During Civil War, Catholic Sisters Were Angels Of Mercy

Sisters Treated Sick, Wounded Soldiers From Both Sides


By Maurice L. Searcy - 2000

A war correspondent for the New York Tribune accompanied a division of the Union Army from Ohio during the Civil War. Henry Villiard arrived on the Perryville Battlefield the day after the engagement on October 9, 1862. He discovered a horrible sight of approximately 100 hogs "making a sickening feast" from the corpses of dead soldiers.

Hambleton Tapp's recollections also portrayed war's catastrophic impact on Kentucky. He recorded scenes of mangled bodies, massive damage to homes and barns, and physicians such as J. P. Hughes amputating limbs, which would form small hills. Such butchery, combined with the death of men from illnesses, revealed to humanity that war was not romantic. The darker side of mortal man was too often exposed with misdeeds by such soldier/outlaws as William Quantrill, who was killed in Kentucky by a Federal patrol, and the vicious Sue Mundy.

Yet in the midst of the darkness, acts of compassion, courage, and selfless resolve eased much of the suffering. A letter written by L. R. Lewis of Lynnville, Kentucky in 1862 to Catholic Bishop Richard Whelen of West Virginia reflected the spirit of many Kentuckians. He wrote, "So many are suffering and giving their lives for liberty. The people are all bound together in a brotherhood. They are courageous, sacrificing, giving up sheltered homes to care for the wounded. They have not lost humanity, nor Christian civilization by contact with the enemy."


Mother Columba Carroll exhibited both great compassion and administrative skills for the Convent and Academy during the Civil War. Leaders from both the Union and Confederate sides honored her. (Courtesy of SCN Archives)

Bishop Martin Spalding of the Louisville Catholic Diocese responded to the needs of Civil War casualties. He wrote Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati about the acute need for chaplains and nurses at the Louisville hospitals. Spalding issued a call for the Sisters of Charity at Nazareth, Kentucky to serve as nurses. Mother Columbia Carroll agreed, and the Sisters immediately complied.

In the spring of 1861 Union commander Robert Anderson gladly accepted this offer of help. Anderson gave clear directives that all Federal staff were to fully cooperate with the Sisters of Charity, meet their requests for medical supplies, and even make arrangements for them to attend Mass. Four improvised hospitals were set up from the A. G. Munn Factory at 9th and Broadway, the Avery Plow Works at 15th and Main Street, the Planters Hotel at 8th and Main, and at another warehouse. Many hundreds of sick and wounded combatants from both sides, including Confederate prisoners, were placed under the Sisters' care. Dysentery, pneumonia, typhoid fever, and the flu were among the illnesses treated, along with dressing all levels of wounds. They also bathed and fed their patients as such a need arose.

No pressure was put on anyone to convert to Catholicism as a condition for their excellent care; however, spiritual consultation was available to any soldier who requested it. Quite frequently the critically wounded or ill voluntarily converted or sought spiritual comfort. It was not uncommon for the Sisters to prepare their charges for baptism or last rites.

These merciful ladies would often serve as "hospice" counselors for those mortally wounded or ill. Many letters were composed to families of the deceased, often telling of some soldier's last moments of life. In a Louisville hospital a young Scottish Federal casualty lay mortally wounded. After reading numerous letters from home he requested that a Sister send the letters to his parents in Scotland after his death.


This is the tombstone of Sister Blanche Traynor. She and five others went to Lexington to treat wounded and sick soldiers after the battle of Richmond in 1862. She died in 1920. (Photos courtesy of the author)

The young man next asked the nurse to obtain his forthcoming pay and use half of the money for Masses to be performed in his soul's behalf and the remainder sent to his family. This wish was granted; his last words were, "Now I am ready to die."

Sister Lauretta Maher recalled another episode in volving a boy of early teen years from an Illinois regiment. Noticing a religious medal on his person she asked if he was Catholic. He answered "No", but said he intended to accept the Faith when he returned home to his girlfriend, who was Catholic.

As this young man's condition deteriorated, he agreed to submit to baptism immediately in that Paducah hospital. He died shortly after the ritual. Sister Lauretta wrote the girlfriend, describing the conversion, which must have consoled her. She also sent her a lock of his hair.

The Sisters would sometimes act as surrogate mothers, especially for the "lambs," that is, the drummer boys who were as young as eleven years. A sad case involved one such child who was dying in one ward. He requested that one of the Sisters put her head near his and hold him as he died. One of the nurses complied with this last wish.


Several Angels of Mercy are buried in the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth's cemetery. This is the gravesite of Sister Lauretta Maher, who died in 1933. She was the last surviving Civil War nurse from the Order. (Photos courtesy of the author)

Sister Ellen Jolly recalled an incident in which a drummer boy who was also terminally ill requested for his attending Sister/nurse to stay near him. He said, "I'll try to believe you are my mother." The boy passed away as he embraced his "mother."

