Thursday, May 20, 2010

Angels of the Battlefield

In mid-summer of 2009 the Daughters of Charity, a religious order of Sisters in Emmitsburg, Maryland, about 10 miles south of Gettysburg, celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of their community. Part of their observance was a Civil War encampment, recalling the time when in late June of 1863 thousands of Federal troops camped on or near their convent grounds.

In his reminiscences about the battle Brevet Major General Regis de Trobriand of the Army of the Potomac remembered his encounter with some of the Sisters on July 1. He suggested to the Sister in charge that they pray to St. Joseph "to keep the Rebels away from here; for, if they come before I get away, I do not know what will become of your beautiful convent."

The following morning , July 2, de Trobriand received orders to hurry his troops to Gettysburg. "There I learned that the day before (July 1) a long and bloody battle had been fought."

For three days, July 1-3, Union and Confederate forces fought the bloody battle that many historians call "the turning point of the war." The number of casualties challenges comprehension. Federals numbered 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing; the Confederates numbered 3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing.

On the morning of July 5th, twelve of the Sisters, accompanied by a priest, took food, clothing, and medical supplies to the battlefield to care for the wounded. Sister Camilla O'Keefe remembered the hundreds of dying and wounded soldiers housed in temporary hospitals in army tents, public buildings, private farms, and even the borough's churches.

"The Catholic Church in Gettysburg," she wrote, "was filled with sick and wounded...The soldiers lay on the pew seats, under them and in every aisle. They were also in the sanctuary and the gallery, so close together that there was scarcely room to move about. Many of them lay in their own blood...but no word of complaint escaped from their lips."

Nearly 150 years later, the Sisters at Emmitsburg, commemorating their bicentennial, honored the service their predecessors contributed to the story of the Battle of Gettysburg.

A marker on the convent grounds records one chapter of the story: "By the end of June, 1863, an estimated 90,000 Union soldiers were located in or around these premises and some of their officers, situated in Mother Seton's White House, were planning battle strategies. It was feared that the battle would be fought here. Prayers were multiplied; orders for the Northern Army arrived. The men fell in line and took the dusty road north toward Gettysburg, where the bloody turning point of the war was fought."

Two years after the war ended, General de Trobriand recalled advising the Sisters to ask St. Joseph to keep the rebels away from Emmitsburg. He reminisced, "I have never returned to Emmittsburg (sic); but it would astonish me very little to hear that the two armies had gone on to Gettysburg to fight, on account of the miracles performed by St. Joseph, interceding in favor of these pious damsels."

On the convent grounds, however, the Sisters seem to attribute the averting of battle to the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph's spouse. A plaque reads, "The sisters promised that, should this danger be averted, a statue of Notre Dame Des Victoires (Our Lady of Victory) would be erected. This promise was fulfilled immediately after the Civil War, and for decades this symbol of their Protectress and her Divine Son has been honored in St. Joseph's Valley."

The Order of the Daughters of Charity was founded in 1809 by Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Her "daughters" now serve across the country and in several foreign lands. A stained glass window in St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg commemorates the service provided by these angels of the battlefield to the wounded and dying in the wake of the battle.


  1. It's "Irish" again. Thank you for telling the little-known story of these "Angels of Mercy" at Gettysburg! There must be more than one account, where the wounded and dying thought these Sisters looked like angels, with their 'winged' headdresses?

  2. Irish,

    Sr Camilla wrote an account of her experiences and it can be found at the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg. "To Bind Up The Wounds" by Sister Mary Denis Maher (Louisiana State University Press, 1989) is excellent.