Into the Storm
The towns, farms and people of Frederick County were critical participants in the days leading to the Civil War's bloodiest battle.
Emmitsburg, June 26, 1863— Farmhand Joseph Brawner finished his chores for the day on fields owned by the Daughters of Charity. Tomorrow, he thought, he would begin cutting the clover fields.
Sister Mary Louise Caulfield, who managed the farm workers, and Mother Ann Simeon were turning in for the night when the sister heard unusual sounds outside. She drew to the window and looked out to see lights on a nearby hill and heard the neighing of horses. To get a better view, the two women rushed to the academy building on the campus, climbing the stairs to the observatory where other sisters had already gathered, watching the lights on the hill. Great anxiety was in the air because the sisters, along with other county residents, were aware that the Confederate army had already crossed the Potomac River and was heading north.
As day broke on June 27, Brawner looked out a window at his home. What had been a lush clover field the evening before, was now barren ground, the emerald pasture grazed away by hundreds of horses, with thousands of Union troops camped all around.
The war had come to Frederick County, Emmitsburg and the Daughters of Charity. But no one knew the pending battle would be one of the bloodiest of the Civil War, nor the role the sisters would play.
Angels of the Battlefield
The Daughters of Charity was founded in 1809 as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s in Emmitsburg by Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the first American-born saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Her vision of mission was serving the needy, teaching children and caring for the sick and dying. Sisters of Charity communities were also established in other parts of the country.
In 1850, the sisters of Emmitsburg united with the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, based in France. The community in France was recognized for the nursing care the sisters provided. During the American Civil War, the Daughters of Charity of Emmitsburg, as well as Sisters of Charity communities, would become known for the nursing care they provided the wounded and sick of both the Union and Confederate armies. The sisters were easily recognized by their coincidentally blue-and-gray habits and crisply starched white cornettes, which looked like wings. They were called “angels of the battlefield.”
By the time the war began, the Daughters of Charity had more than 30 years experience in health care in this country. The Civil War would be their first experience in battlefield and military nursing care, which, until then, had been the domain of male nurses. “It was rare for a woman to nurse a man she wasn’t related to,” says John Fieseler, executive director of the Tourism Council of Frederick County.
The sisters always traveled to the hospital or the battlefield that was in need. They provided nursing care following the Battle of Antietam—on the battlefield and in the hospitals, including those in Frederick, which is often described as being “one vast hospital” following that battle. About a dozen sisters spent most of 1862 nursing the wounded in Frederick.
But in June 1863, soldiers were at their door and the sisters, as well as many residents around Frederick County, feared the coming battle would take place on their home ground. “They were accustomed to soldiers needing help, going to the battlefields and hospitals. They didn’t expect it to come to them here,” says Lisa Shower, a living historian and Seton Way guide who also developed the “Miracles Amid the Firestorm” Civil War tour at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg.
Not a Typical June
“June 1863 was relatively quiet here, much as we see it today. It was a working farm,” Shower says during a recent tour of the Daughters of Charity property. The roughly 300-acre tract of land remained intact until 1979, she says, when part of it was sold. The Gothic Building, where Sister Mary Louise lived, was demolished in 1964. In the city of Frederick, many local churches, which were used as hospitals following Antietam, had spent months cleaning up and had just reopened to parishioners in the spring, Fieseler says.
But by the end of June 1863, an estimated 90,000 Union soldiers were located in and around the county, including a lively encampment at the Hessian Barracks in the city of Frederick that drew large crowds of local residents to observe the occupying companies. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 troops were camped at St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Shower says.
It took several days for all the Union troops to cross the Potomac River into Maryland. They traveled and camped around many Frederick County towns in fields and open woods, says George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick.
“Most of the wounded from Antietam are pretty much gone, but the Hessian Barracks is open all during the war,” Wunderlich says. The barracks served as a general hospital and would see roughly 30,000 patients throughout the course of the war. It was staffed by the U.S. Army and, at times, the Daughters of Charity.
“The army arrives in 1863, some are sick, injured in common accidents,” Wunderlich says. “Any time an army came to town, people died. They brought diseases with them—dysentery, typhoid fever—kids died. Armies are not necessarily a welcome sight.”
Soldiers were known to bring their personal problems with them, too, he says. There are accounts of fights, petty theft, even one soldier who was killed by the blade tip of his own sword during a fight.
And there was fear. Where was Lee going to go? What if Gen. George Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, fails and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee defeats the Union army? Would he come through Frederick to take Washington or capture Baltimore? The economic impact could be crippling for Frederick and the surrounding area, which was still recovering from the ravages of the Battle of Antietam, just nine months earlier.
Meanwhile, Union Gen. Herman Haupt was responsible for constructing and operating military railroads, and organizing trains to keep the Union army supplied. This raised concern among Frederick farmers, who feared their produce would rot—along with their income—if they lost transportation routes to the army. Haupt “sucks all the air out of the room when it comes to railroad transportation, which affects life here,” Wunderlich says.
The sisters in Emmitsburg, numbering about 200, were fearful that the battle would take place there. Most of the sisters were in their late teens and early 20s, Shower says, although a few were in their 50s.
Many of the students at the all-girl St. Joseph’s Academy had been sent home. The sisters’ time was now consumed with providing food for the soldiers. Coffee, buttered bread and cold meats were served, as long as the supply lasted. Sister Mary Jane Stokes wrote that “the poor fellows looked half-starved, lank as herrings, and barefoot.” After watching the sisters feverishly slice and butter bread for the soldiers, she feared there would be no bread left for the sisters’ breakfast the next day. However, when she went to check on the supply, she was amazed to see “the baking of the day was there. I did not see it multiplied, but I saw it there,” she wrote.
