Angels at Gettysburg

One interesting theme that we picked up along the way of this trip that I did not really anticipate was the medical history of the war. For example, Dr. Gordy Dammann explained one positive result of Antietam was the successful use of casualty evacuations by the Yankee, Dr. Jonathon Letterman. This system is the forerunner to the life saving transportation our wounded troops receive today in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also saw where Clara Barton began what becomes the Red Cross at Antietam. Indeed, George Washington University’s main campus was the site of a major hospital where Walt Whitman served as a nurse. And Penn Hall at Gettysburg College also served as a hospital during that battle.

sister angel

Venturing from Frederick to Gettysburg on Day 7, a stop to the St. Ann Seton Basilica in Emmittsburg, Maryland provided another unique look at the medical, but also an example of the role of religious faith during the war. St. Ann Seton began the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in 1809 which included the first Catholic school in the United States. By June 1863, her Order had grown to numerous cities around the nation when troops occupied St. Joseph’s fields as campgrounds days before Gettysburg erupted.

Lance Herdegen writes of the student reaction at St. Joseph’s Catholic College to the Iron Brigade:

When the dusty First Corps column tramped past Emmitsburg, students of St. Joseph’s Catholic College turned out to welcome the Black Hats. Several of them with “great enthusiasm’ kept pace with the column well beyond the town. “They were much interested in watching the movements of our advance guard and flankers, the feelers of the army,” observed one of the Black Hats.” They wanted to see us ‘flush with the enemy” (351-2).

According to our tour and the interesting Civil War display in the Basilica museum, Miracles Amid the

These graves represent 2 of the sisters who ventured to help Gettysburg's wounded on the battlefields.

These graves represent 2 of the sisters who ventured to Gettysburg’s battlefields to provide aide and comfort to the wounded.

Firestorm, the sisters provided bread and water to the northern soldiers who appeared “half starved, lank as herrings and barefoot.” So hungry were the marching soldiers that the Sisters gave all of their food away. However, a miracle occurred that evening when a sister discovered the entire “baking of the day was there. I did not see it multiplied but I saw it there.”

The sisters ventured the nine miles to Gettysburg during the battle as field nurses and care givers to both Yankees and Confederates. Indeed, their sisters helped wounded and sick soldiers around the country during the war. Their service was much appreciated by those soldiers in need and did much to ease apprehension towards Catholics at that time. Wounded soldiers at Gettysburg marveled that these women in their unique religious habits, which included the wide “winged” head-ware called a cornette. Wounded soldiers wrote the sisters appeared to be “angels” in the field. Sister reaction to the battlefield was disbelief:

“Finally we reached the scene of combat. What a frightful spectacle met our gaze! Houses burnt, dead bodies of both Armies strewn her and there, an immense number of slain horses, thousands of bayonets, sabres, 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 tears” (Source).

The role these sisters played at Gettysburg made me think that faith in the war would be an interesting theme to follow on a future Civil War Adventure. What role, if any, did the Jesuits play during the war? There was the Catholic Irish Brigade but were there other fighting units that were known for their faith? Watch the movies, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and you can almost imagine R.E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as 1980s television evangelists. Abolitionists of course worked through the Bible but did one side, the north or south, base its fight more in faith than the other?


An interesting note from our tour was that as the Confederates retreated through Emmitsburg after the battle, sisters from southern states ran to the road and asked for buttons from Rebels that represented their homes. Also, you can walk the field where 10,000 Yankees camped and see the home where General Howard stayed with his staff.


One thought on “Angels at Gettysburg

  1. Pingback: Longstreet & Rosecrans were Roommates, Rival Soldiers & Fellow Catholics. | HistoricaLese

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