Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Holy Cross Sisters: Navy Nurse Pioneers!

I have posted before (here and here) about the Holy Cross sisters of the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's Academy that served as nurses during the American Civil War (and I will be posting even more!)

One of their most remarkable accomplishments during the war, that they were the pioneers of the United States Navy's nurse corps, is described in the excerpt below from Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010).


On Christmas Eve 1862, three Holy Cross sister-nurses boarded the USS Red Rover, the navy’s first floating hospital ship. According to the navy’s own official history, the women represented another important first: “[They] may truly be said to be the pioneers or forerunners of the United States Navy Nurse Corps as they were the first female nurses carried on board a United States Navy Hospital Ship.”(1)

Built in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1859, the Red Rover began its riverine life as a commercial side-wheel steamer. In late 1861, the Confederacy bought the steamer in New Orleans, renamed it CSS Red Rover and used it as an unarmed barracks for soldiers and sailors assigned to a nearby floating artillery battery. In early 1862, the Red Rover made its way up the Mississippi River but was abandoned a month after being damaged in a Union naval bombardment. Federals captured the ship, and following on-the-spot repairs, the steamer made its way to St. Louis, where the newly christened USS Red Rover was refitted as a floating hospital for the Western Gunboat Flotilla.

Mother Angela happily offered her sisters as nurses on the unique
floating hospital, and when the Red Rover was transferred to the navy in late 1862, she sent Sister Veronica Moran, Sister Adela Reilly and Sister Callista Pointan from the Mound City hospital for service on the steamer. They were joined by two African American women, who served under their direction. Other Holy Cross sisters also served on the steamer, but Sister Veronica and Sister Adela served continuously until November 1865. The sister-nurses earned fifty cents per day (ten cents more than their counterparts in the army), though they were subject to the same irregular pay as soldiers and sailors (in a hospital account book, Mother Angela chided: “The paymaster is generally very tardy, leaving an interval of several months between his appearances”).(2)

The Red Rover set out on December 29, 1862, leaving Mound City and passing down the river toward Memphis, then Helena, Arkansas, and finally to the Yazoo River, where it received orders to guard the mouth of the White River while the flotilla bombarded Arkansas Post (Fort Hindman), Arkansas, and transported troops to storm the fort; the wounded were transferred to the Red Rover after the successful assault. Even though the Red Rover was a hospital ship, the steamer was armed and sometimes a target. On January 21, 1863, Rebel artillery fired on the Red Rover, and two shots entered the hospital. Sister Adela recalled that during the Vicksburg campaign, the Red Rover “was near enough to hear the firing and also to see the boats running the blockade.”(3)

The USS Red Rover and its Holy Cross sister-nurses were featured in a handsome series of engravings in the May 9, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The caption declared:

This institution…is under the charge of Surgeon George H. Bixby and Dr. Hopkins, and is an untold comfort to our sick or wounded sailors. The sketch shows the main ward, in which are accommodations for over two hundred patients. The Sister is one of those good women whose angelic services have been sung by poets and breathed by grateful convalescents all the world over. The convalescents are placed in a ward for their sole use, where they smoke, read, and generally enjoy themselves. The boat itself, a clean, roomy craft, is under the command of a gallant old sailor.(4)

In addition to being a generous and contemporary tribute, the engravings are thought to be the only wartime depictions of the Holy Cross sister-nurses in action.


(1). E. Kent Loomis, “History of the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Red Rover,” Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Division of Naval History, Ships’ History Section, Report No. OP 09B9, 1961, 7.
(2) Mary D. Maher, To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999), 91.
(3) Barbara M. Wall, “Grace Under Pressure: The Nursing Sisters of the Holy Cross, 1861–1865,” Nursing History Review 1 (1993): 80.
(4) Harper’s Weekly, “The Naval Hospital Boat ‘Red Rover,’” May 9, 1863, 299.


Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week 1864 with Notre Dame's Fr. Cooney

I have profiled Notre Dame Holy Cross priest Fr. Peter P. Cooney in previous posts (here and here).

As mentioned in those previous posts, soon after joining his regiment, Fr. Cooney began writing letters, mainly to his brother, Owen, at home in Michigan. Fortunately, those wartime letters have survived. They give wonderful firsthand testimony to his activities as a chaplain, the role his regiment played in some major battles of the war, and the character – especially the religious habits – of some important military personalities of the war, especially General William Rosecrans.

