Madigan Muses: Nuns of the Battlefield Monument


Madigan Muses: Nuns of the Battlefield Monument
by Marilyn Madigan

I am privileged and honored to present the story of the Nuns of the Battlefield Monument. The driving force behind the creation of this Monument was a resident of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Ellen Ryan Jolly. Jolly was an individual who loved history. One of the first National Offices that she served with the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was Irish Historian.

The American Irish Historical Society recognized her knowledge of Irish and Irish History with an article published in their journal that she wrote on the Irish Element in American History. The Irish were making contributions to our country. One group that made a significant contribution was the Religious Sisters mostly of Irish birth or descent that served as Nurses during the American Civil War.

In 1898, George Barton wrote the book Angels of the Battlefield. This was the first book on the contributions of the Sister Nurses of the Civil War. In the book, an Army Chaplain is quoted “The Sisters do not have reunions or campfires to keep alive the memories of the most bloody lustrum in our history, but their war stories are as heroic and far more edifying than many the veterans tell.”

George Barton’s goal was to “present a modest picture of the grand work done by the Sisters for Humanity.” He concludes the book introduction with these words:

The chivalrous men wearing both the Blue and the Grey, who caused American manhood and valor to be known and respected the world over, have on many occasions, and in various ways, given esteem and affection in which they hold the women who devoted their lives to the care of the sick and wounded. The ranks of the war Sisters have been gradually thinned out by death until a handful of them remain. These survivors rest in their convent homes, tranquilly awaiting the final summons to a land where conflict is unknown. They may die, but the story of their patriotic and humane work will live as long as love for loyalty, regard for duty and admiration for self sacrifice exist in the heart of the American people.”

Ellen Ryan Jolly did not want the story of the Sister Nurses to die, but to be memorialized in a monument recognizing their service. She was the National President of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians from 1912-1916. The Order was only twenty years old when she proposed the lofty goal of building a Monument to the Nuns of the Battlefield.

The first screen reads:
During the Civil War, the wounded and dying of both sides of the conflict were attended to by sister-nurses. This monument highlights the role of Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, to American history.

In 1914 Ellen Ryan Jolly, President of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, shared her idea with the members of the Auxiliary to honor the sister-nurses with a monument.

For the next ten years, the membership raised the funds to build and worked to find a suitable location. Many obstacles were faced, but the courage and perseverance of one woman and her Hibernian organization resulted in this lasting tribute to the sister-nurses.

Representative Ambrose Kennedy of Rhode Island assisted in overcoming the obstacles. On March 29, 1918, a Joint Resolution of the House and Senate granted approval to the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to erect a memorial to honor the various orders of Sisters who nursed the Civil War wounded and attended to the dying. The Monument was designed and sculpted by Jerome Conner. Religious and Civil Leaders as well as Sr Magdalene O’Donnell were present at the dedication on September 20, 1924.

The Nuns of the Battlefield
Some of the challenges with the Monument included the location. Jolly wanted the Monument to be in Arlington Cemetery, which was not accepted by the Government, since no bodies were associated with it. Another challenge that Jolly needed to provide information on the sisters that served in the capacity of Civil War nurses. She did the research and provided it to the proper authorities. This information was the basis of her book, The Nuns of the Battlefield, published in 1927.

The location and Sculptor were selected: Jerome Connor, an Immigrate from County Kerry. He had a studio in Washington D.C. where the sisters came so that their habits would be depicted on the Monument correctly. Connor sculptured Bishop John Carroll, Robert Emmett, Bronx Victory Memorial and the Lusitania Peace Memorial.

The Monument was dedicated on September 20, 1924, a special day in American Catholic History.

  • The front of the Monument is a bronze relief of the images of the twelve Orders of Religious Sisters. Daughters of Charity Emmitsburg
  • Sisters of Charity: Cincinnati, Ohio; Nazareth, Kentucky; New York City, New York
  • Sisters of St. Dominic: Memphis, Tennessee; Springfield, Illinois; Springfield, Kentucky
  • Sisters of the Holy Cross: Notre Dame, Indiana
  • Sisters of Mercy: Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, Ohio; New York, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy: Charleston, South Carolina
  • Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Sisters of Providence: St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana
  • Sisters of St. Joseph: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wheeling, West Virginia
  • Sisters of St. Ursula: Galveston, Texas

On each side of the Monument are female figures representing patriotism and peace. Above the image of the sisters inscribed are the words, “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in his name a drink of water to the thirsty.”
On the base is inscribed, “To the memory and in honor of the various Sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War”.
You have to go to the back of the Monument to see that the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians made the Monument possible. This is unacceptable to me and the members of the LAOH. There is nothing to inform the public about these remarkable women.

In 2016, I introduced my goal that a Wayside to tell the story be done by the LAOH. This project was approved at the 2020 Convention.
We are in the process of providing the information for the Wayside to be presented to the National Park Service. I am proud and honored to be appointed to Chair the Nuns of the Battlefield Centennial Committee.

Over 600 Sisters served as Nurses in fifteen states and the District of Columbia. They were on the Battlefields, in hospitals, on boats and in prisons.

Sr. de Sales O’Neill, remembering Mother Angela assisting in Surgery during the Civil War, said:

“It was a deliberate and difficult operation and the life of the soldier depended largely upon the accuracy of the surgeon, whose head and that of Mother Angela, on opposite sides, were bent over the poor lad…Suddenly from above a heavy liquid drop fell upon the white coif of Mother Angela who, true to her Celtic strain, did not quiver. Another, and still another, drop after drop came faster and faster. At last, the final stitch had been taken and the two heads, that of the surgeon and of the sister, rose simultaneously, and not till then did the surgeon know that a stream of blood, trickling through the open chinks of the upper floor, had fallen steadily upon the devoted head of Mother Angela, who stood before the surgeon with head, and face, and shoulders, and back bathed in the blood of some unknown soldier.” 

The Daughters of Charity’s Motherhouse is in Emmitsburgh MD, just fifteen miles from Gettysburgh. Both Union and Confederates had camped on the Motherhouse grounds. The Sisters could hear the gunfire at the Convent. They went to Gettysburgh as soon as they could to help.

“Of the Sisters of Mercy there is little need for me to speak. Their good deeds are written in the grateful hearts of thousands of our soldiers, to whom they were ministering angels.”
            – A. E. Burnside, Major General

“The Sisters took entire charge of the sick soldiers and the surgeon in charge often times told me that one sister was worth more to the sick than all attendants put together.

From this time forward I had frequent opportunities of judging of their efficiency and services and I must say that they did more, by their kindness, their gentleness, and cheerful devoted attention to restore the sick and wounded to convalescence than all the medicine administered to them.”S.G. DeCamp, Medical Director, U.S. Army of the West

Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of the Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. … 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.” – Abraham Lincoln

I can never forget your kindness to the sick and wounded during our darkest days. And I know not how to testify my gratitude and respect for every member of your noble order.” – Jefferson Davis

Ellen Ryan Jolly also worked with the government and the sisters, so that the sister nurses would have grave markers indicating their service.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share this story.

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