The White House, also called St. Joseph’s House (and the former home of Mother Seton), was where Union officers conducted a war council to prepare for the battle. A doctor from Emmitsburg was living in the house at the time, Shower says.
The doctor may have been displaced by the June 15, 1863, great fire of Emmitsburg, which started in a stable and burned many homes and businesses, including the doctor’s. Fifty-four families were left homeless and the Daughters of Charity were among those who offered assistance, according to accounts from the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society.
The fire was still smoldering when Union troops arrived at the end of June. There was some concern by the troops that it was set by Confederate soldiers in the town. A local man, a Union sympathizer, was charged with arson, setting the fire to prevent advancing Confederates from raiding the town. He was later found not guilty of the charges.
Troop Activity Elsewhere
On June 28, 1863, Gen. Meade replaced Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac, which took place at Prospect Hall in Frederick. Meade took a day to develop a plan to confront Lee, who had crossed into Maryland near Williamsport and then into Pennsylvania, “at the skinniest part of Maryland,” Fieseler says. George A. Custer was promoted to brigadier general at the City Hotel in Frederick and met his first cavalry troop at Richfield, just north of Frederick along what is now U.S. 15. Custer camped just south of Emmitsburg, near the old tollgate house.
On June 30, the troops began to leave Frederick County and head north into Pennsylvania to a yet-tobe- determined destination to confront the Confederates. Tens of thousands of Union troops moved through the towns.
Catherine Reynolds Cramer, a Frederick resident and cousin of Union Gen. John F. Reynolds, wrote, “All day Saturday the cavalry was passing up Market Street … Saturday night we were kept awake by the noisy wagon trains … There was scarcely any possibility of crossing the street for the countless multitudes who were pouring through.”
Jacob Engelbrecht, a famous diarist of life in Frederick, wrote, “I should suppose to say 70 or 80,000” troops marched through the town. By comparison, the population of Frederick was estimated to be about 8,000 at the time, Fieseler says.
That June happened to be a rainy month, Fieseler notes. Union Gen. Abner Doubleday, who marched through Lewistown, complained about the conditions. Roads and the C&O Canal towpath were muddy and slick. Soldiers and horses slipped and fell into the rain-swollen Potomac. Troops crossing the Monocacy Aqueduct at night reportedly put lit candles on the tips of bayonets to see their way across in the darkness, Fieseler says.
As the troops marched through Emmitsburg on June 30 on what is now South Seton Avenue, the sisters of the Daughters of Charity prayed for them as they passed by, knowing the men would soon be facing a battle. Women fluttered handkerchiefs and men waved their hats as men from Gen. David B. Birney’s division marched through town.
That night, Gen. Reynolds, who by then was north of the Pennsylvania line, was awakened by Brig. Gen. John Buford and told that the Confederates were seen in a woods west of Gettysburg, Fieseler says.
On July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg began. It continued through July 3. Sister Marie Louise wrote that on July 3, as the battle advanced “towards our peaceful vale,” the “buildings and very earth trembled from their cannons.” In a letter to the superior general in France, Father Francis Burlando wrote, “the thick smoke which rose in the atmosphere was black as the clouds which preceded a tempest.”
At battle’s end, there were 51,000 casualties. The Confederate army was defeated and the “wagon train of wounded” that was sent back to Virginia was 17 miles long.
After the Battle
Rain started to fall the night of July 3 and continued into the next day, according to Sister Marie Louise’s account. On the morning of July 5, Father Burlando, along with 12 sisters, started for the battlefield “taking refreshments, bandages, sponges, clothing, etc., intending to do the best we could for the suffering men and return home in the evening. We soon came in sight of war’s ravages—thousands of guns, swords, etc., lay around … The rains had filled the roads with water, and here it was red with blood.”
Every large building in town in Gettysburg was filled with the wounded. “In and around town were one hundred thirteen hospitals in operation besides those in private houses,” Sister Marie Louise wrote.
“The Battle of Gettysburg was bloodier than Antietam by more than double, but this was three days of fighting,” Wunderlich says. “The wounded were primarily transported to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Many were treated at Camp Letterman [west of Gettysburg] or went to D.C. … A small number wound up [in Frederick]. Some of the sick will make it here,” he says.
In her post-battle account, Sister Camilla O’Keefe wrote of some Confederates who had found their way to the sisters at Emmitsburg, where they were fed breakfast before heading out “for what place they did not say.”
At Gettysburg, the sisters provided clothing, “jellies to make drinks,” often applied the dressings to wounds and brought combs to help clean the hair of soldiers. “We noticed one large man whose leg had to be taken off. Another part of his body was in such a condition that the big maggots were crawling on the ground on which they crept from the body,” Sister Camilla wrote. “Many others almost as bad, but the whole of them were crawling with lice so that the sisters did a great deal for those poor fellows by getting combs to get their heads clear of the troublesome animals. This was no easy task.”
They also cared for wounded prisoners held at Gettysburg College, and they baptized and witnessed to the sick and dying. Sister Camilla wrote of a Protestant minister who remarked that, “The Sisters of Charity have done more for religion during the war than has ever been done in this country before.”
Some of the sisters kept diaries during the war events, and following the Battle of Gettysburg were asked to write about their experiences for the Daughters of Charity records. Their chronicles are part of the archives in Emmitsburg and portions of them can be found in a series of three books by Betty Ann McNeil, D.C., called Charity Afire Civil War Trilogy, which recounts their nursing work in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.