Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

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Nursing Nuns, many of whom were immigrants, played an important role in hospital care.

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The Confederate medical disaster in the aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh resulted in many deaths from neglect of the wounded according to Scottish immigrant nurse Kate Cumming. Even the upper-class women who volunteered to help at the hospitals often only contributed to the disorder. Many of them stayed only briefly, and some seemed more concerned with their personal property than with the men they cared for. 1

Cumming watched one group of women head home after only a couple of weeks of working; “This morning, while the ladies were preparing to leave, as their goods and chattels were all mislaid, much noise prevailed in finding them. I was annoyed, as I knew that many of the wounded were within hearing.” Cumming said that their behavior convinced her that “it was not strange that surgeons should prefer to have Sisters of Charity to nurse their sick.” 2

hospitalsHospitals had to care for men long after the moment of their wounding.

The Sisters of Charity are an order of Catholic religious sisters, of nuns, that began to send nurses to care for the Civil War wounded of both sides from the early days of the war. These nursing nuns were disproportionately immigrants from Ireland, Germany and France.3

Cumming, who had seen the worst disorder in the Confederate hospitals sent up at Corinth after the fighting at Shiloh, visited many of the make-shift hospitals filled with thousands of patients. The only one that reassured her was College Hospital. Cumming wrote “When we arrived at the hospital, we were charmed with the cleanliness and neatness visible on every side. The Sisters of Charity have charge of the domestic part, and, as usual with them, everything is parfait. We were received very kindly by them. One was a friend of Mrs. G. She took us through the hospital. The grounds are very neatly laid out.”4

Kate Cumming was impressed by the work of the Sisters, but she was far from the only one. Many doctors preferred the Sisters as nurses because they were disciplined and hardworking. North and South, nursing nuns made up a significant, if too often forgotten, part of the medical corps.5

Jane Schultz, a leading expert on Civil War nurses, warns that because most of the Southern women who published books about their nursing experiences after the war, historians concluded, “perhaps too hastily, that elite Southern women made up a significant percentage of all Confederate female hospital workers.” In fact, in both the Union and Confederate armies, immigrants and African Americans were heavily represented among nurses, matrons, cooks, and laundresses.6

According to Union Army records, there were 6,284 women serving as nurses during the war. Contrary to popular belief, only 6% of these were appointed by the notorious Dorothea Dix, who refused to employ black women and discriminated against Catholics. Several hundred black women were hired as nurses outside of Dix’s purview. 250 Catholic Sisters of Charity also served in the hospital nursing corps as did approximately 200 Sisters from other orders. 7

The nuns became key components in military medical care just after the great anti-immigrant Know Nothing surge of the 1850s. Catholic convents had been a particular target of Know Nothing broadsides. Viewed as secretive brothels for priests, the convents themselves were sometimes targeted for physical attack. Catholic Sisters knew that they were representing a discriminated minority under scrutiny by White Nativist America. 8

Some groups of nursing nuns showed their selflessness by not accepting even the meagre pay offered to women by the army. Historian Jane Schultz has written of a group of twenty-three Sisters of Charity who ran a Louisville hospital without compensation.9

Religious Sisters also had an inherent advantage over their lay peers. Women who volunteered to nurse often did so over the objections of their families, who saw them as defying female norms. They arrived in a hostile environment where male doctors often dismissed their skills and intelligence. They typically had no female friends from home with them and had to build intra-gender relationships with people they did not know before these times of traumatic stress. Subject to sexual harassment by doctors and officers, they had no networks to turn to, or systems of female support.10

Nuns came in groups from existing convents. They worked beside other sisters they had lived with in community before the war. If they encountered problems in the field or hospital, they could appeal to the women in their order to use their influence with the government for correctives. Nuns, ironically, were often less isolated than the lay women nurses adrift in a sea of men. 11

nuns-markerMemorial to Sisters of Providence who helped organize a hospital for the wounded in Indianapolis. One patient told a reporter that “next to home it was the sweetest, quietest spot he had ever found.”

Many of the women who nursed during the war had a strong ideological commitment to the side they were working for. Kate Cumming, for example, was a dedicated Confederate before she became a nurse. Some of these women refused to care for enemy prisoners. Catholic Sisters, on the other hand, insisted that they be allowed to care for the wounded of both sides. This sometimes led them into conflicts with the officers in charge of the hospitals where they worked. In one case, a Union surgeon ordered Sisters in Maryland not to treat four hundred Confederates they were aiding. This was the only thing that could keep them from their mission of humanitarian care.12

Nuns were also known for nursing patients whom no one else would attend to. The majority of Civil War soldiers who died during the war were killed by diseases, not bullets. While a nurse could be relatively safe treating a man taken off a battlefield, she faced illness and death if she served a patient with a contagious disease. Sisters were particularly appreciated by the men for their willingness to bathe and feed smallpox victims and others with deadly diseases. Sisters died in places as diverse as Memphis, Philadelphia, Paducah, Washington, and Point Lookout from the contagions passed on by the men they were aiding. 13

In the South, where respectable woman risked having suspicions raised about their chastity if they served as nurses, Catholic Sisters became so revered that they were held to be without blemish doing the same work prohibited to laywomen. This created a double standard, according to Jane Schultz, in which Southern men did not disparage the nuns whom they had once viewed as sexually suspect, while they impugned the morals of lay women nurses. Kate Cumming, who greatly appreciated the work of the Sisters, wrote that “it seems strange that [Catholic Sisters] can do with honor what is wrong for other Christian women to do.” The rules of patriarchy bent for the Sisters but not for women from the native-born Protestant elite.14

The relative freedom the Sisters enjoyed from immediate male control prompted envy among some Nativist nurses. Some also looked askance at the daily devotions the nuns were allowed to take time off from work to perform. According to historian Jane Schultz, “National anti-Catholic prejudice…did little to raise the sisters in the esteem of laywomen.” She writes that it hurt the pride of “Protestant women that so many surgeons had gone on the record preferring the services of nuns-many of whom were immigrants-to the native-born.”15

Video: Comparing the Union and Confederate Medical Systems

Resource: Excerpts from Kate Cumming Journal after Battle of Chickamauga.

Note: I use the terms “Nun” and “Sister” interchangeably because that is common usage in the United States.

Sources:
1. A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War by Kate Cumming (1866);Georgia Encyclopedia ; Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004);  Say Little, Do Much: Nursing, Nuns, and Hospitals in the 19th Century by Sioban Nelson published University of Pennsylvania Press (2001)
2. A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War by Kate Cumming (1866) Kindle Location 369
3.
4. A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War by Kate Cumming (1866) Kindle Location 432-439
5. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004)
6. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 296-305
7. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 301-314
8. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004)
9. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 498-500
10. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004)
11. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004)
12. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004)  Kindle Location 916-920.
13. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 1000-1004
14. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 580-585
15. Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America Kindle Edition by Jane E. Schultz published by University of North Carolina Press (2004) Kindle Location 1190-1196

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

164. Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

 

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