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.


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