The nine women arrive at Beaufort on a steam tug, rescued from the steamer Cahawba, run hard aground in Pamlico Sound with its cargo of 500 cavalry remounts. The women are dressed in long black habits, their hair covered, only their faces visible, and all are sodden from the passage, their heavy serge clothing made heavier with drenching rain and salt spray. It is July 19, 1862, late afternoon, and they land to oppressive heat and humidity.

But they bear hardship patiently. It is the life they have chosen. Five are Irish-born, two are New Yorkers, and the remaining two are Canadian and English.

They teeter up the narrow gangplank, single file, onto the ramshackle wharf, followed by two men — one in a priest’s black cassock: Father Bruhl, 60, a Hungarian-born veteran of the French Army who wears an extravagant gray beard. The other man wears a formal suit and strides with the confident bearing of a man in charge, a doctor: John Baxter Upham, the officious new medical superintendent of the Hammond General Hospital, housed in the old Atlantic Hotel.

From the windows of the Atlantic Hotel, scores of sick and wounded soldiers watch the women and wonder aloud who they are. The answer seems obvious to many of them: These are grieving widows come in search of their husbands’ bodies.

But they are not. They are Sisters of Mercy, volunteers enlisted by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on behalf of the War Department to do what they have been doing in America since 1846 and before that in Ireland: ease suffering. They have been sent to North Carolina under direct orders from Gen. John G. Foster, commander of the Department of North Carolina. His wife and daughter arrive with them on the Cahawba.

The Sisters of Mercy are not alone in their calling. Some 580 nuns from 12 religious communities are serving in military hospitals throughout the theater of war.

When the sisters left New York, their friends and families feared they would die on the battlefield. Well-wishers provided linen for bandages and followed them to the wharf. The great bell of St. Catherine’s Convent, their New York home, mournfully tolled their departure.

Before the war, the Atlantic House Hotel was a palace of porches and breezy guest rooms, three elegant stories faced in planks painted to mimic stucco and extending on pilings over the harbor. Capt. Josiah Pender, a wealthy entrepreneur from Edgecombe County, bought it only five years before the outbreak of hostilities. It is the largest resort hotel on the coast of North Carolina, catering to visitors brought on the newly extended rail line to bathe in salt water and enjoy the sea breeze.

Now it is a shell of its former grandeur, ransacked by Union troops after the capture of Beaufort, and what couldn’t be hauled away was vandalized. Gone are the comfortable couches and easy chairs, the parlor pianos and paintings. Even the kitchen has been looted, only a few pots and pans and a handful of cutlery and silverware remain.

In the late afternoon swelter, the sisters haul their meager belongings ashore to the eight rooms that have been reserved for their use, only to discover that the rooms are filthy and stripped of all comforts.

Dr. Upham orders the Negro cook, “Aunt” Clarissey, “See that these nurses have a fine dinner and as soon as possible.” The sumptuous welcome meal, served in the orderlies’ room, consists of cold, moldy pork and beans, soggy bread saturated with sea salt, and bitter coffee sweetened with molasses. For utensils, the sisters share one fork, two knives, and a big iron spoon.

After running aground, being drenched on their wild ride over the shoals in a steam tug, finding squalid quarters and now an inedible meal, one sister can’t help but laugh. She is joined by another, and soon the orderlies’ room fills with their raucous laughter.

Without even candles for light, they retire at sundown.

Getting to work

The next day, July 20th, Dr. Upham summons the sisters to accompany him as he makes his rounds of the hospital to determine how best to care for the 200 wounded and sick soldiers, despite the fact that he professes a horror of “lady nurses.” Each ward seems worse than the last. Patients lie in filth, their dirty bandages unchanged for weeks, with only hardtack and salt beef for food. Around them, the walls and floors are stained with blood. Medicine of any kind is scarce, and the only nurses are other patients — untrained and unwashed, many of them too ill to stand.

In the entire hospital, there is not one lamp or candle. The cleaning supplies consist of a single straw broom.

Besides Clarissey, the kitchen staff includes a strapping, six-foot-tall soldier named Trip — who shadows the nuns as they move about their chores, convinced they are agents of the Pope come to poison them all — and Edward the baker, who rolls out pies and bread on the marble top of the stripped billiards table.

At least one of the workers becomes their ally: Bob Sprawl, a young, recently liberated black man, who attaches himself to the sisters and takes on any job at hand with gusto. They reward him with a handsome red flannel shirt, which he wears cinched at the waist, Cossack-style, declaring, “I’m the best-dressed man in North Carolina.”

But even with the enthusiastic help of recently freed blacks, the situation is untenable. How can they care for so many suffering men with no supplies? The sisters catalog an extensive list of what they need, everything from medicine and instruments to brooms and scrub brushes to kerosene, soap, tubs, and cooking utensils. Dr. Upham assures the sisters that his staff has asked repeatedly for medical supplies and other necessities, to no avail.

