The Angel of the Battlefield Illuminations: Sister Anthony O'Connell, - News and Events - iIrish

The Angel of the Battlefield Illuminations: Sister Anthony O’Connell,

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Illuminations:  Sister Anthony O’Connell, Angel of the Battlefield
By:  J. Michael Finn

It was at Shiloh where Sister Anthony became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Sister Anthony O’Connell, S.C. was born August 12, 1814 as Mary Ellen O’Connell in Limerick Ireland.  Her parents were William O’Connell and Catherine Murphy. She had two brothers, William and James.

In 1821, Mary Ellen and her family emigrated from Ireland to Maine, where her mother passed away in 1832, and her brother William died in 1836. Mary Ellen, her father and her brother James then relocated to Boston, where she attended the Ursuline Academy in Charlestown, Massachusetts.  Her chief desire was to become a religious sister and serve the poor.Sr. Anthony O'Connell

At about midnight on August 11, 1834, the Ursuline Convent and Academy buildings were burned to the ground by an anti-Catholic mob. The Ursuline Sisters, Mary Ellen, and her fellow students fortunately escaped injury by hiding in the convent’s garden while the angry mob looted and burned the buildings.

The following year, on June 5, 1835, Mary Ellen entered the novitiate of the American Sisters of Charity in St. Joseph’s Valley, Maryland, founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Ellen was professed in 1837, taking the religious name of Sister Anthony.

Sister Anthony was quickly assigned to Cincinnati, Ohio, where in 1837 she began her religious work at St. Peter’s Orphanage and School for girls. She was then given charge of St. Joseph’s Orphanage for boys when it was begun in 1852, and later oversaw the combining of the two institutions in Cincinnati’s Irish neighborhood of Cumminsville.

Sisters of Charity
She was in Cincinnati in 1852 when the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati became independent of their founding motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Sister Anthony was one of six founders of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. She was placed in charge of St. John’s Hostel for Invalids, Cincinnati’s first modern medical institution. It was at there that she received extensive medical training.

Prior to the Civil War, most hospital nurses were male. Because many of these nurses volunteered for service as soldiers, there was a shortage of qualified nurses to serve in military hospitals and on the battlefield. The US government called upon Catholic women religious to replace the loss of the male nurses. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Sisters of Charity, along with many religious orders, volunteered to serve the Army as nurses. Sister Anthony and thirty-seven of her community volunteered for service. 

The nursing sisters initially received resistance from doctors who thought that women should not serve as nurses and from soldiers who refused to be cared for by women, in particular, Catholic women. This discrimination soon faded as the sisters were proven to be highly competent administrators and caring nurses.

On April 6th and 7th, 1862, the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee brought ten Sisters of Charity to the battle scene, led by Sr. Anthony. Sister Anthony’s word became law with officers, doctors, and soldiers once she had established herself as a prudent and trusted administrator and nurse. She and other sisters often treated wounded prisoners of war since the sisters showed no bias in serving confederate, union, white, or black soldiers.

The battle of Shiloh, Tennessee was one of the significant battles of the war. Combined Union and Confederate losses were 3,482 killed and 16,420 wounded.

Sister Anthony wrote of her experiences: “At Shiloh we ministered to the men on board what were popularly known as the floating hospitals. We were often obliged to move farther up the river, being unable to bear the terrific stench from the bodies of the dead on the battlefield. This was bad enough, but what we endured on the field of battle while gathering up the wounded is simply beyond description.” It was at Shiloh where Sister Anthony became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

One Union soldier wrote in his diary about Sister Anthony: “Amid the sea of blood she performed the most revolting duties for those poor soldiers. She seemed like a ministering angel, and many a young soldier owes his life to her care and charity.”

Sister Anthony is also recognized for developing battlefield triage methods (triage is the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds to decide the order of treatment of a large number of casualties). Her methods are described as, “The first recognizably modern triage techniques in war zones. It saved countless lives through faster hospital treatment and won her praise from President Lincoln.”

Sister Anthony and the other Sisters of Charity moved from place to place during the war, working in military hospitals in Cumberland, Maryland; Nashville, and Richmond, Kentucky.

It is an ironic circumstance that during the war Sister Anthony nursed on the battlefield or in the hospitals several of the men who took part in the anti-Catholic mob that burned the Ursuline Convent when she was a girl. She was a true heroine of the Civil War.

After the war, Sister Anthony went on serving, tending to the poor and sick at Good Samaritan Hospital and the St. Joseph Infant and Maternity Home. Sister Anthony was also recognized for her work during the yellow fever epidemic of 1877 in Cincinnati.

The Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity retired from active service in 1880, and died on December 8, 1897, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in Cumminsville, Cincinnati, Ohio. As a rule, a Sister of Charity is buried from the mother house, but in recognition of the extraordinary services of Sister Anthony Archbishop William Henry Elder ordered that the funeral be held at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati.

A vast multitude gathered near the church; only a very small proportion was able to gain admittance. There was a notable attendance of the dignitaries of the Church. Archbishop Elder celebrated the Mass, and the sermon was preached by Rev. Thomas S. Byrne.  Many of the mourners wore the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic – the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.

Sister Anthony is buried at the Sisters of Charity Cemetery located behind the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse in Cincinnati. Sister Anthony and the sisters who served as US Army nurses have two headstones. One is the headstone provided by their religious order and the other is a military headstone noting the sister’s service in the army.

A great book on Sister Anthony and other Nuns who served in the Civil War is “Nuns of the Battlefield” by Ellen Ryan Jolly.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history, and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at