You can’t read about the Civil War without considering the casualties: more than a million combined on both sides, including more than 600,000 dead. This week marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most staggeringly bloody, useless battles in the conflict: Cold Harbor. While the entire engagement lasted two weeks, the most important sequence in it, the Union frontal assault, occurred on June 3, 1864.
How bad was it? To say that approximately 6,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in less than an hour hardly conveys the horror of it. Ulysses Grant’s comment on it in his Personal Memoirs is terse and telling: he had “always regretted that the…assault was ever made.” The Lincoln administration had to squelch the full extent of the losses. Just imagine similar killing fields, spread out over four years.
Clara Barton is the best-known nurse in the conflict, but a memorial in Washington honors a group of other "angels of the battlefield" who have fallen into comparative obscurity. This past November, I came across the Civil War Nurses Memorial on my way to another landmark: St. Matthew’s Cathedral, site of the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Most visitors think of this spot, I would bet, by another name: The Nuns of the Battlefield.
At best before the outbreak of the Civil War, many Protestants had regarded nuns in their black habits as exotic creatures, objects of curiosity; at worst, they were seen as part of an immigrant Catholic vanguard that would overthrow hard-won institutions of freedom. Many American Catholics could not have felt that matters had improved appreciably by 1924, when the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians dedicated this tribute “To the memory and in honor of the various orders of Sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and hospitals during the Civil War.”
This, after all, was not only the year when the rural base of the Democratic Party had battled for more than 100 ballots to deny Al Smith the nomination of the Democratic National convention, but when many politicians openly courted the Ku Klux Klan.
It takes an indomitable will to surmount such a wall of hate. The nearly 600 Roman Catholic nuns who served in military hospitals in the Civil War—roughly one out of six of all female nurses during the war—possessed that in abundance.
One remarkable example of that was Mother Augustine MacKenna of the Sisters of Mercy. Those who encountered her for the first time were astonished by an ease of command so natural that she thought nothing of ordering from rough-and-ready Union officers all manner of equipment to help deal with the wounded and dying. If you didn’t guess she was tough after reading her long list of requested supplies, then you would surely do so after learning she had been educated in Ireland’s outdoor, secret “hedge schools,” or that this tall woman was, as she put it, “the daughter of an Irish giant.”
Mother MacKenna was lucky to have the support of the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. George A. Hammond. In turn, Hammond was, crucially, backed by his boss, President Abraham Lincoln, who would later recall:
“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were among the most efficient….As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy.”
Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, by John F. Fialka, devotes a chapter of his fine history to these remarkable women. But I also urge you, if you can, not only to read his account but to seek out the Civil War Nurses Memorial on M St and Rhode Island Ave. The bronze statue by Jerome Connor is not larger than life, but then again, it didn’t have to be: the determination and self-sacrifice of these women were remarkable in and of themselves.
(Thanks to my friend Peggy, who lent me Fialka’s history of Catholic nuns in America—and, in that way, illuminated for me this astonishing Civil War tale.)