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An Innocent VictimAngels of the Battlefield

Unlike any other history of its time, this quality reprint of a rare 1897 volume authored by George Barton chronicles the lives of numerous orders of women Religious in service to soldiers and others in need during the American Civil War.

Largely drawn on first-hand accounts by the Sisters and soldiers themselves, the recollections lend a vivid and uniquely Catholic perspective to any study of one of the darkest times in American history. The pre-civil war era was a high point in anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. Nuns with their highly noticeable habits were easy targets wherever they went, and many convents and schools were threatened with — and suffered from — mob violence in this era. It took a tragedy of tremendous proportions to lift American suspicion of Catholic nuns. That tragedy was the terrible suffering of the Civil War.

Catholic nuns served as nurses to soldiers in both sides of the conflict. Of “…the 3,200 female nurses who served in the Civil War, at least 580 were sisters…..” Sometimes they worked in hospitals relatively far from the action, but, just as often, they were brought quite near. Nuns arrived in Tennessee just days after the Battle of Shiloh to tend to the 5,000 wounded waiting in a particularly wet, miserable version of hell. They set up the initial care for the 50,000 wounded after Gettysburg. These Catholic Sisters won the good will of others because of their toughness, their courage, their excellent skills, and their compassion for all those who suffered.

The experience of the Civil War was echoed in communities across the country when Catholic nuns stepped in where others feared to tread, tending victims of epidemics, from cholera to yellow fever to influenza. Catholic Sisters won the battle for respect because they tended to hopeless cases, from orphans to the impoverished sick to prostitutes, without regard to religion, but only to need. Before the publication of this book in 1897, many other books had been written on the work of other women in the Civil War. However, nothing had yet been published concerning the self-sacrificing labors of Roman Catholic nuns. In quoting a Union Army chaplain: “The Sisters do not have reunions or camp-fires to keep alive the memories of the most bloody lustrum in our history, but their war stories are as heroic, and far more edifying, than many the veterans tell.”

In his Preface, the author, George Barton, goes on: “…. That genuine humility, so characteristic of the Sisters, has made the collection of the necessary data for this work very difficult. Most of the stories embodied in the pages that follow have been gathered by personal interviews, through examinations of various archives and records and by extensive correspondence with Government officials, veterans of the war and the Superiors of convents and religious communities (of nuns). It is impossible to enumerate all those who have aided in the work…..”

Angels of the Battlefield is composed of 28 chapters. Among others are:

  • The Orders That Participated;
  • Sister Anthony at Shiloh;
  • Sisters of Charity of Nazareth;
  • Sisters of Mt. St. Vincent;
  • The Sisters of Mercy;
  • Sisters of St. Joseph;
  • Sisters of the Holy Cross

And 21 others.

Angels of the Battlefield is filled with so much extraordinary information — every student of Catholic and Civil War history should have a copy of this work. Within its pages are many descriptions of valor and sacrifice. It is incredible that these stories are not incuded in textbooks of American History.

Following are excerpts from the chapter focusing on the Sisters of Charity of Mt St Vincent:“….. Much, very much might be said of our work in Richmond, but God alone could tell the story. En route from (Cincinnati) we witnessed sights the most appalling; the grounds were covered with wounded, dying and dead bodies. Some of the dead bodies were only partially covered, hands and feet protruding….”

From the Sisters of Mercy: “…..The Sisters became part of the patients’ lives. They did more than nurse them. They cheered them in their hours of despondency and wrote letters for them to the anxious ones at home…..”

From the Sisters of Charity: “…. The wounded and dying men were hurredly placed upon transport boats. These vessels were so overcrowded that they seemed more like sinking than sailing. The Sisters were detailed to accompany the wounded to the several cities where they were destined, the work of transportation continuing for several weeks. The Sisters shared with their patients every horror but their bodily pains. They were in the lower cabins, the ceiling of which was low and the apartment lighted by hanging lamps and candles. The men lay on beds on the floor with scarcely enough space to walk between them. The Sister in charge of this lower ward was so persevering in her zealous attention that even the doctor declard he did not know how human nature could endure such duties. A few months later, this Sister died from the effects of overwork — a martyr to duty …..”

From the Sisters of Charity: “….. When they arrived at Manassas, they found five hundred patients, including men of both armies, awaiting them. The mortality was very great as the wounded men had been very much neglected. The wards of the temporary hospital were in the most deplorable condition and strongly resisted all efforts of the broom to which they had long been strangers. It was finally discovered that the aid of a shovel was necessary…..” “…. The Sisters were in constant danger from bomb shells which had not exploded and which only required a slight jar to burst. The ground was covered with these and it was hard to distinguish them while the carriage wheels were rolling over straw and dry leaves….”

See page excerpts here

Angels of the Battlefield is a book that should be in every collection or library focusing on the history of women religious. The book has been completely re-typeset and the century-old graphics have been restored and enhanced. It is printed on cream paper and contains 336 pages. An extensive appendix contains additional historic and anecdotal information. Its study will enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the Civil War period as well as of some of the ways in which Catholics contributed to its history. A future study guide is also planned. With the publication of our first book, we believe that many readers — from students to armchair historians to “those who just love the Sisters” — will have a great interest in its contents. 

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