But Mother Mary Madeline Toban, a Canadian by birth and the superior of the nuns, sends her list directly to General Foster, with an ultimatum: If the supplies are not forthcoming, she will take her eight sisters and return to New York.

Mother Madeline also demands the keys to the storehouse, held by the current “steward” of the building, a short, pudgy, illiterate woodcutter from Maine with a tangled, tobacco-stained beard, who is typically found lounging barefoot in a wheelbarrow at the kitchen door. His name is “Kit” Condon, and he stubbornly refuses to give over the great ring of keys he wears on his belt, the badge of his authority.

A short time later, a small miracle steams into the harbor: a supply ship full of food, medical supplies, cleaning tools, and kitchen equipment. Convalescent soldiers, supervised by the “North Ladies” — the name given to the sisters by their patients — unload the cargo.

And the ship brings something else: orders from General Foster. From now on, the Sisters of Mercy are to have complete charge of the hospital, excepting only Dr. Upham’s medical department. Mother Madeline takes the keys from Condon.

In short order, the sisters have scrubbed the place clean of bloodstains and filth, and reorganized the kitchen to provide nutritious meals under the direction of Sister Augustine MacKenna, who pledged her novitiate at St. Catherine’s after fleeing the great Irish famine of 1848.

They institute a regimen of bathing for the patients and regularly clean wounds and change dressings. Gone is the air of misery and neglect. The suffering patients now are infected with hope.

Reinforcements arrive

Many of the soldiers are leery of the nuns at first — they’ve never laid eyes on one before, and, until now, they have been nursed only by men. When one sister leans over to sponge the face of a patient, he recoils. “Great heaven — are you a man or a woman?” he blurts out. “Your hand felt like a woman’s — not a bit rough — what are you anyway?”

The sister tells him, “Just a servant of Our Lord come to care for you.”

Some of the medical staff remain wary of the sisters, unsure of their motives. One of them asks General Foster what amount the sisters are being paid for their work. General Foster assures him, “They receive no money at all, but work entirely for love of God and their fellow man.” All the nuns have taken vows of poverty.

Many of the sick and wounded, now enjoying healthy meals and clean dressings, revive under the sisters’ diligent care. Instinctively, and as part of the discipline of their order, the nuns have practiced the three most effective tools to heal the sick and wounded: good nutrition, cleanliness, and gentleness — and their gentleness is what the young soldiers will remember most vividly about their care. Often, the soldiers who recover leave a token of gratitude for the sisters: a brass button, a seashell.

Some of the mortally wounded call upon the sisters to pray with them. One of them says to Sister Augustine MacKenna, “I want to be what you are.”

When Father Bruhl is summoned to the bedside of a dying man who wishes to be baptized, he inquires about the man’s faith. “What the sisters believe, that is what I believe,” the man says.

Before long, however, the heat and rigors take their toll on the nuns. Two of them, Sister Agatha McCarthy and Sister Mary Paul Lennon, fall ill with fever. Next to succumb is Sister Mary Elizabeth Callahan, who is so near death that she is given the last sacraments. And before long, Mother Madeline is too ill to work.

Dr. Upham inquires of her who will now take her place as superintendent. “Do I know her?”

She replies at once, “Of course you do. It is Sister Augustine, the tall dark sister who prepares the soldiers’ food.”

He is dumbfounded. “What — the cook? Is that the way you do business?”

“Yes,” she tells him flatly. “Every sister must be prepared to discharge any duty that may be entrusted to her.” Sister Augustine MacKenna is no mere cook. She is educated, tireless, unflagging in her zeal for her patients, and a natural leader who inspires respect in the nuns and the patients alike. There is a reason she has been put in charge of the kitchen, for good nutrition is key to bringing the wounded and ill back to good health. Sister Mary Callahan recovers — to the surprise of everyone — and when she and the other sick nuns are strong enough to travel, they sail for New York. But shortly after their return home, Sister Mary Paul Lennon dies — the first of the New York Sisters of Mercy to lay down her life.

The first of several replacements are Sister Mary Ignatius Grant and Sister Mary Francis Murray, both Dubliners, along with six Irish girls from the House of Protection to help with housekeeping and other chores.

Nursing the sick

In October 1862, the Sisters of Mercy are ordered to leave Beaufort for New Bern, where they will be stationed in the Stanly House, lately named for the former Unionist governor, Edward Stanly, where legend has it, George Washington spent two nights on his Southern tour after the Revolutionary victory.

Sister Augustine MacKenna writes of their new post, “The house is fine and in perfect order, having been used until a short time ago as headquarters for General Burnside of Rhode Island. A spacious lawn is in front of the mansion, covered with the plant which we Irish call periwinkle, here, I have heard it called myrtle — although by no means the myrtle of the poets. The largest, greenest, finest cedars I ever beheld grow within this enclosure, and as berries are now ripening flocks of mocking-birds are rejoicing … The magnificent drawing room in the Mansion is now our chapel. Gorgeous roses cluster around and climb into the windows and mocking-birds flittering through the branches serenade the Sisters at their prayers, while two majestic trees, ‘The Pride of India’ — stand sentinels of honor before the grand entrance.”

