Sisters of Charity (NY) and the Civil War

by | Apr 4, 2014 | Vincentian Family

scny-sealSr. Mary McCormick, SC, gave a presentation on the Sisters of Charity of New York who served as Civil War nurses. It was part of a panel, “A City At War: New York’s Catholics and the American Civil War, 1860-1865,” held at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, Riverdale, NY, on March 24.

Sisters of Charity of NY and Their Role in the Civil War  – Sister Mary Mc Cormick, SC

When the Civil War broke out the Union and Confederacy were prepared to fight, but they weren’t prepared to care for those who were wounded.

There were only 130 Union Army surgeons and assistants when the war began; there was no Confederate medical department at all until 1862.

And while there were many women who volunteered to care for the soldiers, the few with any real nursing experience were Catholic sisters.

The New York Sisters of Charity are counted among their number.

By 1860, Sisters, including New York Sisters of Charity, had started and staffed 28 Catholic hospitals. They had the experience of caring for hospital patients few others had.

When war broke out, there were about 9,000 Sisters in the US, in about 23 different religious communities. Many Sisters had come from Europe to serve families from their own countries that had come seeking a better life.

However, there were several communities that had been started right here, including the Sisters of Charity, the first American community, founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809.

In 1817 Elizabeth Seton sent sisters to NY to care for orphans, and educate girls in free schools and academies.

Thirty years later, in 1847, 33 of the sisters missioned in NY formed an independent community, the Sisters of Charity of NY. They built a motherhouse and an academy on property they had purchased near what would become Fifth Avenue and 106th Street.  More schools, orphanages and academies were built to accommodate the growing number of Catholics in NY.

And in 1849, the sisters built St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan that would become in time the flagship of the Catholic health system in NY.

The Sisters were in their new motherhouse for fewer than 10 years when the City Fathers decided to create a park, Central Park, to serve as an open space for the citizens of this growing city.

Part of the park included the area where the Sisters had built their motherhouse, and so the community was forced to relocate. This is when they went to Riverdale, to property they bought from Edwin Forrest, the Shakespearean actor.

But – no surprise- the creation of the park was delayed and the Sisters’ former home was left to deteriorate from lack of care.

By 1860 the NY community had grown from 33 to 200. When the war began, August 12, 1861, many of them -about half, we are told – volunteered to care for wounded and dying soldiers wherever they could be used. Their canonical superior, Archbishop John Hughes, would not, however, give them permission to leave NY: they were needed here, he told them, as indeed they were. They went about their assigned ministries as usual.

Neither Union nor Confederate expected the war to last beyond a few months. In actuality, it dragged on for four years, ending on April 9, 1865. Over 600,000 men died in the war; 400,000 of these were from diseases rather than bullets.

Conditions on the battlefields, most of them in the South, were horrendous. Wounded soldiers were left on the field sometimes for days, with no shelter, little food or water, and scant medical attention. Military hospitals proved inadequate to care for those in need of care.

In 1862 President Lincoln, desperate for medical help for his soldiers, recalled the compassionate nursing provided during the recent Crimean War by the Daughters of Charity and the Irish Sisters of Mercy who worked with Florence Nightingale. He asked for 500 Catholic religious to take charge of army hospitals.

All told, between six and nine hundred Sisters from 12 different communities responded to his request. (Of this number, about 300 were Daughters of Charity from Emmitsburg.) They provided nursing services on the battlefields, on hospital ships, as well as in military hospitals.

They took care of both Union and Confederate soldiers without discrimination.

Though no fighting took place in NY, the need to care for returning wounded soldiers was acute.

A group of Central Park Commissioners suggested to the New York City Council that they open a military hospital in the buildings of the old Mount Saint Vincent. An alderman, Terence Farley, proposed that the Sisters of Charity be invited to staff the hospital in their old motherhouse.

The War Department accepted the offer with gratitude since it provided experienced personnel and accommodations for two hundred and fifty patients.

The Archbishop acquiesced.

On October28, 1862, the doors of St. Joseph’s Military Hospital were open, and fifteen Sisters of Charity were on hand to meet the first 120 arrivals. They were New Yorkers for the most part, shipped up by train from battlefield hospitals and still in need of special care. Only one was a Catholic.

The original plan was to restrict admission to patients who had suffered amputations. But soon enough isolation tents were erected on the grounds for those with contagious cases. Though most men were wounded and in need of surgery, others were ill with TB, rheumatic fever, and dysentery, diseases that weakened the morale of the fighting men more effectively than a barrage of gunpowder…

In addition to the Sisters, four surgeons from St. Vincent’s also provided pro bono services at the hospital.

