Sisters in the East

The Eastern Front

Many large decisive battles of the Civil War were fought from Pennsylvania to Georgia. A concentration in Virginia and Maryland near the capitals of Richmond and Washington resulted in thousands of wounded from each engagement.

Sisters of Mercy of Baltimore

Douglas Military Hospital, Washington, D.C.

Sisters of Mercy arrived in Baltimore from Pittsburgh in 1855. Shortly after, they took over operation of Washington Infirmary. When the Civil War began in 1861, Mother Mary Alphonsus Atkinson offered the Infirmary to the government. When it burned down in November of that year, three senators’ residences were taken over by the government and converted into the Douglas Military Hospital.

The sisters were asked by the War Department to take charge of the hospital on December 23, 1861. Sister Mary Colette O’Connor, former superior of the Infirmary, was named superintendent. She was known as a woman who possessed remarkable executive ability and a tender heart. Highly regarded by the military surgeons, Mother O’Connor’s judgments and wishes were carried out throughout the hospital. Unfortunately her health was weakened by the grueling work, and she died July 16, 1864.

Sisters of Mercy of Pittsburgh

Stanton Military Hospital, Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton asked the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy to take charge of the Stanton Military Hospital near the Douglas Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. Along with seven sisters, Sister Mary Borgia Doherty began treating newly arrived sick and wounded on November 26, 1862. Causalities poured in and nine additional sisters, trained at the Pittsburgh Mercy Hospital, later joined the staff.

After the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, over 500 wounded from both armies lay side by side in the hospital wards. Furthermore, the cold winter months took its toll. In 1864 and 1865, more sick and wounded men arrived wearing worn-out clothing and shoes. Some were so famished and weary that they died soon after arrival.

Fresh food for suffering patients was difficult to come by. Sister Otillia Duche, hospital dietician, was known for her dogged determination in procuring healthy nourishment for her patients. Tradition says that one day a frustrated Sister Otillia set out in a carriage to obtain proper dietary fare for the hospital. Several days later a note arrived:

“To all whom it may concern:

On application of the sisters of Mercy in charge of the Military Hospital in Washington, furnish such provisions as they desire to purchase and charge to the War Department.

       Abraham Lincoln”

Pittsburgh Mercy Hospital

In April 1862 Pittsburgh Mercy Hospital was one institution prepared to take 240 wounded men from the battle of Shiloh. The wounded where transported north on vessels named the Hailman and the Maringo and deposited along the river. Several soliders arrived at the hospital to be cared for by the Sisters.

West Pennsylvania Hospital

Sisters of Mercy began service at the West Pennsylvania Hospital early in 1863. The hospital was used primarily for convalescent sick and disabled Pennsylvania soldiers transported from battlefield hospitals. When every available spot in the hospital was occupied, a “City of Tents” was erected on the hillsides to serve as extra wards for the patients. Nine sisters brought orderliness, cleanliness and attention to the sick and wounded soldiers. They distributed medicines, supplies and reading material. The sisters remained on duty until all patients were discharged in May 1865.

Sisters of Mercy of New York

Hammond Hospital, Beaufort / Stanley, New Bern, North Carolina

In June 1862, Sisters of Mercy from New York accepted Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s request to take charge of the military hospital in Beaufort, North Carolina. The building was a former hotel which had been occupied by Confederate troops, ransacked by Union troops, and then turned into a hospital for soldiers wounded in the skirmish. Two months after accepting the request, the sisters arrived in a heavy rainstorm dressed in black. They found the patients suffering from neglect, poor food and medical care, little furnishings, and no light after dark. Dried blood and filth were everywhere. Unfamiliar with sisters, the patients at first thought they were widows looking for their dead husbands.

Mother Mary Madeline Tobin sent a list of needed supplies to General Foster, despite the fact that previous requests had gone unfulfilled. In time, a steamer arrived with dressing gowns, washtubs, brooms, scrubbing brushes, lamps, kerosene, dishes, soaps, and medical supplies. Order was established from the chaos as the sisters took over household affairs and caring for the sick and wounded.

When high tides swept through the Hammond Hospital, General Foster ordered patients to be moved to a hospital located at the Stanley House in New Bern. After Foster’s attack during the Battle of Goldbourgh’s Bridge in December 1862, the new hospital received the wounded:

“…they presented a most fearful spectacle…There were broken legs, broken arms and one unhappy victim had both hands shot off…Our first task was to feed these wretched sufferers, for it was 8 days after the Battle when they got to the Hospital and all that time they had very little care bestowed on them. After this, the difficult and distressing duty of cleansing their wounds was undertaken and left entirely to the Sisters.” (Annals, Sisters of Mercy of New York Collection)

Several digitized archival artifacts from the Mercy Heritage Center are located below.




| Illustration, The First Mercy Hospital | Photograph, Douglas Hospital | Photograph, Sister M. Joseph |