The original letters and his other papers are held by the Archives of the University of Notre Dame. Some of the letters were published by Thomas McElroy in three parts as “The War Letters of Father Peter Paul Cooney of the Congreg
ation of the Holy Cross,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1933. The archives also maintains his wartime diary.

One of those letters to Fr. Cooney's brother was written on April 26, 1864, and he describes his religious duties and efforts during Holy Week leading up to Easter Day 1864:

Blue Springs, Tennesse (near Cleveland, Tenn.)

April 26, 1864

My dear Brother:

I am very surprised that I did not receive a single word from you since I left home. I have, I think, written you at least three or four letters. I hope that carelessness is the only reason why you did not write; and if you were sick or otherwise unable to write, you should have got some one to write me even a few lines. My health is and has been very good, thanks be to God.

I have been for the last two months very busy in preparing the men to complete their Easter duty, otherwise I would have written oftener, to you. Our division consists of about twelve thousand men and there are Catholics in every regiment. Protestants attend the sermons by thousands in the open field. I have baptized many of them and prejudice against to the Church is gone almost entirely.

A short time ago I baptized and gave his first Communion to the Major General commanding our division. He is now a most fervent catholic and his example is powerful over the men of his command. I have every assistance from him in anything that I require for the discharge of my duties.
He is extremely kind to me.

After coming here it was very chilly and even cold and I had neither stove nor fireplace to warm my tent nor could I get any; nor brick or stone to build a chimney. During "holy week" we have about ten inches of snow on the level. Though it lasted but a few days, it was very damp and chilly.

He was at Mass on Holy Thursday and saw that I had no stove. He went to his headquarters and took a stove from one of his officers and sent it to me. The officer gave it cheerfully, although a protestant, when the General told him that I had to hear confessions and say my office in a cold tent, without fire. I have been very comfortable since, I have a fine tent in which I say Mass every morning.

The General is vice-president of a temperance society that I have established in the regiment. We meet the first Sunday of every month. At our last meeting after I had finished my lecture to them on temperance, I invited the General, who is also a member, to say a few words to the members. He cheerfully c
onsented and made quite a speech on temperance. You may imagine the influence of a Majpr general in full uniform over the minds of officers and men who were present.

The General's name is D.S. Stanley. he waas brought up in Ohio and is an officer in the Regular army. I was at his headquarters yesterday evening and he gave me his photograph which I send you. He wrotehis name on it. I would like to have it fixed with one of mine the same as that of Major general Rosecrans', as a remembrance of their piety and our companionship in the trials of this war.

Another battle is expected ina short time. The main body of the Rebel army is at Dalton, Georgia, about eighteen miles from this place. I hope God will protect me in the future, as he has in the past. After the coming battle I will go to Indiana with the men's money and from there home for a few days, God being willing...

I hope you are well. Practice your religion Dear Brother, attend to your business at home. I was glad to see by the papers that there would be no draft in Michigan. I shall write you soon again. Write soon. My love aand blessing to my mother and all.

Your affectionate brother,

P.P. Cooney, Chaplain
25th Reg. Ind. Vol.


There is an artist in our brigade who took the picture of our regiment at Mass on Easter Sunday - my tent, etc. It was sent to Cincinnati to be engraved. It makes a beautiful picture. It will cost about five hundred dollars; when finished I will send a copy.

Did you get the book I sent you? The spring is very backward here although very warm now. I do not suppose the vegetation is any furth
er advanced than it is at this time in Michigan.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The First Days of the Civil War at Notre Dame - Part II - A Spirit of Fire

As mentioned in Part I of this post (here), the first days of the Civil War were full of excitement at the University of Notre Dame.

