By Ed Dybicz

This year commemorates the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. It is also a time to reflect on those who provided help and mercy. During the Rebellion, there were more than 600 nuns from 21 separate religious communities ministering to soldiers of both the North and the South, according to the United States Archives.

These sisters were willing helpers and looked after the welfare of their patients. They specified how the sick were to be treated, what food should be served, how the rooms should be cleaned and helped write letters for the wounded and dying. The sisters received no pay. These Catholic women were one of few groups that crossed the battle lines between Union and Confederate soldiers without ever being challenged. Their habit of dress was the only identification that was needed.{{more}}

Records show that before the Battle of Gettysburg, Major Gen. Oliver Otis Howard visited the Sisters of St. Joseph College where Major Gen. Carl Schurz, commander of the 3rd spanision, 11th Corps, located his headquarters. The nuns were employed in all areas of hospital work, whether it was at the battlefield hospital, aboard transports carrying the wounded or in general hospitals, of which 187 were located from the New England states to New Orleans.

Most of the nuns lived in convents in the North and South and their mission was to carry out works of charity and spiritual assistance. When the war came to their areas, they would leave their safe havens and go to the aid of the combatants. Many times they directly went to the battlefield to treat the maimed and wounded soldiers, many of whom lay suffering for hours and days after a battle.

Confederate surgeon Deering J. Roberts wrote: “The Roman Catholic Sisterhood took care of the nursing in many hospitals which were entirely under their charge.” Many nuns responded to President Lincoln’s call for help. Among them was Mother Frances Schervier, found of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, who came from Aachen, Germany, in 1845. The Sisters were stationed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1858 and established St. Mary’s Hospital.

In answer to the Union Army’s urgent call for aid Mother Schervier, accompanied by a band of volunteer sister nurses, immediately went to hospitals near the battlefields to aid the wounded. The sisters were recognized for their services by the Congress of the United States and by President Lincoln. Mother Schervier died in 1876.

Another interesting archive report is about the Sisters of Charity. One of them was Sister Mary Veronica Klimkiewicz, born in 1838 in Washington, D.C., of Polish immigrant parents. She became a nun in 1855 and responded with her order to assist the Union Army. At the Battle of Gettysburg she had an unusual experience. She was ministering to a soldier who apparently lay dying on the battlefield among the dead and wounded. As she washed the blood from his face, the features of her brother, a Union soldier, were revealed. She bound his wounds and had him taken to a field hospital where she nursed him back to health.

Archives show that Sister Veronica Klimkiewicz was a nun for 75 years. When she died in Baltimore in 1930, the United States ordered a military funeral with full honors for her. Also, her sister, Sister Mary Serenia Klimkiewicz, was a Civil War nurse and lived to celebrate her golden anniversary in the order.

Louisa M. Alcott, author of “Little Women,” who was a Civil War nurse and wrote for newspapers under “Hospital Sketches,” and Clara Barton, also a Civil War nurse who founded the National American Red Cross, praised the work of the nuns.

At the end of the war many of the nuns returned to their communities, but many more continued working with the infirm soldiers. For many of the Union and Confederate soldiers, according to their memoirs, the tender mercies of those Catholic sisters were never forgotten. Both the United States and the Confederate States honored the nuns for their works of mercy.

According to records, the United States in 1924 erected a monument at the corner of Rhode Island and Connecticut Avenues in Washington, D.C., to honor the sisters for their Civil War service.

Ed Dybicz is a historian from Swedesburg, Montgomery County.