NEW HAVEN – It’s hard to imagine that anything good could come from a war that claimed at least 600,000 lives in a span of four years.
Of course, good did come of the United States Civil War, in spite of the pervasive suffering experienced in North and South: slavery was finally abolished in the nation, of course, and the Union was preserved.
Another good that resulted from the midst of the bloodiest war America has ever experienced was a change in attitude toward Catholics, in particular Catholic women religious.
Sister of Mercy Dolores Liptak, professor of history at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, in a recent talk at the Knights of Columbus Museum, explained how that happened. Her talk was part of a series of lectures marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, an event commemorated by an exhibit at the museum. The lecture also coincided with the Year of Consecrated Life, called for by Pope Francis, and many women religious from various congregations attended the lecture.
The decades leading up to the War Between the States were marked not only by increasing debates over slavery, but also a growing prejudice toward Catholics, prompted by massive immigration from Ireland and Catholic parts of Germany beginning in the 1820s, Sister Dolores said. As Catholics exceeded 50 percent of America’s church-going population, Protestant Americans began to sense that their way of life was threatened.
In particular, many Protestants were puzzled by the customs they witnessed of certain women who chose to consecrate their lives to God. Why wouldn’t they marry and have families?, these fellow Christians wondered.
Sister Dolores said that after the 1830s, their institutions, especially convents and schools, were the objects of vicious attacks by so-called “patriotic Protestants.”
“In 1834, for example, the Ursuline Academy on the outskirts of Boston was burned to the ground…. These vicious attacks continued well into the 1850s...mostly where nuns conducted schools or academies,” she said.
Around mid-century, however, women religious, particularly Sisters of Mercy from Ireland and England, were gaining useful experience halfway across the world. The assistance they provided Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, and the experience they had there of a new kind of warfare would prove invaluable as the United States encountered its own troubles.
As well, many religious orders in the United States, in spite of the harassment they may have received from fellow citizens, did the kinds of things that came naturally to them: instructing the young and caring for the sick and the poor. Many had opened hospitals and gained nursing experience.
Meanwhile, after the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, the country had only a few places where wounded soldiers could be treated. It soon became obvious that they were going to need a lot more – and many more nurses to staff the facilities.
Brig. Gen. John Rathbone had heard of the nursing skills demonstrated by nuns, and wrote to the archbishop of New York, asking if he might send at least one sister to join his troops.
Others in authority followed suit: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, doctors who had worked with sisters, generals who had heard of their skills, all asked for the assistance of nuns. More than 600 sisters responded to the many petitions, representing more than 20 congregations. Their service did not go unnoticed.
“It is not that these sisters changed the course of the chaotic war but what they did accomplish was to calm the atmosphere and anguish of both battlefield and hospital,” Sister Dolores explained. “What they did brought hope, compassion and healing to suffering young soldiers of war. In both the North and South, their response to the call of duty became a source of blessing and new insights about what the mission of sisterhood was all about.”
Sisters had the technical skills to treat the wounded, but they brought something extra, as well.
“The Sisters of Mercy followed the directions that Florence Nightingale insisted upon,” Sister Dolores said. “Simple enough, the manuals emphasized cleanliness, fresh air and good food. These ideas Nightingale herself had learned from sisters. What the sisters of the Crimea had actually learned had been reinforced by Nightingale herself when they had accompanied her there from their convents in Bermondsey (south London), England and Ireland.
“But what these women accomplished after the battles were over, and the hospital wards closed, changed the perception that women religious had suffered before the war. More, they made clear that every life was precious.”
Of special note was the service of the Emmitsburg Daughters of Charity at the Battle of Gettysburg. Their motherhouse was only a few miles away from the battlefield, where more than 50,000 men were killed or wounded in just three days in July 1863.
“The Daughters waited until the gunfire ceased and then sped to the battlefield,” Sister Dolores said. “In Philadelphia, in the meantime, other Daughters waited at their hospital to receive the wounded who had survived this awful battle.”
Wounded recovering in hospital wards where sisters worked, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, were “amazed by the attentive, patient care [sisters] gladly seemed to offer,” Sister Dolores said. “If once suspicious of their motivation, most of the sick came to understand the reason for their actions. They noticed the willingness of the sisters to go beyond the bodily needs of the soldiers – to take the time to bring spiritual comfort.”
John Burger is news editor for the Catholic website Aleteia.org.