The 'Sisters' during the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (4) start of chapter

The events of the war brought out in the most conspicuous manner the merits and usefulness of the Religious Orders, especially those of Charity and Mercy and the Holy Cross, and, spite of prejudice and bigotry, made the name of 'Sister' honoured throughout the land. Prejudice and bigotry are powerful with individuals and communities, powerful, too, in proportion to the ignorance which shrouds the mind of man. Still, these are but relatively strong, and must yield before a force superior to their's—truth. And as month followed month, and year succeeded to year, the priceless value of services having their motive in religion and their reward in the consciousness of doing good, were more thoroughly appreciated by a generous people. At their presence in an hospital, whether long established or hastily improvised, order, good management, and economy, took the place of confusion, lax administration, and reckless expenditure, if not worse. Obstacles, in many instances of a serious nature, were placed deliberately in their path; but, with tact, and temper, and firmness, these were encountered by women who had no vanity to wound, no malice to inflame, and whose only object was to relieve the sufferings of the sick and wounded in the most efficacious manner.

It is therefore not to be wondered at that difficulties and obstacles, however apparently formidable at first, vanished before the resistless influence of their sincerity and their goodness, and the quite as conclusive evidence of their usefulness. But the greater their success, the greater the strain on the resources of the principal Orders. Not only did death and sickness thin their ranks, but the war, by adding fearfully to the number of helpless orphans, added likewise to their cares and responsibilities. What with ceaseless duty in the hospitals, teaching in their schools, visiting the sick, providing for the fatherless whom every great battle flung upon their protection, administering the affairs of institutions perilled by the universal disturbance, bringing relief and consolation to the prisoner in the crowded building, or wretched camp to which the chance of war consigned the soldier on either side—the Sisters were tried to the very uttermost. Nothing but the spirit of Religion, together with their womanly compassion for the sick and the suffering, and their interest in the brave fellows who, docile children in their hands, followed them with wistful eyes as, angels of light and mercy, they brought balm to the heart of the wounded,—nothing short of the sublime motives by which these ladies were animated could have sustained them throughout four long years of ceaseless toil and never-ending anxiety.

You may have seen the feeblest bird exhibit unlooked-for courage when danger threatened its young. Maternal instinct renders it almost unrecognisable—the glittering eye, the ruffled plumage, and the bold attitude, make it so unlike the ordinary timid creature. So, gentle, shrinking, timid as the Sister might be under ordinary circumstances, let the least wrong be done to her patients—let even incompetency or neglect be manifested in an hospital under her charge; and that gentle-mannered, soft-spoken Sister would come out instantly in a new character. Many an official—proud, or insolent, or bigoted, or incompetent, or corrupt—has had to bend before the quiet determination expressed in the voice and manner of the Sister inspired by a sense of duty springing alike from humanity and religion. Throughout the country, in almost every State of the Union, are now to be seen Sisters—calm, gentle, soft-voiced women—of whose sturdy energy and resolute courage in defence of their sick charge, or in resistance of abuses, numerous instances are narrated; never by themselves, but by those who, having witnessed them, cherish them in their memory. No officer, no official, ventured to treat the Sister with disrespect, once her value was known; and it was soon made known. The impediments and embarrassments which were occasionally thrown in her way were borne with as far as they possibly might be; but when the time for action arrived, even the youngest Sister was generally equal to the emergency. As the war progressed, so did the influence of the Sisters, until at length there was scarcely a corner of the country into which a knowledge of their services did not penetrate, and there were but few homes in which their name was not mentioned with respect.

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

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