The hospital is housed in three well-equipped buildings not far from the Stanly House, now home to the patients transferred here from Beaufort and other soldiers injured in the constant inland skirmishes.

In December, General Foster launches a raid on the railroad bridge at Goldsborough. The raid is successful, but it comes at a cost of 220 casualties on both sides. Many of the wounded make the trek home to New Bern — a journey of eight days — with little food. The medical supplies were lost in the fighting, and many soldiers arrive in bloody uniforms, their wounds unbandaged and suppurating.

A soldier named Sherman was shot in the lower face, his jaw shattered, and the surgeons decline to work on him. His wound appears fatal, but the sisters gently loosen the rags binding his face, sponge away the blood, and prepare him for surgery anyway. Though disfigured, he eventually enjoys a full recovery.

Hiram Hubbard, a 16-year-old volunteer from the 44th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, is stricken with “camp fever.” His condition is worsened by an old folk remedy: the application of a fly-blister on the back of his shoulder. The blister has turned into a bad sore, and his shirt is stuck painfully to the raw tissue. A sister hears the young man’s agonized screams as one of his fellows tries rubbing the shirt out of the wound with a coarse wet towel. She finds him face down on a pillow, moaning pitifully. With a sponge and warm water, she carefully swabs the wound and removes the shirt, offering him relief at last.

The soldier lifts his head and asks, “Who is doing that?”

The nun tells him, “A Sister of Mercy.”

“No,” Hubbard insists. “No one but my mother could do it.”

The sister dresses the wound with liniment and wraps the shoulder in clean linen.

Hubbard at last faces his nurse and is taken aback at her black habit and head covering. “What sort of woman are you?” he wants to know. “What are you at all?”

She does her best to explain, but Hiram Hubbard makes his own pronouncement: “I don’t care what you are; you’re an angel to me.”

Another fevered patient grows delirious, and on his deathbed, he says to Sister Augustine MacKenna, “Mother, thank you, Mother,” and she can’t be sure he is not seeing his own mother’s face leaning over him at the end. It is common for soldiers in their last extremities of suffering to see in the faces of the sisters the faces of their own mothers — a small, illusory consolation.

The sisters are by now well acquainted with death. David Brout, an 18-year-old, collapses after a forced march. Sister Ignatius Grant has his boots cut away and finds them full of blood. In one leg an artery has burst. The young soldier dies of blood loss and shock.

The sisters tend the wounded from both armies, and when the Confederate soldiers recover, some stay on as prisoner orderlies.

In February 1863, Mother Mary Madeline returns, bringing with her Sister Martha Corrigan and Sister Gerard Ryan, both Irish natives. On March 11, 1863, Sister Gerard dies of “hardships” — the second of four Sisters of Mercy to die in the service of soldiers in North Carolina, out of 15 sisters who serve in the Beaufort and New Bern hospitals.

Going home

By May 1863, the sisters are no longer needed in New Bern, and, taking four of the free black girls who worked alongside them, they return home to New York, where they are greeted as heroes. In honor of their service, the city grants them a 99-year lease on a plot of land at 81st Street, near Madison Avenue. There, the sisters construct St. Joseph’s Industrial School.

For their role in tending wounded Confederate soldiers, Jefferson Davis offers his personal thanks to the Sisters of Mercy.

The Atlantic Hotel is refurbished, and in August 1879, it hosts Gov. Thomas J. Jarvis, a wounded veteran of Confederate service, and a convention of the North Carolina Press Association. Despite storm warnings, the hotel is not evacuated. A hurricane with 125-mile-per-hour winds demolishes the building with great loss of life — erasing the last vestiges of the old hospital structure.

The “Nuns of the Battlefield” are remembered on a stone monument in Washington, D.C., inscribed:

THEY COMFORTED THE DYING,

NURSED THE WOUNDED,

CARRIED HOPE TO THE IMPRISONED,

GAVE IN HIS NAME A DRINK OF WATER TO THE THIRSTY.

Selected Sources:

The author is grateful to Grant Gerlich, CA, Archivist at Mercy Heritage Center, Belmont, N.C., for sharing documents from the Sisters of Mercy archive, and to Sister Paula Diann, Archivist for the South Central Community of the Sisters of Mercy, for providing a narrative of the activities of the Sisters during the Civil War based in part on the diary of Sister Mary Augustine McKenna; published sources include His Mercy Endureth Forever by Katherine Burton (Sisters of Mercy, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1946); The Sisters of Mercy in the United States by Sister Mary Eulalia Herron (MacMillan, 1929); Nuns of the Battlefield by Ellyn Ryan Jolly, CC.D. (first published in 1927, reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, 2010); and The Golden Milestone 1846-1896: Fifty Years of loving labor among the poor and suffering, by the Sisters of Mercy of New York City (Benziger Brothers, 1896).

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.