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The Daughters of Charity of Emmitsburg
& the Battle of Gettysburg

Sister Eleanor Casey, DC
Emmitsburg Province

In the summer of 1863 the Civil War was well into its second year. The war, which optimists expected to end in a few weeks, would last two more years and cost thousands more lives. Almost from the first shots at Fort Sumter, Daughters and Sisters of Charity and sisters of many other communities answered the call to nurse in military hospitals and on the battlefield. Many sisters worked in the cities where they were missioned. Others traveled from battlefield to battlefield north and south.

One Daughter of Charity, Sister Mary Conlan, died of typhoid at Point Lookout, MD while nursing the wounded. In late June 1863, the war came to Emmitsburg. The armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia succeeded each other at St. Joseph’s. The sisters fed the soldiers encamped on the grounds. So many were hungry that Sister Mary Jane Stokes feared that there would be no bread for the sisters for breakfast. When she went to the bake-house, she found the next day’s baking intact. “I did not see it multiply, but I did see it there.”

The brick house on tollgate hill and St. Joseph’s Rectory were requisitioned for military headquarters. General Howard, later the founder of Howard University in Washington, DC, was among those at the rectory. Surrounded by soldiers, the sisters prayed that the battle they knew was coming would not be fought on their land. The armies moved north to Gettysburg. There on July 1 the battle, which most historians consider the turning point of the war, began.

Writing on July 8 to Father Jean Baptiste Etienne, Superior General of the Vincentians, Father Francis Burlando, the director of the Daughters of Charity, attempted to describe conditions. “On July first the battle commenced about nine miles from Emmitsburg; it continued three days. Two hundred thousand men were in the field and on each side there were from one hundred to one hundred-thirty pieces of cannon. The roar of these agents of death and destruction was fearful in the extreme, and their smoke rising to heaven formed dense clouds as during a frightful tempest. The Army of the South was defeated and in their retreat left their dead and wounded on the battlefield. What number of victims perished during this bloody engagement? No one yet knows but it is estimated that the figures rise to 50,000!”

During the battle the sisters prayed for the combatants. On Sunday, the day after the battle ended, several sisters and Father Burlando set out for Gettysburg. Amid the carnage they began to care for those who had been moved to the churches and hotels of the city. Sisters were assigned in pairs to various locations. The next day more sisters arrived, some from Baltimore and others from St. Joseph’s. Government supplies began to arrive to supplement what the sisters had been able to provide. For as long as there were wounded, the sisters nursed the sick, and comforted and baptized the dying of both armies. One group of nearly 200 men was cared for in the field for three weeks until they could be taken to hospitals in New York and Philadelphia.

Gettysburg conjures up visions of Pickett’s Charge, the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard, and Big and Little Round Top. Cannon balls can still be seen in the walls of the Lutheran Seminary. Among the victims of the battle was Gen John Reynolds. Reynolds was born in Lancaster, PA in 1820. He was a graduate of West Point and served in the Mexican War. On his way from California, where he had been stationed, to become commandant of West Point he met Mary Catherine Hewitt. She was a young woman from Oswego, NY. She had been working as a governess in California but was from a wealthy family. Although she was much younger than Reynolds, he fell in love with “Fair Kate.” Kate was a Catholic.

John a Protestant. He had a reputation for reserve. They planned to announce their engagement after the battle, when John would be on leave. John gave Kate his West Point ring. She gave him a medal and a ring which he wore on a chain around his neck. They agreed that if he were killed she would join a religious community. Reynolds’ brothers and sisters were astonished to learn that he had a fiancée, but were kind to her after his death. According to her promise Kate entered the Sisters of Charity at Emmitsburg later in July. She was given the name Sister Hildegarde, and assigned to teach. She persevered for five years, but left the community in 1868 due to illness. The Reynolds family attempted to trace her and Civil War buffs have tried as well. To date no one has solved the mystery.

This 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg will be celebrated belatedly this year by thousands of re-enactors. Rain, which also followed the battle in 1863, made the ground too wet this year for a July commemoration. Those who fought and died, those who cared for the dead and wounded will be remembered. In Lincoln’s words, at the dedication of the cemetery in November 1863, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Read other stores on Emmitsburg in the Civil War

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