While Fr. Neal Gillespie declared that some students "did not “exhibit a very bellicose spirit nor vapormuch about ‘blood and thunder’ and the ‘cannon roar’ and such like," the additional excerpt below from Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010) indicates that some of the students were indeed "on fire":

One student with a decided “bellicose spirit” was William F. Lynch, commander of Notre Dame’s "Continental Cadets." The citizens ofnearby South Bend met at the St. Joseph County Courthouse on the evening of April 15, 1861, to determine their course of action. With party loyalties set aside, the citizenry stood shoulder to shoulder in the packed courtroom, but Lynch—who was in the hall—grew impatient with the speeches and platitudes. He then gave a speech “full of a fiery patriotism that carried the audience with his enthusiasm,” one historian declared. Years later, the Notre Dame Scholastic recalled the thrilling scene:

"He stood up, tall, soldierly; his Irish eyes were glittering, his face pale. The vibrant ring of the first sentence he rattled out above the heads of the good citizens made them catch their breath. In five minutes they were frantic; and when the boy told them he was going to the front to shed the last drop of his blood if needed for the Union, the audience leaped to its feet; cheer after cheer rang out wildly."

Lynch then returned to Notre Dame, where as one report stated, he “set his own cadets afire, or rather…let the blaze out—they were afire already. To a boy they wanted to go to the front by the next train and put down the uprising of the South at once.” Lynch left for Indianapolis to offer Notre Dame’s military company to the state, but Governor Oliver P.Morton was already overwhelmed with like petitions, and he told Lynch to go home and wait. In the meantime, Father Sorin—aware of the fiery patriotism in his student body—praised the cadets for their good spirit but declared that he had no authority to allow boys under twenty-one to enlist without their parents’ permission.


Timothy E. Howard, A History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, vol. 2 (Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Co., 1907), p. 716; Notre Dame Scholastic, November 18, 1899, pp. 176-77.

William F. Lynch - perhaps Notre Dame's most illustrious student-soldier - will soon be featured in his "own"'s interesting to consider what might have happened if the governor of Indiana had accepted an entire company of Notre Dame men into one of the state's it was, the dozens of young men from the school who enlisted straight away were scattered among regiments from Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and other states.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The First Days of the Civil War at Notre Dame - Part I - "Blood and Thunder"

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Within days, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion.

It was a week of great excitement at the University of Notre Dame as it was in homes, towns, and other campuses around the country.

One of Notre Dame's very first graduates - Neal Gillespie (Class of 1849) - stayed on at the school to study for the priesthood. He was also brother to Eliza Marie Gillespie, who would become Mother Angela (you can read about her in a previous post here).

On April 19, 1861, Fr. Gillespie wrote his mother of the atmosphere on campus in the days following Fort Sumter. An excerpt of the letter appears in Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010):

“Here all are well except those who are taken violently with the war fever, which epidemic rages in these northern climes in spite of the gloomy weather as fiercely as in the sunny south,”
wrote Father Neal Gillespie to his mother from Notre Dame on April 19, 1861, just days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s first call for troops. “Some of the students perhaps will go to fight the battles of their country,” he added but guessed that “the number will…be very small.” He reported, with chagrin, that “the excitement has sadly interfered with the lessons of some of the hotheaded ones” but wrote with admiration of two young boys—family friends—who “[took] the matter coolly, as sensible young men” and did not “exhibit a very bellicose spirit nor vapor much about ‘blood and thunder’ and the ‘cannon roar’ and such like.”

Source: Letter, Neal Gillespie to mother, April 19, 1861, Thomas EwingManuscripts (CEWI), Box 3, University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA).]

I will post more this week about how the students of Notre Dame reacted to the news of Fort Sumter!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Notre Dame's Civil War Roll of Honor - Cassius M. Brelsford : A Promising Life, Cut Short

As I have mentioned in previous posts and in the Preface of my book, Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010), I have a long-term goal of
cataloging and researching Notre Dame's Civil War student-soldiers.

You can find an initial list here

My previous student-soldier profiles are listed below:

John C. Lonergan - 58th Illinois Infantry (here)
Timothy E. Howard - 12th Michigan Infantry (here)
Frank Baldwin -
44th Indiana Infantry (here and here)
Felix Zeringue - 30th Louisiana Infantry (CSA) (here)
Michael Quinlan - 27th Virginia Infantry (CSA) (here and here)
Thomas E. Lonergan - 90th Illinois Infantry (here
Orville T. Chamberlain - 74th Indiana I
nfantry (here and here)

There are many more profiles to come!

Today's post introduces readers to another Notre Dame Civil War student-soldier - Pvt. Cassius M. Brelsford, Co. F., 113th Illinois Infantry.

