PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — They were Poles, Austrians, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Irish — especially Irish — and they had one thing in common. They were Catholics, many of them new immigrants but loyal Americans.
Seven score and 10 years ago, as President Abraham Lincoln might say, many of them participated in the crucial Battle of Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863, and some of them are among the honored dead Lincoln memorialized in his famous address Nov. 19, 1863, which he delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg.
Certainly Catholicism was still a minority religion in 19th-century America, but Catholics were there. Just exactly how many of them fought at Gettysburg is impossible to say, according to Anthony Waskie, a Temple University professor and member of St. Laurentius Parish in Philadelphia, who is the principal author of “Philadelphia and the Civil War: Arsenal of the Union” published in 2011.
Religion was not a statistic kept by the military, and one of the best determinants is the nationality of the soldiers who comprised a unit. One of the most famous such units was the Irish Brigade which in 1862 participated in several battles including Antietam, Md., and Fredericksburg, Va.
By 1863 at the time of Gettysburg, the brigade was commanded by Brig. Gen. Patrick Kelly, a New Yorker who later was killed at the siege of Petersburg, Va.
“Three of the regiments were from New York, one was from Boston and one was from Pennsylvania,” Waskie explained. “The Pennsylvania regiment was the 116th led by Col. St. Clair Mulholland. He was an Irish immigrant and quite well educated. He was the recipient of the Medal of Honor for the Battle of Chancellorsville (in Virginia).”
Eventually he would rise to the rank of major general in the volunteer service. After the war he became active in Philadelphia politics and was Philadelphia’s chief of police, and he is buried in Old Cathedral Cemetery.
The Boston regiment brought a chaplain with them to Gettysburg — Holy Cross Father William Corby. A memorable event of the battle was Father Corby standing on a rock giving his Irish troops general absolution. Years later, through the efforts of Mulholland, a statue showing Father Corby giving absolution was erected on the rock where he stood.
A little while after the war the priest was named president of what was then Notre Dame College, in South Bend, Ind. A duplicate statue was later erected on the campus.
“The 69th Pennsylvania was not in the Irish Brigade, but they were overwhelmingly Irish and they suffered very heavily at Gettysburg,” Waskie said in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
More than 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the battle considered the turning point in the war, leading to the South’s eventual surrender two years later.
Another Catholic presence at Gettysburg were about a dozen Daughters of Charity, there to nurse the wounded. “They had a priest with them, Father Francis Burlando, a Vincentian,” Waskie said.
In Gettysburg, St. Francis Xavier Church became a battlefield hospital. Today Gettysburg is part of the Harrisburg Diocese, which was established in 1868.
Stained-glass windows in the church depict scenes of wounded soldiers being cared for by nuns. The celebration of an outdoor field Mass commemorating the dead and wounded has long been a tradition for the parish.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who is a history buff, was to celebrate an evening Mass at the church July 6 to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.
For the most part the Catholic sisters did not nurse the wounded on the battlefield, but in the huge military hospitals that sprang up both in the North and the South. While many congregations supplied sister-nurses during the conflict, the Daughters of Charity were the most active, even to the point of temporarily closing schools for lack of remaining teaching sisters.
In Philadelphia, there was the Satterlee Military Hospital (1862-65) in West Philadelphia and in Chestnut Hill the Mower Military Hospital (1863-65). The Satterlee had 4,500 beds and the Mower had 3,600 beds.
By comparison, both were larger than the four largest hospitals combined in today’s Philadelphia.
Shortly after the Satterlee opened, Sister Mary Gonzaga Grace, assigned by her order to St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum in Philadelphia, was asked to take charge of the Daughters of Charity who would serve as nurses at the hospital.
“The men really loved her, she was legendary, and afterward the men would write to her,” Waskie said.
Initially there were 42 sisters; over the next three years the total number of sisters who served at the hospital at various times was 91.
When the sisters arrived, the newly constructed hospital had about 900 patients. Within a couple of months that rose to 1,500 especially after the Battle of Second Bull Run in Virginia.
Soldiers, after being stabilized at field hospitals, were brought up from Virginia by train. Some were wounded, others were suffering from swamp fever, chronic dysentery, typhoid fever and even small pox, Sister Mary Gonzaga wrote.
The real trial came after Gettysburg, when the hospital population rose to more than 5,000 with the overflow housed in tents.
One sister, Sister Margaret Hamilton, wrote, “When they arrived at the hospital many wounds were full of vermin and in many cases gangrene had set in. The odor was almost unbearable. The demand on our time and labor was so increased that the number of nurses seemed utterly inadequate and the hospital presented a pure picture of the horrors of war.”
Most amazing of the more than 6,000 wounded and sick that passed through Satterlee Hospital in the month or so after Gettysburg, only 110 died.
— By Lou Baldwin who writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and Phaith magazine, the archdiocesan magazine.