Parish letter May 3rd
Good Morning, Good Morning,
This letter is dedicated to all the women of the parish who have served in the armed services. For those who have gone to war. For those who suffered through the wars. We look at the Nuns who went to war in Gettysburg. They may have been one of the early examples of combat nurses.
Richard H. Hall has addressed the stories of women going to serve in the Civil War in a number of books and many articles on the subject. After review of many of the letters and diaries of the time he believes the numbers of women in the war effort, on the actual battlefield was much higher than the four hundred estimated by other historians. The women served in all three segments of the war effort: infantry, cavalry, artillery. Who were they? Why did they go? Where did they go?
The women who went to war covered all aspects of the human landscape in the nineteenth century. Many disguised themselves as men, or young boys. There were no physicals in the application process at that time. Some were country girls who could shoot and actually carry a twenty pound gun great distances. They were hunters by need, in order to feed their families. Some were well educated and wanted to step into the adventure of a lifetime… until they lost a limb. Others were off the boat from the European countries and wanted to help those in need. They had no other place to go.
The reasons for going to war were fairly simple. Patriotism. They went for love, to join their husbands. Money was another reason, as they had no means of support if left behind. As mentioned above they went for the adventure thinking it would be a short skirmish. And lastly to good hearted and decent ladies who wanted to assist the suffering and dying… they were the nuns.
Sometime ago Marilyn Lee wrote and indicated that I never mentioned the sisters in my Parish Letters. So, this is my second Parish Letter on the religious and addresses the religious of Emmitsburg who went to the battlefield of Gettysburg. The bloodiest three days of the Civil War that all started with a couple of Southern soldiers, foolish kids, who wanted to buy some shoes for themselves.
In the early battles of the Civil War women originally served as decorative additions to the troops, leading them with bonnets with feathers. When the shooting started they became combatants by necessity. Clara Barton served as nurse. She would be one of the most celebrated nurses in military history with many stories to tell…
“Clara Barton, whose fame spread across the country and around the world, was caring for wounded soldiers during the battle of Antietam in 1862. While giving one soldier a drink of water, a bullet tore through her sleeve and killed him. Later Barton observed that another soldier’s face appeared to be “too soft,” and she became suspicious when the soldier was hesitant to have his chest wound treated.
The soldier turned out to be a woman named Mary Galloway who had enlisted to be with her husband. “She [Barton] shepherded and shielded the girl, and subsequently located her lover in a Washington hospital.” Later Barton reported that the couple had named a daughter after her.
“Following the Battle of Manassas Clara Barton set up a field hospital at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia. The little church was built only a few years before the Civil War began and is still active in the large parish of St. Mary of Sorrows. As a point of interest, it also served as part of the “Underground Railroad” for slaves escaping from their owners. The hiding space is located beneath the main altar.
Professor Hall also addressed the work of the sisters. The records of Catholic orders include reports of female soldiers discovered in hospitals. One chronicler of Catholic orders reports that Catholic sisters were especially given two unusual duties: acting as peacemakers between quarreling soldiers, and attending to female soldiers who often were first discovered when wounded or sick.
In hospitals where there were sisters, such cases were assigned to them and several different communities of sisters noted their care of such women.
Margaret Hamilton, a Catholic sister from New York State, reported that while serving at the U.S. Military Hospital in Philadelphia–
“We received a large number of wounded after the battle of the Wilderness [May 5-7, 1864], and among them was a young woman not more than twenty years of age. She ranked as lieutenant. She was wounded in the shoulder, and her sex was not discovered until she came to our hospital. It appeared that she had followed her lover to the battle; and the boys who were brought in with her said that no one in the company showed more bravery than she. She was discharged very soon after entering the ward.”
Daughters of Charity at Gettsyburg
The Daughters of Charity, religious, fed the troops of both Armies transitioning through the area of their convent in Emmitsburg Maryland. The Union Army, under General Oliver Otis Howard, took over the rectory of St. Joseph’s Church in Emmitsburg. General Howard would later help to found Howard University in Washington, DC.
The priests of St. Joseph’s described how the battle started from their rectory.
“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!”
To this day there are houses on the battlefield who took care of the wounded. The blood-stained floors are still evident to those currently living in those makeshift hospitals.
Thus the scenario of the battle established. We look onto the sisters who went to the battle on the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The priest and the sisters went to the Gettysburg the day after the three-day battle ended. The wounded crowded the churches and hotels in town. “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.”
The military field hospital of Philadelphia was larger than the four city hospitals combined. The wounded came great distances by the trains. In some cases it took a great deal of time because of the number of casualties.
In closing this letter I want to tell the love story of the missing nun. Sometime before the war young Mary Catherine Hewitt, a governess from Oswego, New York was returning by train from her duties in California. She met a military officer named General John F. Reynolds, coming home to take charge of West Point. They fell in love and intended marriage but decided to hold off until after the coming battle in Gettysburg. (A month before the Battle in Gettysburg he may have been offered command of the Army of the Potomac by President Lincoln. He graciously declined so he could stay with his troops.)
He gave her his West Point ring and she offered him a religious medal and a ring that he wore around his neck. She made a promise to enter the convent if he was killed in the battle. He died in the battle and she entered the Daughters of Charity and served as a teacher for five years before succumbing to a terrible illness and was forced to withdraw from the community… never to be seen again. Neither the Reynold’s family nor persistent historians were ever able to find her.
A note from outside the box. The 11th New York Infantry was an interesting collective of New York volunteers for the Northern Army, serving in the Civil War. Their uniforms had a bright red blouse.
The uniform was made by youngsters at a Catholic orphanage in New York. The sisters had the kids sew a miraculous medal in the lining of each jacket. The 11th was the first to hold Southern territory when the Civil War began. They took over Alexandria, Virginia. They also fought in the Battle of Manassas. A replica of the uniform can be found in the Visitor Center on the Battlefield of Manassas.
And now the rest of the story. The grandnephew of one of the nuns at the orphanage became a bishop and served in the US Military Ordinariate. His name was Bishop John Gavin Nolan. He relayed the story to me about the orphans. On one occasion when I served as Bishop Nolan’s MC (Master of Ceremonies) for a Confirmation ceremony we stopped in to see the uniform hanging in the visitor center in Manassas.
Let us pray for one another.