By Patrick Young, Esq. - January 27, 2016
Nursing Nuns, many of whom were immigrants, played an important role in hospital care.
The Confederate medical disaster in the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh resulted in many deaths from neglect of the wounded according to Scottish immigrant nurse Kate Cumming. Even the upper-class women who volunteered to help at the hospitals often only contributed to the disorder. Many of them stayed only briefly, and some seemed more concerned with their personal property than with the men they cared for.
Cumming watched one group of women head home after only a couple of weeks of working; “This morning, while the ladies were preparing to leave, as their goods and chattels were all mislaid, much noise prevailed in finding them. I was annoyed, as I knew that many of the wounded were within hearing.” Cumming said that their behavior convinced her that “it was not strange that surgeons should prefer to have Sisters of Charity to nurse their sick.”
Hospitals had to care for men long after the moment of their wounding.
The Sisters of Charity are an order of Catholic religious sisters, of nuns, that began to send nurses to care for the Civil War wounded of both sides from the early days of the war. These nursing nuns were disproportionately immigrants from Ireland, Germany and France.
Cumming, who had seen the worst disorder in the Confederate hospitals sent up at Corinth after the fighting at Shiloh, visited many of the make-shift hospitals filled with thousands of patients. The only one that reassured her was College Hospital. Cumming wrote “When we arrived at the hospital, we were charmed with the cleanliness and neatness visible on every side. The Sisters of Charity have charge of the domestic part, and, as usual with them, everything is parfait. We were received very kindly by them. One was a friend of Mrs. G. She took us through the hospital. The grounds are very neatly laid out.”
Kate Cumming was impressed by the work of the Sisters, but she was far from the only one. Many doctors preferred the Sisters as nurses because they were disciplined and hardworking. North and South, nursing nuns made up a significant, if too often forgotten, part of the medical corps.
Jane Schultz, a leading expert on Civil War nurses, warns that because most of the Southern women who published books about their nursing experiences after the war, historians concluded, “perhaps too hastily, that elite Southern women made up a significant percentage of all Confederate female hospital workers.” In fact, in both the Union and Confederate armies, immigrants and African Americans were heavily represented among nurses, matrons, cooks, and laundresses.
According to Union Army records, there were 6,284 women serving as nurses during the war. Contrary to popular belief, only 6% of these were appointed by the notorious Dorothea Dix, who refused to employ black women and discriminated against Catholics. Several hundred black women were hired as nurses outside of Dix’s purview. 250 Catholic Sisters of Charity also served in the hospital nursing corps as did approximately 200 Sisters from other orders.
The nuns became key components in military medical care just after the great anti-immigrant Know Nothing surge of the 1850s. Catholic convents had been a particular target of Know Nothing broadsides. Viewed as secretive brothels for priests, the convents themselves were sometimes targeted for physical attack. Catholic Sisters knew that they were representing a discriminated minority under scrutiny by White Nativist America.
Some groups of nursing nuns showed their selflessness by not accepting even the meagre pay offered to women by the army. Historian Jane Schultz has written of a group of twenty-three Sisters of Charity who ran a Louisville hospital without compensation.
Religious Sisters also had an inherent advantage over their lay peers. Women who volunteered to nurse often did so over the objections of their families, who saw them as defying female norms. They arrived in a hostile environment where male doctors often dismissed their skills and intelligence. They typically had no female friends from home with them and had to build intra-gender relationships with people they did not know before these times of traumatic stress. Subject to sexual harassment by doctors and officers, they had no networks to turn to, or systems of female support.
Nuns came in groups from existing convents. They worked beside other sisters they had lived with in community before the war. If they encountered problems in the field or hospital, they could appeal to the women in their order to use their influence with the government for correctives. Nuns, ironically, were often less isolated than the lay women nurses adrift in a sea of men.
Many of the women who nursed during the war had a strong ideological commitment to the side they were working for. Kate Cumming, for example, was a dedicated Confederate before she became a nurse. Some of these women refused to care for enemy prisoners. Catholic Sisters, on the other hand, insisted that they be allowed to care for the wounded of both sides. This sometimes led them into conflicts with the officers in charge of the hospitals where they worked. In one case, a Union surgeon ordered Sisters in Maryland not to treat four hundred Confederates they were aiding. This was the only thing that could keep them from their mission of humanitarian care.
Nuns were also known for nursing patients whom no one else would attend to. The majority of Civil War soldiers who died during the war were killed by diseases, not bullets. While a nurse could be relatively safe treating a man taken off a battlefield, she faced illness and death if she served a patient with a contagious disease. Sisters were particularly appreciated by the men for their willingness to bathe and feed smallpox victims and others with deadly diseases. Sisters died in places as diverse as Memphis, Philadelphia, Paducah, Washington, and Point Lookout from the contagions passed on by the men they were aiding.
In the South, where respectable woman risked having suspicions raised about their chastity if they served as nurses, Catholic Sisters became so revered that they were held to be without blemish doing the same work prohibited to laywomen. This created a double standard, according to Jane Schultz, in which Southern men did not disparage the nuns whom they had once viewed as sexually suspect, while they impugned the morals of lay women nurses. Kate Cumming, who greatly appreciated the work of the Sisters, wrote that “it seems strange that [Catholic Sisters] can do with honor what is wrong for other Christian women to do.” The rules of patriarchy bent for the Sisters but not for women from the native-born Protestant elite.
The relative freedom the Sisters enjoyed from immediate male control prompted envy among some Nativist nurses. Some also looked askance at the daily devotions the nuns were allowed to take time off from work to perform. According to historian Jane Schultz, “National anti-Catholic prejudice…did little to raise the sisters in the esteem of laywomen.” She writes that it hurt the pride of “Protestant women that so many surgeons had gone on the record preferring the services of nuns-many of whom were immigrants-to the native-born.”
Resource: Excerpts from Kate Cumming Journal after Battle of Chickamauga.
Note: I use the terms “Nun” and “Sister” interchangeably because that is common usage in the United States.
Image 1: Sister Verona
Image 2: Memorial to Sisters of Providence who helped organize a hospital for the wounded in Indianapolis. One patient told a reporter that “next to home it was the sweetest, quietest spot he had ever found.”