The written and verbal responses of officers, enlisted men, and civilians strongly suggest that the efforts of these Sisters were very effective, competent, and deeply appreciated in all areas of Kentucky in which they served (Paducah, Louisville, Bardstown, Uniontown, and Lexington). U. S. Army surgeon John Murray expressed the highest praise for the Sisters work in an 1862 letter of condolence to Mother Frances Gardener of Nazareth. Murray informed Mother Frances of the demise of Sister Catherine Malone in Louisville. In Paducah Union surgeon Dr. Hewit urged General Smith to obtain the Sisters' help in the fall of 1861. So Sister Martha Drury set up facilities in the old courthouse and enlisted several of her colleagues to help, including Sisters Mary Lucy Dosh, Sophia, Justine, Beatrice, and Jane Frances. Doctors Fry, Kay, and Austin were very pleased with their work. Paducah received many hundreds of casualties from such battles as Shiloh, Fort Donaldson, Fort Henry, and Belmont.


One of the beautiful buildings at Nazareth just north of Bardstown in Nelson County. Today the building houses various Sisters of Charity of Nazareth departments such as the archives, a gift shop, and business offices. The building's outside appearance closely resembles what was visible in 1861.

Union General R. E. Brown wrote a statement after the war which expressed the sentiments of virtually all who encountered the Sisters of Charity. Brown said, "There is in Heaven the entire story of the holy devotion of Sisters of the Catholic Church to the sick and the wounded soldiers of both Union and confederate armies. I was a boy in 1861-62, sick unto death at the Planter's Hotel in Louisville. But for the unceasing zeal of a Sister of Charity (Lauretta Maher), the is sue of the illness may have been different."

Similar praises from Generals Wood, Ewing, Nelson, U. S. Senator L. W. Powell, and civic leaders like Louisville's James Guthrie were common. The President of the United States also honored the Nazareth order. Abraham Lincoln sent a personal thank-you card to Mothers Columbia Carroll and Frances Gardener. In 1865 he issued an order which read, "Let no depredation be committed upon the property of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, near Bardstown, Kentucky. This document is still contained in the archives at Nazareth.

The soldiers of the Confederate cause also paid tribute to the Sisters. In September 1862 a squad of cavalry arrived at the convent from Confederate General Kirby Smith's Corps encamped in Lexington, Kentucky. This was shortly after the Confederate victory at the Battle of Richmond, Kentucky. These soldiers requested nurses, and Mother Columbia sent six members of the order with the soldiers. A flag of truce was displayed during the trip to General Smith's army.

Sister Blanch Traynor recalled the deep appreciation of the Confederates for the Sister's care. The mother of Lexington's famed General John Hunt Morgan had new uniforms made for these servants of mercy as a token of gratitude. One of Confederate General Braxton Bragg's staff officers, Stoddard Johnson, later published his classic Memorial History of Louisville (1886). Johnson made it a point to include the benevolence of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in this lengthy volume. General Bragg himself visited the convent and its academy during his Kentucky campaign of 1862.

Numerous Sisters died from illness while serving. Sisters Appolonia and Catherine Malone's demise was a source of bereavement in Louisville. The most unforgettable episode took place in Paducah, Kentucky. The heroic work and death of Sister Mary Lucy Dosh so touched the soldiers from both armies that a truce was implemented to give her a military funeral when she died of typhoid fever December 29, 1861. During her military funeral a Union-draped gunboat transported her remains up the Ohio River to Uniontown. From there another military escort accompanied her to Morganfield in Union County where a wake was kept. The guard remained with Sister Mary's body continually.


In 1961, Phyllis Duncan of Waverly, Kentucky, looked at the grave of Lucy Dosh in the Sisters' Circle in the cemetery near St. Vincent Academy near Morganfield in Union County. (Courtesy of the SCN Archival Center.)

She was buried at St. Vincent's Academy, where she spent much of her childhood. Both "Rebs" and "Yankees" completely honored the truce. They even wept together for this twenty-two year old "Angel of the Battlefield." Safe passage for all soldiers was honored after the service; the Confederate soldiers returned to Vicksburg and the Federals to Columbus.

Sister Lauretta Maher described Barbara "Bab" Dosh as a seemingly typical adolescent girl at St. Vincent's Academy in Morganfield, Kentucky. Once Lauretta predicted that "Bab" would someday join the order, and "never" was the latter's response. The youthful Ms. Dosh asserted, "I want to have money, pleasure, and enjoy myself in the world." Little did this child realize that her spiritual influence as a member of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth would be such that her passing would, if only briefly, stop war's carnage in southwest Kentucky.

So it appeared that the benevolence and courage of an small group of devoted Sisters helped Kentucky define the nature of her humanity.


The heroic work and death of Sister Lucy Dosh so touched Civil War soldiers that a truce was called during her funeral. This is an old sketch depicting the funeral visitation of Sister Mary Lucy Dosh, who died December 29, 1861. (SCN Archival Center)

The evidence indicates that very many in the Bluegrass were grateful for such devout altruism. During the Civil War we may well have received a brief glimpse of the image of God.


Editor's Note: Maurice L. Searcy, 138 Canyon Court, Hillview, KY 40229, shares his articles with our readers from time to time. The author would like to thank the Archival Center of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth for its help with this article.