The Sisters of Charity in the Civil War
The Love of Christ Urges Us
S. Anthony O'Connell
On my return or first trip to Shiloh, I was accompanied by two other Sisters, Dr. Blackman, Hon. Mr. Hatch and daughter, Miss M. Hughes, Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, and several other ladies of Cincinnati. These trips to Shiloh were made on the boat of Captain Ross under the care of Sergeant Blackman. After the war this gentleman was on the medical staff of the Good Samaritan Hospital and continued to be ever the kind friend to the Sisters that he was during the war. Whilst at Shiloh we were often obliged to move further up the river owing to the terrible stench from the dead bodies on the battlefield, but what we endured on the field of battle whilst gathering up the wounded from among the dead is simply beyond description. At one time there were seven-hundred of these poor creatures crowded into one boat. We did the best we could under the circumstances to make the poor fellows comfortable and attend to their wounds.
Arriving in Cincinnati the convalescent were discharged, some returning to the scene of war, others going to their own homes, and the remainder were placed in the Good Samaritan Hospital. The Sisters of Charity went to the war as nurses, but it sometimes fell to their lot to be assistant surgeons.
After the Battle of Shiloh the young surgeons were off on a kind of lark, as they called it, to prevent blue mol. I became Dr. Blackman’s assistant in the surgical operations. He expressed himself well pleased with the manner in which I performed this duty, and indeed, I was well pleased to be able to alleviate in any degree the sufferings of these heroic souls.
The soldiers, officers and privates alike were extremely kind to one another. They went about the battlefield giving what assistance they could, placing the wounded in comfortable places, administering cordials, etc. until such times as the nurses could attend to them. One poor fellow whose nose had been shot entirely off, and was nearly missed, and when found, was placed in a hog-pen, the only place of shelter and repose remaining. Before he could be brought to the boat, he had lost blood enough, one would think, to cause death; his clothes were saturated, the blood had even reached his boots.
He became my patient on the boat, but upon our arrival in Cincinnati was placed in the Hospital. Some time later an old gentleman came to the Burnett House, used at that time as a Military Hospital, looking for his son, whom he had traced to this Hospital. Of course I did not know them by name, but offered to take the afflicted father through the wards. I thought from the description given by this man that my poor boy without the nose was the one he sought.
When we reached this young man he was asleep, and so changed was he that his own father did not recognize him. Well, said he, “If he is mine I will know by a scar on his head,” saying this, he ran his fingers through his hair, exclaiming, “My son, my son!” Soon father and son were locked in a fond embrace. He took his darling back with him to his home. He returned to Cincinnati after the wound was entirely healed and had the nose replaced by an artificial one.
Another victim of the Battle of Shiloh was a young fellow dangerously wounded in the neck. Sr. DeSales spoke to him of the good God, the salvation of his soul and eternity, and was astonished to find that he did not know God, had never heard of Him, but expressed a desire to become acquainted with Him. Sister gave him all the instruction he was capable of receiving; as there was no priest convenient, she baptized him and soon his soul took its flight to the bosom of that God, whom he so lately learned to know and love.
Many, whom we thought to be dying, recovered upon receiving the proper attention. The battlefield of Shiloh presented the most frightful and disgusting sights that it was ever my lot to witness. After our work at Shiloh was finished, we followed the army to Corinth, where the rebels had retreated, leaving the houses, fences, etc., plackarded with their farewells in derision to our soldiers. During this journey we were often amused at the sayings of the soldiers.
On our last trip from Shiloh we were stopped at Louisville by the shoals, and our boats were crowded. There were, at least, seven-hundred aboard. The captain informed us that we would be obliged to leave the boat if we wished to live, but none would think of doing so. All expressed their willingness, their determination to remain. Hon. Dr. Holmes, seeing our determination to remain, said, “Since you, weak women, display such courage, I too will remain.” We fell upon our knees, and prayed our Blessed Lady, Star of the Sea, to guide our bark. We received the aid of an expert pilot from Louisville. Both pilots worked bravely. Those who had left us, fearing a watery grave, rejoined us, and we again started for “Home Sweet Home.”
Sister Anthony O’Connell
To read more transcriptions of first-person journals, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati have published “The Sisters of Charity in the Civil War: The Love of Christ Urges Us”. The 52-page publication chronicles the places SCs served on battlefields, in field and military hospitals, in army camps, and on floating hospitals throughout the duration of the four-year war. More information can be found at www.srcharitycinti.org/resources/publications.htm.