Sister Mary Ulrica O’Reilly, the superior of the community, and the sisters who had been sent on mission with her, used all the skills they had acquired during their years taking care of orphan children, the elderly, and patients at St. Vincent’s. They did the housekeeping chores, distributed supplies, dressed wounds, dispensed medication, kept patients clean and fed, and occasionally assisted the surgeons with amputations and other medical procedures.

Sources note that women religious were preferred by the Surgeon General and many generals and commanders because they were the only women with hospital and administrative experience, knew how to follow orders, worked quietly, did not complain about the food or accommodations, and did not waste time consorting with the soldiers!

(I must tell you, though, that one soldier offered to buy a black satin dress for the sister nurse who had been so kind to him during his stay at St. Joseph’s Military Hospital. His kind offer was refused…)

Some Sisters died as a result of sickness contracted during their service, including one NY Charity, Sister Mary Prudentia Bradley, a novice, who pronounced her vows on her deathbed at St. Joseph’s.

While there was an unspoken ban against proselytizing, Sisters also provided spiritual comfort, encouraged the dying to seek God’s forgiveness, baptized those who wished it, and prepared the dead for religious burial.

When the war was finally over, the Sisters continued their services at the hospital until the last patient was discharged.

Years after the war, Surgeon General Charles Mc Dougall was known to say that of the five military hospitals under his supervision, St. Joseph’s was the only one that never gave him any trouble because, as he said, ‘peace reigned there.’

Some stories from our tradition:

In July, 1863, riots broke out in NYC to protest the draft that unfairly discriminated against the poor, predominantly Irish, men who could not afford the $300 that would relieve them of the duty of serving. They went on a rampage in NYC, killing, looting, and destroying property. It was understood that a contingent was marching on St. Joseph’s to burn it to the ground. The General in charge ordered the Sisters to leave before the rioters arrived, but, speaking on their behalf, Sister Ulrica refused. Moreover, she went out to meet the men as they marched along the road to the hospital. We do not know if she said anything at all, but the sight of this Sister, all alone, was enough to turn the men around and leave the hospital intact. No damage was done that day, or any day thereafter.

The same Sister Ulrica asked for and received permission to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for the wounded patients. She apparently pulled out all the stops, spending far more on this one meal than would be spent on food for the rest of that quarter. She was reprimanded, and told that she was never to even think about doing it again. (We have the letter she was given…) But the men had a dinner that day they would never forget!

There was a tower room in the hospital that the Sisters used for the younger boys who had been wounded- the buglers, flag-bearers, drummers. They felt that, away from the older, more battle-hardened men, the boys would be able to cry for their mothers without being laughed at. One of the Sisters used to bring plates of homemade cookies and candy to them each night, and play on her guitar, singing them to sleep. She was known to those boys as ‘the Irish nightingale.’

Afterwards, the NY Sisters opened new ministries as a result of needs created by the war, including a Protectorate for the care of potential and actual juvenile delinquents; a hospital, St. Mary’s Female Hospital in Brooklyn, providing free care for mothers of families; and The NY Foundling Hospital, opened in 1869 for the care of abandoned children. Its most recent initiative is the Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center, home to 137 medically fragile children, located in Yonkers, NY.

The Sister Nurses of the Civil war were recognized when a memorial – Nuns of the Battlefield – was erected in Washington, DC in 1924 by the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, by order of the Congress of the United States.

The Army also erected special headstones for the Sisters who had served during the Civil War. Five of these headstones were erected to honor the services rendered by the NY Sisters of Charity in their cemetery located on the grounds of Mount Saint Vincent, Riverdale.


(Material adapted from The Sisters of Charity of New York, 1809-1959 by Sister Marie de Lourdes Walsh, SC; presented at the panel, “A City at War: New York Catholics and the American Civil War, 1860-1865,” March 25, 2014, College of Mount Saint Vincent, Riverdale, NY,   sponsored by the College and the Sisters of Charity of New York)


The panel was one of three events in the series, “Conflict and Compassion: the Civil War, Sisters of Charity, and New York’s Catholics,” held at the College to honor the Sister-nurses during Women’s History Month.

The series was sponsored by the College of Mount Saint Vincent and the Sisters of Charity of New York.

The SCNY Facebook page has a post about one of the other events, a dramatic/musical presentation.