Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sisters of the Holy Cross, Civil War Nurses, 1861-1865

From: in.gov/history

In response to Governor Morton’s call of 1861, eighty Sisters of the Holy Cross under the leadership of Mother Angela served as military nurses. The Sisters became the forerunners of the Navy Nurse Corps in 1862 when they boarded the Red Rover, the navy’s first hospital ship.

The majority of the marker text is correct, but primary sources are lacking regarding the Sisters’
service at various hospitals. While more research is needed, the following report provides contextual
information about the need for nurses, specifically Sisters, as well as the role of hospital boats in the
Civil War.

According to Peggy Brase Seigel’s 1990 Indiana Magazine of History article, while visiting Indiana
Civil War hospitals and camps to supply soldiers, Governor Oliver P. Morton witnessed poor medical
treatment and general negligence, convincing him that “systematically organized medical care should be greatly expanded.”1

Primary and secondary sources confirm that this expansion included the Sisters of
the Holy Cross, St. Mary’s Academy, Notre Dame.2

In Nuns of the Battlefield, Ellen Ryan Jolly states that while more than eighty sisters served, the
War Department recorded only sixty-three.3 Governor Morton requested that the Sisters first report to Paducah, Kentucky.4

The Sisters also served at hospitals in Tennessee and Illinois. According to Jolly, the Sisters that served at the Mound City Hospital in Illinois encountered 1,000-14,000 wounded soldiers.5

Jolly states that although some of the wounded were prisoners of war, to the Sisters “there was no
distinction of North and South in the wards of the soldiers.”6

In memoirs regarding his time as a surgeon at Mound City Hospital, Dr. John H. Brinton noted a
concern common in the Civil War period that civilian women were unsuited to serve as nurses.7 Dr.
Brinton lamented that female nurses produced “nothing but complaints . . . This female nurse business was a great trial to all the men concerned, and to me at Mound City soon became intolerable.”8

As a result of this debate, Dr. Brinton successfully solicited the help of the Sisters of the Holy Cross at Mound City Hospital.9 He praised their humility and ability to quickly assume nursing skills, stating “the sick patients gained by the change.”10 Dr. Brinton implied that the public initially considered the employment of Sisters as nurses controversial, stating that “for a few days I was the most abused man in that department, for the newspapers gave me no mercy.”11

The marker text correctly states that Mother Angela Gillespie served as a Civil War nurse and led
other Sisters in service as nurses. Sources such as the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion and the Life of Charles Henry Davis, Rear Admiral, 1807-1877 verify that after service at stationary hospitals, Sister Angela volunteered the help of the Sisters on the USS Red Rover. 12 In a June 20, 1862 letter, Flag Officer C.H. Davis, U.S. Navy, Western Flotilla, wrote that Sister Angela, “has kindly offered the services of the sisters for the hospital boat of this squadron when needed.”13

The Red Rover was a ship that served as a “floating hospital,” caring for wounded soldiers and
transporting them to nearby hospitals.14 The Sisters’ duties, particularly when serving on the floating hospital boat USS Red Rover, consisted of cleaning, laundering, administering medicine, nourishing the sick and providing “spiritual comfort for patients.”15 Judith E. Harper states that these floating hospitals “were critical to the survival of fallen Union soldiers in the aftermath of battles.”16 Hospital vessels often rescued fallen soldiers from swamps and rivers.17 The Sisters of the Holy Cross traveled on the Mississippi River aboard the Red Rover, collecting injured soldiers, caring for them aboard the ship and depositing them at hospitals in Memphis, Mound City and Cairo.18 The Red Rover attempted to reach Vicksburg, the “City of the Siege”; after witnessing a boat blockade and firing at Vicksburg, the Sisters helped “lift the bruised and broken soldiers from rivers of blood.”19

While secondary sources state that the Sisters of the Holy Cross were the forerunners of the
Navy Nurse Corps, the Navy Nurse Corps Association makes no mention of the Sisters on their website, nor does the U.S. Navy in their “Navy Medicine Commemorates Nurse Corps’ 105th Birthday.”20

Although the service of Sisters aboard the Red Rover can be substantiated, the claim that the Red Rover was the Navy’s first hospital ship cannot be. IHB now avoids the use of subjective and superlative terms such as ‘first,’ ‘best,’ and ‘most.’ Such claims are often not verifiable and/or require extensive qualification to be truly accurate.

For Further Information
The National Archives has records of the Adjutant General’s Office and the Surgeon General’s
Office that describe the role of female nurses in the Civil War and may contain information about the Sisters’ involvement. Peggy Brase Seigel describes on page 9 of She Went to War that “Alphabetical card files entitled ‘Hospital Attendants, Matrons and Nurses, 1861-1865’ record hospital assignments from muster rolls and payrolls. Records for Union military hospitals included in ‘Monthly Returns of Nurses, 1861-1865’ contain lists of women employed as nurses in military hospitals; and invalid pension applications filed either for women nurses or for their husbands yield invaluable biographical information for sixteen of Indiana’s Civil War nurses.”

Learn more about the nuns who served as nurses in the Civil War at www.CivilWarRx.com


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