as the model for her sisterhood. The sisters' ecclesiastical superiors in Baltimore, priests of the Society of St. Sulpice, arranged for the unification of the Emmitsburg community with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul of Paris, France in 1850. The headquarters for the new Daughters of Charity U.S. Province remained at Emmitsburg. The community adopted the distinctive seventeenth-century peasant dress, with its large white cornette (winged headdress) and blue-grey dress, a familiar symbol of charity. From the beginning the terms, "Sisters" or "Daughters" of Charity, were used interchangeably in popular parlance; after 1850 the sisters officially adopted the title, Daughters of Charity.

The Daughters of Charity fulfill their mission to seek out and serve persons in need, especially individuals and families living in poverty, to teach children lacking educational opportunities, and to care for sick or dying persons lacking care. Founded in Paris as the Confraternity of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor, the community was formed for apostolic service, not as a cloistered or contemplative congregation. The Daughters of Charity understood that at times the urgent needs of poor persons would come before all other things, even prayer. They strove to see God in whomever they were serving. These principles date to the earliest hospital experience of the Daughters of Charity in 1641 at Saint-Jean l'Evangéliste Hospital in Angers, France.

A Tradition of Nursing

The Daughters of Charity had a history of...

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