The Battle of Gettysburg rode into Emmitsburg on June 27, 1863, a night as thunderous as the horses that bore Union soldiers to the doorstep of the Daughters of Charity.
When the Rev. Francis Burlando opened his door, he might hardly have expected to see Col. Philippe Regis de Trobriand. But the Union Army sought refuge before heading to Gettysburg, and trusted that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity would see to their care.
The Daughters of Charity were among the Civil War’s most renowned nurses, according to Seton historians. The Daughters, known as the “angels of the battlefield,” were technically trained medical workers at a time when most nurses knew how to use little more than cloth bandages, said Lisa Shower, a tour guide at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.
Forty years after Seton’s death, her home was the site of the encampment and war council that prepared Union troops for the Battle of Gettysburg. About 8,000 to 10,000 Northern troops stayed on their grounds for nearly four days before leaving for Gettysburg on July 1.
Now the Seton Heritage Center is chronicling the Daughters’ Civil War experiences in their “Charity Afire” exhibit and tours of the grounds.
Seton founded her community on 300 acres in Emmitsburg in the 19th century, modeling the community on the philanthropic principles of France’s St. Vincent de Paul.
Her mission: to teach and to heal.
The women ran hospitals nationwide during the war, including Satterlee Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Impossible to describe the condition of those poor wounded men,” Sister Camilla O’Keefe wrote of fallen soldiers at Gettysburg. “Generally the case where there is so much powder used, that they were covered with vermin … we could hardly bear this part of the filth.”
The Sisters’ signature white cornette hats and black bonnets became synonymous with care and professionalism, Seton historian Dee Gallo said.
“Their mission was to leave the moment and do what they had to do,” Gallo said. “They saw they needed to help. … They weren’t paying attention to the horror of what was going on.”
When fighting at Gettysburg ended, Burlando and 16 of the nearly 200 sisters at Emmitsburg crowded into an omnibus cart and headed north to treat the fallen.
“To see the men lying dead on the road — some by the side of their horses. O, it was beyond description,” O’Keefe wrote of the trip. “Hundreds of both armies lying dead almost on the track so that the driver had to be careful not to pass over the bodies. O! this picture of human beings slaughtered down by their fellow men in a cruel civil war was perfectly awful.”
Food shortages and disease often slowed the women’s work and anti-Catholic sentiment caused many patients to mistrust the Daughters. But their selflessness changed many minds.
“No one ever went into those hospitals and came out with anything less than the utmost respect for the sisters,” Gallo said.
The sisters often asked God to keep battles away from their land, Shower said.
Emmitsburg remained untouched.
After the war, their work earned recognition from the country’s highest office.
“Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were among the most efficient,” President Abraham Lincoln wrote. “More lovely than anything I had ever seen in art ... are the pictures that remain of these modest Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying.”
Follow Rachel S. Karas on Twitter: @rachelkaras.
If you go:
Charity Afire Museum Exhibit
Learn the intriguing stories of how the Sisters tended to the spiritual and medical needs of the soldiers from both armies. Read personal accounts, see artillery and bullet fragments from the battlefields, and view large panoramic images and photos.
All year: Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Miracles Amid the Firestorm Tour
Hear real-life accounts of miracles on the battlefields as witnessed by Sisters and Daughters of Charity who nursed the soldiers during the Civil War.
April to November: Fridays and Saturdays on the hour from noon to 3 p.m.
July 2 to July 7: Tuesday through Sunday on the hour from noon to 3 p.m.
All events are free and open to the public.