‘Battlefield Angels’: Book highlights nuns’
work on both sides of Civil War
“Battlefield Angels: The Daughters of Charity Work as Civil War Nurses” by James Rada Jr. Legacy Publishing (Gettysburg, Pa., 2011).
230 pp., $19.95.
Sarah Mulhall Adelman
Catholic News Service
In “Battlefield Angels: The Daughters of Charity Work as Civil War Nurses,” James Rada Jr., known for his many historical novels, tells the story of one order of Catholic women religious who served as nurses during the Civil War.
Catholic sisters fulfilled an essential role in the medical, psychological, and spiritual care of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Rada describes women religious who selflessly performed life-saving work in often miserable conditions and thereby gained the admiration and respect of countless contemporaries. In so doing, Rada offers an appealing narrative and an entry point into the wealth of sources kept by the sisters. However, by not situating these sources or the events they describe within the broader literature on the period and Catholic women religious, he misses the opportunity to fully explore potential nuances and their significance.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Catholic sisters represented a unique and valuable resource to national, state and local governments on both sides of the conflict. Their experience running hospitals and caring for the sick in cities throughout the country equipped them with crucial skills and medical insights. Their religious status also gave them unique privileges of mobility. As sisters they could do work that exceeded the bounds of respectable womanhood and as members of a religious order they had more freedom to cross military lines than most civilians.
As Rada points out, the sisters agreed to the numerous pleas for help they received, serving the soldiers of both Confederate and Union armies. Frequently performing their work with minimal supplies and in makeshift hospitals, the sisters adapted to conditions and saved lives. With considerable risk to their own health and safety, they prevented the deaths of many soldiers and soothed others in their final days.
In summary, Rada’s “Battlefield Angels” is a worthwhile read for those interested in the work of Catholic sisters, but will leave those seeking an academic treatment of women religious unfulfilled.
Situating the rich sources Rada has uncovered more clearly within the expanding body of scholarly work on Catholic women religious, as well as Civil War medicine, gender norms, religion and death would have produced a more complete and nuanced portrait of the women’s dramatic contributions to Civil War nursing.