Sisters in the Mississippi Valley

Mississippi Valley Campaign

In the Union Army’s attempt to cut off enemy supplies and split the Confederacy in two, heavy battles were fought about the region for control of the Mississippi River.

Sisters of Mercy of Chicago

Jefferson City Hospital and Camp Douglas

In 1846, Sisters from Pittsburgh established a community in Chicago. They soon began nursing in the city’s almshouses and marine hospitals. Planning for Mercy Hospital began in 1852. At the start of the war, Colonel Mulligan of the Illinois Irish Brigade asked Mother Mary Francis Mulholland for nurses for a military hospital in Lexington, Missouri. Mother Francis carefully chose six sisters from Mercy Hospital for their experience and abilities.

The sisters traveled south on the steamboat Sioux City, which was attacked by Confederate troops and forced to turn back. In light of this situation, the sisters were asked to take charge of the Jefferson City Hospital instead. The hospital was crowded with hundreds of wretched sick and wounded soldiers from both sides. The sisters stayed until April 1862 when the army moved on and their services were no longer needed.

When the Chicago sisters were on the way home from Jefferson City, the sanitary commissioner asked for help on the steamboat Empress. The ship served as transport for 300 of the 20,000 soldiers wounded in the Battle of Shiloh, also called Pittsburg Landing. Amid the chaos of the hospital boat and the insufficient number of doctors and supplies, nursing the unfortunate sufferers was grueling. Screams of agony echoed through the ship during surgery.

The crude hospital traveled up the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers picking up causalities on the journey to Keokuk, Iowa. Additional trips delivered wounded to St. Louis and Louisville. During their five weeks on the Empress the sisters proved to be proficient pharmacists as well as nurses.

Mother Francis and the remaining sisters visited and cared for Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas after the fall of Fort Donaldson, Tennessee. Besides the deplorable quarters, the prisoners also suffered from shortages of food and medicine. At first, Mother Francis and a companion were refused permission to visit. She went directly to the mayor’s office and obtained a note from the mayor telling Colonel Sweet to admit the sisters to camp. After that, they operated freely and brought living conditions to a more humane level. One sister who tended to prisoners at Camp Douglas wrote:

“A Southern lad of 18 cried like a child when she [Mother Francis] laid her hand on his clammy brow. ‘O God,’ he murmured, ‘I thought you were my mother.’ He died in her arms prepared for death.”

Sisters of Mercy of Cincinnati

The McLean Barracks

During the eve of the Civil War, Cincinnati was a city of mixed loyalties. Mother Mary Teresa Maher—who arrived in Cincinnati from Kinsale, Ireland, on August 18, 1858, with nine sisters—desired to offer their convent to the federal government. She wanted it to be a place to take care of Ohio soldiers when the casualties first began to arrive home. On October 21, 1861, the Cincinnati House of Mercy was renamed the McLean Barracks. Rather than serving as a hospital for local soldiers, it housed prisoners of war, state prisoners, deserters and others whose detention was considered necessary. The sisters were not allowed to nurse the “wretched inhabitants,” but eventually were able to visit and bring relief, sympathy and kindness. Years later, a former Confederate prisoner-of-war returned to thank the sisters for his compassionate treatment.

After the Battle of Pittsburg Landing in April 1862, the Mayor of Cincinnati asked for nursing sisters to care for the wounded soldiers from Ohio regiments. Mother Mary Teresa Maher, Sister Mary Gertrude O’Dwyer and Sister Mary Stanislaus Murphy volunteered. While traveling down river on the steamboat Superior, they made bedding, readied bandages and prepared supplies. Upon landing they immediately started their work for the wounded soldiers, some of whom had lain on the battlefield for two days in an incessant rain.

Ladies who had been assisting the wounded fled in terror when smallpox began to break out among the soldiers. Mother Teresa was devoted to the smallpox victims, personally dressing the wounds of the patients. The sisters faithfully served at the tent hospitals of Pittsburg Landing until the end, when all the wounded were transferred in August.

Sisters of Mercy of St. Louis

Fair Ground Hospitals, McDowell’s College, and Gratiot Prison

Mother de Pazzi Bentley led a band of six sisters to St. Louis in June 1856. Although undeterred from helping others, early days in the city were difficult due to a lack of money, food, warm clothing and other necessities. During the Civil War, although Missouri joined the Confederacy, the state came under Union control after the capture of Fort Jackson. The sisters visited the wounded Union soldiers in the hospitals at the Fair Grounds, in private hospitals and homes where the wounded were housed. They brought reading material, cake, and other delicacies from wives and relatives. They also brought hampers of clothing, food, and drink to McDowell’s College where Confederate prisoners were confined. When three prisoners were sentenced to hang, “in retaliation,” the sisters met with them. They also visited Gratiot Prison where prominent St. Louis southern sympathizers were held. After the war, many widows and children were also cared for at the House of Mercy.

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




| Photograph, Smallpox victim | Painting, A Sister of Mercy and Soldier | Illustration, Naval Hospital |