The Daughters of Charity and the Battle of Gettysburg

Three days of heavy fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in more than 45,000 Union and Confederate casualties. From the time that the first shots were fired on July 1st, and for the next several weeks, the town of Gettysburg was flooded with wounded soldiers. Nearly all available public buildings in town, as well as private homes, were used as hospitals. While the buildings in the town of Gettysburg took on a new character as hospitals, the citizens of Gettysburg and surrounding towns took on new roles of their own; as caretakers of wounded soldiers. Among this group were the Daughters of Charity, an order of Catholic nuns headquartered in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More than 230 Daughters of Charity served as nurses during the American Civil War. These Sisters worked in hospitals both in the North and South, providing medical care for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The Emmitsburg community of the Daughters of Charity provided nearly one-third of the Catholic nuns who nursed wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Founded in 1809 by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Daughters of Charity’s presence in Emmitsburg included a convent, an orphanage, and a school for Catholic girls, St. Joseph’s Academy. As the Union and Confederate armies marched toward Gettysburg in late June, elements of the Union army moved through Emmitsburg, including the property owned by the nuns.  On the night of July 27, just as the Sisters were preparing for bed, they heard the gallop of horses’ hooves and rushed to their windows, where they saw elements of the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps encamped near their convent. These turned out to be troops of General Regis De Trobriand’s brigade, whom Sister Marie Lousie Caufield described as being tired and “hungry as wolves.” The next day, the Sisters provided De Trobriand’s men with bread, butter, and coffee, a task which Sister Camilla O’Keefe said was a “pleasure for the Sisters to be able to satisfy the hunger of so many.” Sister Marie Louise Caufield and Sister Camilla O’Keefe likely provided some of these soldiers with one of the last meals they would ever eat, before they marched off to Gettysburg.

As fighting raged in Gettysburg from July 1-3, the Daughters of Charity could hear cannon fire in the distance, especially during Pickett’s Charge. When the guns fell silent and the battle had ended, Father Francis Burlando, the Chaplain of the Daughters of Charity’s Emmitsburg community, gathered a small group of Sisters to travel to Gettysburg to care for wounded soldiers. This party set out on July 5th, and as they made their way toward the town of Gettysburg, they travelled through the heart of the battlefield. Thus, they encountered the gory aftermath of battle firsthand. Father Burlando recalled:

What a frightful spectacle met our gaze! Houses burnt, dead bodies of both Armies strewn here and there, an immense number of slain horses, thousands of bayonets, sabres [sic], wagons, wheels, projectiles of all dimensions, blankets, caps, clothing of every color covered the woods and fields. We were compelled to drive very cautiously to avoid passing over the dead. Our terrified horses drew back or darted forward reeling from one side to the other. The farther we advanced the more harrowing was the scene; we could not restrain our tearsThe inhabitants were just emerging from the cellars to which they had fled for safety during the combat; terror was depicted on every countenance; all was confusion.”

Upon reaching Gettysburg, Father Burlando established himself in the Gettysburg Hotel and sent the sisters out to the various hospital sites in town. The most notable of the places where the Daughters of Charity nursed was St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church on High Street.  Here, the Sisters cared for the men of the Third Division of the Army of the Potomac’s First Corps. The Sisters provided invaluable services at St. Francis Xavier. This hospital was understaffed, due to the high volume of wounded soldiers there, many of whom had been there since the church had been converted into a hospital on July 1st. The Sisters, as a result, were constantly at work, cleaning wounds and soothing dying soldiers. The Sisters who nursed at St. Francis Xavier became popular amongst the wounded soldiers for the selfless care which they provided. In recognition of the Daughters of Charity’s efforts in St. Francis Xavier, as well as at Gettysburg’s other hospitals, the Parish installed a plaque on the front of church as well as a stained-glass window depicting the Sisters at work as nurses.

