Service in the South
Battles took place in all of the Confederate States. The blockade of southern ports led to the inability to get food, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities. Likewise, General William T. Sherman’s scorched earth policy in his “March to the Sea” across Georgia added greatly to the suffering.
Sister Paula Diann discusses more in-depth the experience of the Sisters of Mercy in Vicksburg and Arkansas.
Sisters of Mercy of Vicksburg, Mississippi
St. Francis Xavier Academy and Shelby Springs
The Sisters of Mercy from Baltimore arrived in Vicksburg on October 12, 1860, and opened St. Francis Xavier Academy. Eighteen months later, the city was subject to heavy bombing from Union gunboats in the struggle for control of the Mississippi River.
Mother M. de Sales Browne, a trained surgical nurse, accepted the Confederate army’s invitation to nurse the wounded soldiers. She closed the academy, turning it into a hospital for the sick and wounded who had been “lying about the city.”
Terror and death reigned. Measles, typhoid and other diseases took their toll. Citizens fled to caves to escape the bombing. The city held out for a year and finally surrendered on July 4, 1863, due to a lack of food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies.
As the war moved throughout the south, the Vicksburg sisters and their patients moved, too. Beginning in June 1862 the sisters were sent to Mississippi Springs to set up a hospital in a deserted house, but were soon relocated to Oxford. Attempting to stay ahead of the Union army, the hospital moved to Jackson and finally to Shelby Springs, Alabama.
Lack of staff, food, equipment, and medical supplies caused great hardship. The sisters shared the hardships and poor diet of their patients. Sister Mary Ignatius Sumner would say, “Let’s pray like there was something to eat.”
Despite the best efforts of the medical staff, many died from infectious diseases. Malaria, pneumonia, and dysentery resulted from long months of poor diet, exposure to the weather and ignorance about simple hygiene and infection.
A year before the close of the war, commanding Union General Slocum invited the sisters to return to Vicksburg. Four sisters completed the difficult journey only to learn that their convent and school were now the headquarters for the general. The remaining sisters continued to care for the wounded in Shelby Springs for the remainder of the war.
Sisters of Mercy of Arkansas
Little Rock and Helena
Nine Sisters of Mercy from Naas, Ireland, arrived in Arkansas in February of 1851. When hostilities broke out in 1861, they found themselves close enough to watch marching troops and listen to the exchange of gunfire. After a Union victory at Pea Ridge in May 1862, the sisters in Little Rock opened a hospital for Confederate wounded near the convent. Confederate officers ordered guards to protect the convent at night.
Union troops captured Little Rock in September 1863. At first, the soldiers treated the sisters poorly because they had nursed Confederates. This attitude changed when the sisters treated Union wounded equally well. Eventually, Union soldiers were assigned to protect the convent. They even shared their food with the convent’s orphans when no other food was available.
During the final years of the war, the boarders at the sisters’ academies were joined by many homeless children. The sisters struggled to care for them as there was a lack of food and medical supplies. Four sisters ended up dying. When the fighting stopped in April 1865, the suffering continued. As Sister Mary Paulinus Oakes noted in her book Tapestry of Mercy, the state was “burned out, used up, and laid waste.”
Helena, Arkansas, suffered constantly due to its location on the Mississippi River. A terrible battle was fought there on July 4, 1862, and the sisters nursed the Union and Confederate soldiers alike, believing all were children of God.
Sisters of Mercy St. Augustine, Florida
Sisters of Mercy from Providence, Rhode Island, established a community in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1859. In 1862 Union ships blockaded the harbor. Mother Mary Austin Carroll writes in her Annuals that when “the Yankees landed,” the bishop decided to move the sisters to safety in Georgia.
The bishop and the seven sisters, seated on their trunks in open wagons, left in a downpour on August 17, 1862, only to find themselves wading through the swamp when their wagons mired down. They were soon surrounded by Union soldiers who accused the bishop of taking slaves to Georgia disguised as sisters. After scrutinizing the faces and hands of two sisters, they were released. The group struggled onward: they were fired upon by guards in Jacksonville, the bishop was threatened by local guerillas, and their wagon crashed in a ravine. Finally they boarded a train for Savannah, where they stayed with local sisters. The perilous journey to safety ended in Columbus, Georgia, on September 4.
After their arrival in Columbus, the sisters began teaching local children and ministering to the sick. They subsisted on corn bread and tea made from blackberry leaves. Habits and veils were made from muslin and dyed black. Shoes were made of old carpets and heavy paper.
A week after the Confederate surrender, General James L. Wilson’s army bombarded Columbus from across the Chattahoochee River. The sisters gave sanctuary to women and children along with the resident orphans. They cared for the wounded, comforted the dying, and attempted to shelter the children from the bloody spectacle as the army entered the city.
During Reconstruction, soldiers came to the convent and demanded that the sisters take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. Sister Mary Xavier Sumner commented,
“We who were never Rebels were reconstructed.”
Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, Savannah, Georgia
St. Vincent’s Academy and Augusta
Bishop England’s Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy began St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah, Georgia, on June 13, 1845. During the Civil War sisters tended to sick and wounded soldiers in field hospitals and churches in Augusta.
During former Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ imprisonment, Mrs. Davis enrolled their daughter Maggie at St. Vincent’s. Their son Jeff also frequented the convent daily during the summer of 1865 to recite his lessons.
Thereafter in 1893, Mother Austin Carroll of New Orleans assisted the Savannah community in adopting the Sisters of Mercy Rule and Customs.
Sister Paula Diann discusses more in-depth the experience of the Sisters of Mercy in Florida and Georgia.
Several digitized archival artifacts from the Mercy Heritage Center and other repositories are located below.