Civil War Sisters Healing the Wounds of the Nation

January 29, 2015

By Grant Gerlich, archivist, Mercy Heritage Center

Douglas Hospital

Sister Mary Collette O’Connor stands on the front steps of Douglas Hospital (Washington, DC) with military and staff.

The Sisters of Mercy have a tradition of healing dating back to Catherine McAuley, who founded the order in 1831 in Dublin. Catherine gained knowledge of medical practices while caring for the Callahans, an elderly couple with whom Catherine lived. She also looked after her many nieces and nephews. Catherine’s experience in medical care was the basis for one of the notable ministries of Mercy: caring for and visiting the sick.

In 1843 the Sisters of Mercy first arrived in the United States, settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within four years they opened the first Mercy Hospital in the world. They soon established more communities across the county, operating hospitals and opening nursing schools as well.

When the Civil War broke out both sides were woefully unprepared for the flood of wounded and dying from the battlefields. Overwhelmed, medical personnel made makeshift hospitals in homes and tents. Many of the wounded lay outside in the elements waiting for medical care. These unsanitary conditions took their toll; infection and disease claimed the lives of many of the injured and infirmed.  

Ward K

Patients in Ward K of the Armory Hospital in Washington, DC. This proper hospital brought major improvements in caring for the wounded.

In addition to poor sanitary conditions there was a serious shortage in trained medical staff. Nursing was not a popular vocation for women at that time. The only trained nurses were women religious. Of the 640 Catholic sisters that served during the Civil War, 100 were Sisters of Mercy. As the only organized, experienced, and available nurses in the country, the sisters felt the urge to help.

The sisters’ actions included nursing the wounded, organizing housekeeping, cooking, distributing food, and providing laundry services. Often they risked death by tending to patients with contagious diseases. They cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike: officers and enlisted men, rich and poor, no matter their religion or heritage. Motivated by love of God, the Sisters of Mercy compassionately cared for the sick and prepared the dying for eternity.

Initially, the sisters faced anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudice, along with ignorance about their religious life. The sisters’ response was to go quietly about their duties with kindness and devotion. For the sister’s efforts, recovered soldiers left the hospital with gratitude and respect.

Visit the Exhibit!

To kick off the exhibit opening on January 31, Rex Hovey, the surgeon of the 13th North Carolina Regiment, will be on hand to discuss surgical practices of the period. He will have a variety of medical equipment on display including the surgical kit used by his great-uncle during his service in the Civil War. Other members of the 13th will show visitors weapons and equipment from the era. Additionally, Sister Paula Diann Marlin will portray Sister Mary Augustine MacKenna, who served as a nurse in hospitals in Beaufort and New Bern, North Carolina in 1862. This event is free and open to the public from 11 am to 4 pm. It offers a rare opportunity for Civil War enthusiasts and those interested in U.S. history to discover something new.

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  1. anne connolly

    it is indeed true that we have a “glorious history to remember.” and equally true of the “great history to be accomplished!”


  2. Sr. Paula Diann Marlin, RSM

    I am looking forward to this exciting event which is a small step in the development of a Heritage Center Museum that will eventually tell the story of the Sisters of Mercy in the Americas. It is important that we pause and look back at the Sister pioneers who set high standards in carrying out Catherine McAuley’s vision and charism as we celebrate this Year of Consecrated Life.


  3. Marianne Postiglione, RSM

    Most impressive! Often the RSM’s get short shrift in certain historical accounts not, I think because of malicious intent, but perhaps lack of good research. I’m so glad this exhibit will contribute to the full account of Sisters of Mercy during the Civil War.


  4. marianne comfort

    I’ve heard before about Mercy Sisters nursing soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, but thanks for making it more real with these details. And it’s wonderful to know that that Mercy commitment to care for persons in need no matter who they are, continues to this day.


  5. Mary Jo Balya Zappone

    I graduated from St. Xavier Academy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, taught by the Sisters of Mercy. The sisters’ cemetery was behind the school and on every Memorial day, the local VFW would come to honor the sisters buried there, who were veterans of the Civil War. As students we had to be there to sing a few songs during the ceremony, but thought it was just an interference in our day off school. The school buildings are no longer standing, but the cemetery remains and I have visited a few time in recent years, when I was back in Pa. On one occasion there were still flags on the graves of the sisters who had served, so I guess the VFW still recognizes them, without our youthful voices. It actually made me proud to know that we had the opportunity to honor these courageous women, though as teenagers, we didn’t appreciate it. The sisters are an important part of the history of our country. I wish I could attend the exhibition. God bless all the Sisters of Mercy.

  6. Pingback: Civil War Hospitals in Washington DC | History of American Women