The Chariot of Mercy

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (8) start of chapter

The Sisters in Charleston did glorious service during the war—to the sick, the dying, the prisoner, and the needy. At certain times immense numbers of prisoners were camped outside the city. They were in a miserable state. Charleston, partly consumed by the tremendous fire of 1861, by which an enormous amount of property was destroyed, and further assailed by a bombardment scarcely paralleled in modern history, could not afford much accommodation to the captured of the enemy. Penned up together, and scantily fed, the condition of the prisoner was far from enviable; it was indeed deplorable. To these poor fellows the Sisters were in reality what they were styled—'angels of mercy.'

Presented with a universal pass by General Beauregard, the Sisters went everywhere unquestioned, as if they were so many staff officers. The General had likewise presented them with an ambulance and a pair of splendid white horses, remarkable for their beauty, and, on account of their colour, conspicuous at a considerable distance. Many a time has the sight of these horses brought gladness to the heart of the prisoner, as he beheld them turning the corner of the highway leading to the camp. When the white specks were seen some three-quarters of a mile on the road, the word was given, 'The Sisters are coming!' As that announcement was made, the drooping spirit revived, and the fainting heart was stirred with hope; for with the Sisters came food, comforts, presents, perhaps a letter, or at least a message—and always sweet smiles, gentle words, sympathy and consolation. The ambulance, drawn by the gallant white steeds, was usually filled with hundreds of white loaves—in fact, with everything which active charity could procure or generosity contribute. The rations given to the prisoners were about as good as the Confederate soldiers had for themselves; but to the depressed, pent-up prisoner, these were coarse and scanty indeed. 'Sister! Sister of Charity! Sister of Mercy!—put something in this hand!'—'Sister, Sister, don't forget me!'—'Sister, Sister, for the love of God!'—'Oh, Sister, for God's sake!' —such were the cries that too often tortured the tender hearts of the Sisters as they found their stock of provisions fast running out, and knew that hundreds of hungry applicants were still unsatisfied. Many a time did they turn away on their homeward journey with whitened lips and streaming eyes, as they beheld those outstretched hands, and heard those cries of gaunt and famished men ringing in their ears. To the uttermost that they could do, the Sisters did, and this the prisoners knew in their grateful hearts. These horses shed light in their path; the clatter of their feet was as music to the ear of the anxious listener; and the blessings of gallant suffering men followed that chariot of mercy wherever it was borne by its snowy steeds in those terrible days of trial.

Such was the effect produced by the Sisters on the minds of the patients in their charge, that when wounded or sick a second time, they would make every possible effort to go back to the same hospital in which they had been previously cared for. or, if that were not possible, to one under the management of these good women. Instances have been told of wounded men who travelled several hundred miles to come again under the charge of the Sisters; and one, in particular, of two men from Kentucky, who had contrived to make their way to the large hospital at White Sulphur Springs in Virginia, a distance of 200 miles from where they had been wounded. They had been under the care of the Sisters on a former occasion, and had then agreed that should they ever be wounded or fall sick again, they would return to the same hospital, and if they were to die, that they should die in the faith of the Sisters who had been so good to them. Both these men were American Protestants, and had never seen a Catholic priest before they beheld the clergyman who received them into the Church in the Virginian hospital. One of the two men was past cure, and was conscious of his approaching death. 'Ben,' said the dying man to his comrade, 'all is right with me—I am happy; but before I die, let me have the satisfaction of seeing you become a Catholic.' Ben willingly consented to what he had before resolved on doing, and he was received into the Church in the presence of his dying friend, over whose features there stole a sweet smile, that did not depart even in death.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America