Memorial tablet to the Daughters of Charity at the Catholic Church in Gettysburg (Lydia Strickling)

By July 6, there were eleven Sisters nursing in Gettysburg, at St. Francis Xavier and elsewhere. Those Sisters working in hospitals located in other churches enjoyed seeing the puzzled look on Commissary officials faces when they told the officials to send supplies to a church other than the Catholic Church. Gettysburg’s close proximity to Emmitsburg (about 10 miles) allowed the Daughters of Charity to send additional nurses to supplement Father Burlando’s initial group, as well as send the Sister- nurses in Gettysburg food and supplies as they cared for Gettysburg’s wounded. The Daughters of Charity encountered unpleasantness no matter the hospital they were stationed. They were tasked with cleaning wounds, some of which had become infested with maggots by the time of their cleaning, and combing lice out of the hair of wounded soldiers, amongst other duties. An unfortunate side-effect of this aspect of the Sisters’ services was that many of them brought lice and other vermin that hid in their clothing back to Emmitsburg when they finally returned there.  Not only did the Sisters provide medical care to wounded soldiers, but they also performed baptisms for dying soldiers who requested them. This included a group of about sixty Confederate prisoners, of whom Sister Camilla O’Keefe said “Their religion [had been] live as long as you could and enjoy life while it lasted” before they were baptized as Catholics.

One of the most remarkable stories to come out of the Daughters of Charity’s service as nurses in Gettysburg is that of Sisters Veronica and Serena Klemkiewicz. In addition to caring for wounded soldiers, they and other Sisters were responsible for searching the battlefield for soldiers still living amongst the dead soldiers who were not yet buried. On one occasion, Sisters Veronica and Serena, fellow Daughters of Charity as well as sisters in real life, encountered a man on Culp’s Hill whose face was covered in blood, crying out for water. When the Klemkiewicz sisters wiped the blood from the man’s face, they discovered, to their surprise, that this was their brother, Thaddeus. Thaddeus was a Private in the 1st Maryland Battalion (a Confederate regiment that would later become known as the 2nd Maryland) and had been badly wounded attacking the Union’s positions on Culp’s Hill. Sister Serena was able nurse her brother back to health and he survived the war. This impromptu family reunion was unlike most of the experiences had by the Daughters of Charity at Gettysburg, though they cared for these total strangers as though they were their own brothers.

Memorial Window in Catholic Church

The magnificent stained glass window in the Catholic Church in Gettysburg that commemorates the services of the Daughters of Charity after the battle of Gettysburg, (Lydia Strickling)

In the summer of 1863, when the Civil War arrived on the doorstep of the Daughters of Charity’s Emmitsburg community, its Sisters responded with courage and bravery. They cared for the most ghastly battlefield injuries and guided the mortally wounded from one world to the next. The Daughters of Charity were one of 12 orders of Catholic Nuns who served as nurses during the American Civil war, and their important work as nurses was instrumental in softening anti-Catholic public sentiment that was widespread in America in the mid-nineteenth century. This change in feeling was present in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, when an old man traveled to the town to find his wounded son. He checked into the Gettysburg Hotel, and upon seeing the Daughters of Charity coming and going from the hotel, caring for wounded soldiers, he asked the hotel’s owner: “Good God, can those Sisters be the persons, whose religion we always run down[?]” The owner replied: “Yes… they are the very persons, who are run down by those, who know nothing of their charity.”

Lydia Strickling
Interpretive Ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park

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This entry was posted in Aftermath, Civilians, Historical Memory, Hospitals, Sisters of Charity. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Daughters of Charity and the Battle of Gettysburg

  1. David M Sherman says:

    Fantastic article…. Wonderful research. Thank you for this incredible addition to our knowledge of the Battle.

  2. David M Sherman says:

    Fantastic article and wonderful research.

  3. Steven Pacholyk says:

    Thank you for brining to light, this brave and caring group of people, most know nothing about.

    Nicely done

  4. Jim Chrismer says:

    As a descendant of one of the sisters who accompanied Father Burlando to Gettysburg, thank you for writing of the extraordinary work these women contributed at a time of nativist intolerance when they were routinely subjected to suspicion and condemnation.

  5. Debra Novotny says:

    Lydia, I really enjoyed your article. Technically, the order that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded was the “Sisters of Charity.” This group is different than the Daughters of Charity. Now, though, the Daughters own the Mother Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg. I never heard that there was a sister of Thaddia (Sister Serena) Klemkiewicz. Thanks for your blog!

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