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Catholic Nuns in the American Civil War


150 years ago in April of 1862, the war was escalating and soldiers weren’t able to provide enough care for their sick and wounded. The call went out in both North and South for volunteer nurses.

Dorothea Dix recruited women in the North to serve, while in the South, thirty members of the Sisters of Charity were granted permission to aid the army.

Women, in this time period, didn’t work outside the home, so most only had experience caring for family members. The Sisters, however, already operated hospitals and were highly disciplined. This appealed to both armies.

Geographically, the Sisters were spread out all over the country, but didn’t take sides in the politics of the war. They served equally in both North and South. “Their mission was to serve persons marginalized by poverty, illness, ignorance, disability and injustice.” Soldiers called them the “black caps”.

Prior to the war, Catholic nuns didn’t wear their habits out in public because of discrimination against their religion in America. All across the country, children threw rocks at them, people threatened to burn down their convents and they were sometimes assaulted.

But during the war, their experience was badly needed and with it came respectability.

Mary Livermore, who worked with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, said: “I am neither Catholic, nor an advocate of the monastic institutions of the church… But I can never forget my experience during the War of the Rebellion… Never did I meet these Catholic sisters in hospitals, on transports, or hospital steamers, without observing their devotion, faithfulness, and unobtrusiveness. They gave themselves no airs of superiority or holiness, shirked no duty, sought no easy place, bred no mischiefs. Sick and wounded men watched for their entrance into the wards at morning, and looked a regretful farewell when they departed at night.”

The Sisters were present on the war’s bloodiest battlefields, serving with charity and compassion.

For more about nuns in the American Civil War, visit these sites:

For my romances set during and around the American Civil War, visit my website:



  1. I had no idea the nuns were taunted and afraid to go out in their habits. I guess this kind of hate has been around forever. They certainly were of great assistance during the war.

  2. Susan, now that you’ve mentioned it, of course nuns tended the sick in the Civil War. I am sorry they were not treated well, but that shows theri dedication to doing good and helping the helpless.

  3. Birdie says:

    I never thought about the religious discrimination. I come from an area that was heavily Catholic at the time (near Cajun country, on the border of MS and LA). My elementary school was built in 1862, but the nuns ran it as a hospital until 1865 when the Sisters of Mercy were finally able to use it for its original purpose. I’ve seen that particular illustration multiple times before, but I guess I never thought about its larger story. In fact, I think that illustration is the basis for part of my hometown’s mural wall:
    Thanks for an interesting read

  4. Hi, Paisley, Caroline and Birdie! I just got back from a long weekend, so wasn’t able to leave comments, but religioius discrimination against Roman Catholics was rampant in the early years of the United States. And, yes it was that very experience working in hospitals that made nuns so valuable in the Civil War.

    What a great mural, Birdie! Thanks for sharing!

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