As it turns out, it's the story of a most promising young man who died too young to fulfill that promise.

A biography and selected images from his compiled military service record are below. In addition to my own research, my search was aided immensely by the kind folks at the Archives of the University of Notre Dame (UNDA) (as always!), the great folks at -esp. Jay Odom - who retrieved the Compiled Service Military Record, and the Iroquois County Genealogical Society, who provided a copy of his obituary.

As with other attempts to identify Notr
e Dame's student-soldiers, my strategy is thus:

1) Look at the Notre Dame catalogs just before and during the war
2) Identify students whose studies ended upon the start - or shortly thereafter - of the war
3) Confirm whether they might have been
a soldier using the National Park Service Civil War Soldier and Sailor System
4) Find other confirmation (state muster rolls, etc.) to match
muster-in hometown with Notre Dame catalog information
5) Verify further with any other biographical information to connect the soldier to Notre Dame
6) Final confirmation (if needed) by se
curing pension, military record, and enrollment details

So here goes...

1) Using the UNDA's excellent Student Index (1849-1912), I was drawn to the following student: Cassius M. Brelsford (what a GREAT name, right?!)...his enrollment ended in 1862, during the war years, which made him a candidate for a student-soldier.

2) Cassius Brelsfor
d also appears in the 1861-62 Notre Dame Catalog (full text available on Google Books here). By all accounts, he was one of the top students at the University, taking many of the top honors at the 1862 commencement, including:

3) A "Cassius M.
Brelsford" does appear in the NPS's Civil War Soldier and Sailor System and in the, and his listed UND hometown of "Middleport, IL" is in Iroquois County, IL.

4) Here is a sum
mary of the 113th Illinois Infantry from the NPS:

Organized at Camp Hancock, near Chicago, Ill., and mustered in October 1, 1862. Ordered to Memphis, Tenn., November 6, 1862. Attached to 1s
t Brigade, District of Memphis, Tenn., Right Wing 13th Army Corps (Old), Department of the Tennessee, November, 1862. 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, District of Memphis, 13th Army Corps, to December, 1862. 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, Sherman's Yazoo Expedition to January, 1863. 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 15th Army Corps, Army of the Tennessee, to August, 1863. 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, 16th Army Corps, to November, 1863. Post of Corinth, Miss., 2nd Division, 16th Army Corps, to January, 1864. 2nd Brigade, District of Memphis, Tenn., 16th Army Corps, to June, 1864. 2nd Brigade, Sturgis' Expedition, June, 1864. 1st Brigade, Post of Memphis, District of West Tennessee, to February, 1865. Unatta ched, Post of Memphis, District of West Tennessee, to June, 1865.

SERVICE.-Grant's Central Mississippi Campaign. "Tallahatchie March," November 26-December 12, 1862. Sherman's Yazoo Expedition December 20, 1862-January 2, 1863. Chickasaw Bayou December 26-28. Chickasaw Bluff December 29. Expedition to Arkansas Post, Ark., January 3-10. Assault and capture of Fort Hindman, Arkansas Post, January 10-11. (Cos. "C," "D," "F," "I" and "K" guard prisoners North after Arkansas Post, and retained in Illinois on guard duty till October, 1864, when rejoined Regiment at Memphis, Tenn.) Moved to Young's Point, La., January 17-22, and duty there till March. Expedition to Rolling Fork, Miss., via Muddy, Steele's and Black Bayous and Deer Creek March 14-27. Near Deer Creek March 22. Demonstration on Haines' and Drumgould's Bluffs April 29-May 2. Movement to Jackson, Miss., via Grand Gulf, May 2-14. Jackson May 14. Champion's Hill May 16. Siege of Vick sburg, Miss., May 18-July 4. Assaults on Vicksburg May 19 and 22. Surrender of Vicksburg July 4. Advance on Jackson, Miss., July 4-10. Siege of Jackson July 10-17. Ordered to Memphis, Tenn.; thence to Corinth, Miss., and Post duty there till January, 1864. At Memphis, Tenn., till June, 1865. Sturgis' Expedition into Mississippi June 1-13, 1864. Near Colliersville, Tenn., June 10. Brice's (or Tishamingo) Creek, near Guntown, Miss., June 10. Ripley June 11. Repulse of Forrest's attack on Memphis August 21, 1864. Eastport, Miss., October 10, 1864. Mustered out June 20, 1865.

