During the Civil War, some 25 hospitals (with 25,000 beds) were set up in Washington D. C. for the care of wounded and dying soldiers, both Confederate and Union, Catholic and Protestant. At one of these hospitals, Stanton, a group of Catholic Sisters from Pittsburgh (the Sisters of Mercy) cared for about 130 soldiers.
President Lincoln visited this small hospital and later spoke of the kindness and heroism of the Sisters who served there during that terrible war.
Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were the most efficient. I never knew whence they came, or what was the name of the Order….
More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art are the pictures that remain of these Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and dying. Gentle and womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers leading a forlorn hope, to sustain them in contact with such horrors.
As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy.
Their words were suited to every sufferer. One they incited and encouraged, another they calmed and soothed. With every soldier they conversed about his home, his wife, his children, all the loved ones he was soon to see again if he was obedient and patient. How often has the hot forehead of the soldier grown cool as one of those sisters bathed it!
How often has he been refreshed, encouraged, and assisted along the road to convalescence, when he would otherwise have fallen by the way, by the home memories with which these unpaid nurses filled his heart!
Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, Lucius Eugene Chittenden, His Register of the Treasury, Harper & Brothers, New York & London, 1904, pp. 258-260.
Angels of the Battlefield, George Barton, 1897, p. 198 f.
And in its review of Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, the New York Times said:
The Civil War, which saw Catholics fighting side by side with Protestants, eased some of the nativist bigotry. And the sisters played an important part. Their willingness to set up makeshift hospitals where others feared to tread, and their cool amid trying circumstances (despite rigorous prayer schedules and little food or sleep), impressed soldiers from rural areas of North and South who had never encountered Catholics, much less nuns in headdresses. Even President Lincoln noticed: