Cincinnati's Sister Anthony O'Connell: "Angel" of the Civil War battlefield

Feb 26, 2015

Throughout the Civil War, on the bloody battlefields and in the hospitals overflowing with the wounded, many a mortally wounded young soldier left this life looking into the kindly face of a nun from Cincinnati.

“Lord have mercy on his soul,’’ were the last words he heard, and a promise from the woman dressed in black that she would tell his mother that he died bravely.

She was Sister Anthony O’Connell, known throughout the Union Army as “the Angel of the Battlefield.”

With Sister Anthony as their leader, 42 nuns of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati left their peaceful home at Cedar Grove in Price Hill, where Elder and Seton high schools now stand, to travel the country, from Tennessee to Maryland, to treat the wounded and comfort the dying.

Today, next to the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse in Delhi Township, they rest in peace in the religious order’s cemetery, high atop a hill overlooking the Ohio River. You can pick out their grave sites because they are marked not only by the headstone cross but a second marker – one that says “U.S. Army Nurse.”

“They were better trained than any other nurses in the Civil War,’’ said Sister Judith Metz, the archivist of the Sisters of Charity. “This was a time when many believed that women were not fit to be nurses, not capable of doing the job.”

But Sister Anthony was the director of nursing at St. John’s Hospital in Cincinnati, which was run by the order and later became Good Samaritan Hospital. All of the sisters were trained in medicine by the doctors there.

The Civil War mission of Sister Anthony  began in May 1861, about a month after the war started.  At Camp Dennison in northeast Hamilton County, about 12,000 recruits were training for service in the Union Army. A measles epidemic had broken out in the camp; and men were dying in large numbers.

Archbishop John Purcell and George Hatch, then the mayor of Cincinnati, went to Sister Anthony and asked if a group of sisters could go to Camp Dennison to tend to the sick.

Sister Anthony said they would; and about half of the sisters of the order volunteered to go, taking the railroad line along the Little Miami River to the camp.

From Camp Dennison, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati traveled with the Army throughout the war, from Tennessee to Maryland, treating and comforting wounded soldiers on battlefields and in hospitals behind the lines.

And their work was not limited to wounded Union soldiers. They treated many Confederates as well, especially those who had been taken prisoner.

“Most of these young soldiers were Protestants, from small towns and farms, and many of them had never seen a nun before,’’ Sister Judith Metz said. “They weren’t comfortable with it at first. They called them ‘Holy Marias’ and a whole lot of other names. But it didn’t take long for the kindness and compassion of the sisters to win them over.”

That was evident in the diary of one Union soldier who was treated by Sister Anthony on a hospital ship anchored on the Tennessee River during the bloody battle of Shiloh in April 1862.

“Amid this sea of blood, she performed the most revolting duties for those poor soldiers,’’ he wrote. “She seemed like a ministering angel and many a young soldier owes his life to her care and charity.”

Sister Anthony, Sister Judith Metz said, “was a natural born leader.”

She was born Mary O'Connell in Limerick, Ireland in 1814, migrating to Massachusetts with her family as a young girl.

At the age of 21, she became a nun, joining the Sisters of Charity founded by St. Elizabeth Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Two years later, the order sent her to Cincinnati to open an orphanage and she ended up as the head of nursing at St. John’s Hospital, which was located at Third and Plum streets downtown.

In the spring of 1862, Sister Anthony and a group of Sisters of Charity boarded a hospital ship in Cincinnati and made the long journey to Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. There, just beyond the river bank, the battle of Shiloh was raging. News reports of the carnage at Shiloh was the event that convinced most Americans, both North and South, that this war was going to be a long and bloody war.

Sister Anthony wrote in her diary of the horrors of the battle.

“At Shiloh, we ministered to the men on what were popularly known as floating hospitals,’’ Sister Anthony wrote. “We were often obliged to move further up the river, being unable to bear the stench from the bodies of the dead on the battlefield.”

She wrote, too, of “one poor fellow, whose nose had been completely shot off, and was nearly missed by the stretcher bearers. When found, the young soldier was placed in a hog pen, the only place of shelter and repose remaining.

“Before he could be brought to the boat, he had lost blood enough one would think to cause death; his clothes were saturated and the blood even reached his boots,’’ she wrote.

He became one of hundreds of wounded soldiers brought back to Cincinnati and treated at the Burnet House, a luxury hotel converted temporarily into a hospital, and other area hospitals.

Sister Anthony returned with them, working at the Burnet House. One day, she said, an “old gentleman” came to the hospital, saying he had heard his son might be there.

She walked him through the wards, without finding his son, when it occurred to her that the boy with the missing nose might be his son. The father could not recognize the boy because of the disfigurement of his face, but he looked at the soldier's hands and found a scar between his fingers that he recognized.

“Soon, father and son were locked in a fond embrace,’’ Sister Anthony wrote. “He took his darling back with him to his home.”

Sister Anthony and the other Sisters of Charity moved from place to place during the war – working in hospitals in Cumberland, Md.; Nashville, and Richmond, Ky. After the Richmond battle in August 1862, a Union defeat, 40 horse-drawn ambulances were sent to the Kentucky battlefield from Cincinnati, along with six Sisters of Charity. They treated wounded soldiers in the field; and brought hundreds back to Cincinnati to receive care.

Sister Anthony and the Sisters of Charity had good relations with the Union leadership, who needed all the help they could get with a strained Army medical corps that depended largely on volunteer nurses, often the wives of soldiers. In all, over 600 nuns from a multitude of religious orders served as nurses during the war.

“The sisters were highly regarded because they did not have to be taught,’’ Sister Judith Metz said. “They had skills that few of the other nurses had.”

At Nashville, when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman visited the hospital where the Sisters of Charity were working, he joked with the soldiers about the black-clad women who were treating them.

Sister Mary Ann McCann, in her 1917 book, “The History of Mother Seton’s Daughters,’’ quoted Sherman as saying, “Come on, boys. You are only foxing (faking) it to get all the good things that these kind sisters prepare for you.”

At the end of the war in 1865, Sister Anthony and the other sisters returned to the order, which moved its Motherhouse to Delhi Township in the 1880s.

Sister Anthony went on serving after the war, tending to the poor and sick at Good Samaritan Hospital and the St. Joseph Infant and Maternity Home. She died on Dec. 8, 1897 – her 83rd birthday.

Archbishop William Elder asked that her funeral be held at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral downtown; and every seat was taken, with hundreds unable to get inside, standing on the cathedral steps. Many of the mourners wore the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic – the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.

Today, at the Motherhouse, her belongings are cherished by the sisters – the battered medical kit she carried throughout the war, along with her eyeglasses, her rosary, a small pair of scissors and a pocket knife.

“The fact that these things survived and are preserved tells you something,’’ Sister Judith Metz said. “It is a testimony to how highly she was thought of. And always will be.”