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Sisters of War

In October 1861, Governor Oliver P. Morton surveyed Indiana’s Civil War camps and hospitals. Witnessing widespread negligence and poor medical treatment, he dispatched a letter to Reverend Edward Sorin requesting the immediate help of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, St. Mary’s Academy, Notre Dame. Eighty Sisters, led by Sister Angela Gillespie, set out for Paducah, Kentucky after reportedly first meeting Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Cairo, Illinois.  Sister Magadalene Kiernan recalled that at the time of the meeting Grant “‘was writing intently and seemed entirely unconscious of surroundings.” She continued, “Instantly, Grant was on his feet and, laying the pipe hurriedly upon the table, came from behind the iron grating and shook hands most heartily with each Sister. Looking at his visitor with a kindly smile, he said, ‘Mother Angela, I am glad to have you and your Sisters with us, very glad.’ And then he added, ‘If there is anything at all that I can do for you I will be glad to do it.'”

The Sisters served at hospitals in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. Here they cleaned, laundered, administered medicine and comforted wounded soldiers from both the North and the South, but not without some criticism. After growing tired of the “complaints” of female citizen nurses at the Mound City hospital, surgeon Dr. John H. Brinton recruited the Sisters to replace them. He lamented that the public initially disapproved of his employment of Sister nurses, stating “I was the most abused man in that department, for the newspapers gave me no mercy.” After serving at stationary hospitals, Sister Angela volunteered the help of the Sisters on the USS Red Rover, a floating hospital that cared for wounded soldiers and transported them to hospitals after battles. The Sisters proved their mettle when, after witnessing the firing at Vicksburg, they helped pull the wounded from the bloodied Mississippi River. The Sisters of the Holy Cross are widely acknowledged as the first naval nurses and were pioneers in the hospital system in which they continue to play a prominent role. For more information about the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the Civil War see the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Civil War Nurses, 1861-1865 marker and the corresponding Sisters of the Holy Cross Review Report.