Regiment lost during service 1 Officer and 25 Enlisted men killed and mortally wounded and 4 Officers and 273 Enlisted men by disease. Total 303.

5) His Compiled Military Service Record was very rich (and believe me: sometimes they just aren't), even though - by the time he joined in lat e 1863 - he had missed most of the action, it still includes some wonderful biographical material. It appears that Brelsford spent a good deal of time away from his regiment while on detached duty as a clerk at Headquarters:

6) My favorite piece of correspondence in his service record is this letter written by Brelsford himself; notice the appeal to his "collegiate education" and also his willingness to serve his additional year, even though unfit for regular duty.

7) This
disability/discharge certificate may provide some clues as to why Brelsford served as a clerk instead of as a soldier in the ranks. He developed a lung complication which the surgeon attributed to Brelsford's service. Note that "incipient phthisis" was a mid-19th century clinical term for "consumption" or "tuberculosis."

8) Cassius M. Brelsford left the service and embarked on a promising career, first as a druggist and general store manager at home in Illinois, and then in New York, working his way up to an officer of the "American Literary Bureau," one of the leading speaking and literary agencies of the day. In one interesting - and as yet unexplained - "twist of fate," famed actress Laura Keene - made even more famous by her appearance in "Our American Cousin" on the n
ight of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination - once sued Brelsford for $15,000 for libel in his capacity as an officer with the Bureau.

9) However - as mentioned above - a promising young man's life was cut short by the disease that he contracted in the service. Brelsford died in 1873, only eight years after the war. His obituary was carried in the New York papers, his hometown Iroquois Times and Onarga Review, and also copied in the Notre Dame Scholastic:

DIED - At the Grand Central Hotel, New York City, December 18, 1873, CASSIUS M. BRELSFORD, of pulmonary disease. Aged 28 years.

Cassius M. Brelsford was born at Decatur, Indiana. Was educated at Notre Dame University. Removed to Illinois a few years before the war, and in 1862 enlisted in Capt. Bridge's company (F.) of the 113 Illinois Infantry. Of rather a delicate constitution, camp-life did not agree with him, and he was detailed as a clerk at Gen. Geo. H. Thomas's headquarters at Nashville, Tenn., where he served until mustered out; the general and his subordinate officers giving him letters of the highest recommendation, and his office associates presenting him with many tokens of esteem.

Returning to the North, he associated himself with his father, Dr. Joseph Brelsford, in the druf business, afterword, in company with with Mr. V. W. Dashiell, embarking in the nook and stationery business, the form starting the first news depot in Onarga. His interest in this establishment was purchased by Mr. Dashiell, and Mr. Brelsford moved to Wilmington, Will county, where he started a drug and stationery store.

About three years ago he entered the service of theAmerican Literary Bureau, accepting a subordinate position. His business qualifications soon attracted the attention of the managers, and he was promoted to the position of General Manager, with headquarters in New York. He held that position for about a year, when he was elected President, filling the office until death relieved him of his earthly cares. His associate officers in the Bureau seemed to have no envy upon his promotion over them, each and everyone of them recognizing his ability to fill the position with which he was honored. His directorship received the highest encomiums from all sides, the lecturers, particularly, bestowing praise upon his admirable management of their business with the public.

When the disease assumed a serious aspect telegrams were daily received from such men as Wendell Phillips, Bret Harte, and other eminent literary men, all showing great interest in his condition.

During his illness, the families of his brother officers vied with each other in contributing to his comfort, and the best medical skill was employed. The disease, however, had taken too strong a hold upon him, and he died, as stated above on the 18th of December, cutting off a life of great promise.

The remains were brought to Onarga by the bereaved father, and were interred in the cemetery on Tuesday, the 23d. The funeral took place in the Episcopal Church and was attended by a large concourse of our citizens, who deeply symapthized with the sorrowing relatives.

Cassius M. Brelsford
, University of Notre Dame, 113th Illinois Infantry, 1845-1873, Rest in Peace.

(To be continued: Cassius Brelsford's brother, Horace, was also a Notre Dame student and also a Union soldier in the 9th Illinois Cavalry...he will be profiled in the future).