The Immigrant Women Who Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

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Today, nurses make up the largest healthcare occupation in the United States. As of 2003, 92% of Registered Nurses were women. It may be hard to imagine, but at the outbreak of the Civil War there were almost no professional nurses and women were virtually excluded from all healthcare professions, including nursing. Catholic orders of nursing sisters, founded in Europe and brought to the United States by immigrants in the decades before the Civil War, began to change that.1

Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade was an early beneficiary of this innovation. After being seriously wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg, he was brought by the Sisters of Mercy to a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington. When he arrived there after days of suffering, McCarter recalled years later, the nuns provided him with his “first good dinner” since his regiment, the 116th Pennsylvania, had left Philadelphia months before. The food, whose savor lingered in the soldier’s memory across the decades, included “plenty of…chicken, buttered bread, hot coffee and mince pie.”2

During the two months he was in the hospital, McCarter wrote that he was kept “extremely cozy and comfortable,” and that the food he received “far surpassed anything in the way of good living that I ever experienced in America before or after.”3

william-mccarter-thumb

William McCarter.

It was the unceasing concern of the Sisters that most impressed the young McCarter. “I shall never forget the motherly attention shown me personally by one of the good Sisters of Mercy,” he wrote of a nurse who came to care for him several times a day. “Had she been my own sister, she could not have done more to promote my comfort and happiness,” he said. What amazed McCarter was that she formed the same caring relationship with each of the men under her care. Contradicting the male medical establishment of the day which viewed women as too insipid to undertake the nursing of the wounded, McCarter wrote of his nurse “God bless her and women’s blessed influences.”4

It was not only the good Sisters who looked after the wounded of Fredericksburg.

Abraham Lincoln did not allow himself to view the suffering of the war as an abstraction. He not only visited the troops in the field, he also interrupted his schedule to meet with the men in the hospitals around Washington. Even after a disaster like Fredericksburg, a personal humiliation to him, he attended to the wounded men. Many soldiers’ memoirs recall meeting the president while they were hospitalized. William McCarter remembered the president’s “quiet pleasing manner” when Lincoln made a brief visit with the immigrant soldier to find out if he was “comfortable and getting along.”5

William McCarter left the Sisters of Mercy and President Lincoln behind when he was moved to a hospital in Philadelphia. In his new quarters his wound “made no progress of healing” and the “pain refused to abate.”  Perhaps worse than the physical suffering were times when, he wrote,  “my mind reverted to Fredericksburg’s bloody field” and he mentally experienced his own narrow “escape from death.” Even the fact that his family could now visit him was a mixed blessing. He was a physically diminished man now with a future of painful half-recovery. He saw his wife for the first time in months, but described it as a “heartbreaking reunion.”6

McCarter’s health was not improved by the quality of care he received at the Philadelphia hospital. No longer under the authority of the nuns, McCarter complained that “nothing whatever was done for my wound.” The staff members of the Philadelphia hospital were badly managed and they neglected their duties. The non-professional and undisciplined nurses there treated the patients in a “rough manner” and did not even keep the hospital clean.7

McCarter was discharged from the army in May of 1863 as an invalid. His recovery was slow. For four years he was in pain from his injury and during that time seventeen more pieces of shattered bone worked their way out of the oozing wound. The limp arm at his side made him relive “the storm of that tremendous day” at Fredericksburg over and over.  He would eventually regain the partial use of his wounded arm but his mind would remain afflicted.8

William McCarter was approximately 22 when he joined the Union army’s 116th Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was perhaps 23 when he was disabled at Fredericksburg. His young wife Annie, his support during his recovery, died when he was thirty. Strangely, in his early forties, McCarter moved to Fredericksburg for nearly a year. The battle clearly haunted him for his entire life. Thirty years after the fight, he received a disability pension because the damage done to him kept him from sleeping and diminished his ability to earn a living.9

In answer to the question of why he, an immigrant, had joined the army, McCarter said that:

I owed my life to my whole adopted country, not the North nor the South…but the Union, one and inseparable…its generous…people ever ready to welcome and extend the hand of friendship to the downtrodden and oppressed of every…people. My full determination was to assist in any way that I could to prevent the Union’s dissolution…

Like so many other immigrant soldiers, William McCarter would carry his physical and emotional wounds with him till his death, as well as his sense of having served a country he loved while understanding that its people had more ambiguous feelings about him and “his kind.”10

Video: African Americans and Women Surgeons During the Civil War

Sources

1. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996); Say Little, Do Much: Nursing, Nuns, and Hospitals in the 19th Century by Sioban Nelson published University of Pennsylvania Press (2001); Report U.S. Department. Although based on demographics it is highly likely that most of the nuns who cared for McCarter were immigrants, he never indicates any of their places of birth.
2. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 2967..
3. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3020.
4. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3042.
5. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3037.
6. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3075-3077.
7. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3082.
8. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3110-3114.
9. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996).
10. My Life in the Irish Brigade: The Civil War Memoirs of Private William McCarter, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry edited by Kevin E. O’Brien published by De Kapo Press (1996) Kindle Location 3098.

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

 

Cultural

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Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War


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