When the Daughters of Charity awakened June 27, 1863, the pastoral grounds of their Emmitsburg, Md,. property had become a Union Army encampment for thousands of Union Army officers and men destined to fight during the Battle of Gettysburg.
This would not be the Daughters of Charity's last encounter with the men. When the cannons at Gettysburg finally fell silent, signaling the end of the bloodiest three-day encounter of the Civil War, the women traveled to Gettysburg and became battlefield "angels." They nursed men where they had fallen and delivered comfort and aid to those who were in makeshift hospitals all over Gettysburg.
Their riveting stories, laced with compassion and one touched by a miracle, are highlighted in three ways by the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in "Emmitsburg: A Heritage Days Celebration" June 28- 30, a "Charity Afire" museum exhibit and "Miracles Amid the Fire Storm" walking tours.
The three-day event will offer a quieter but moving Civil War experience for those who cross the Mason-Dixon Line and travel to Emmitsburg. Just a 10-mile drive from Gettysburg, the programs there will offer a break from the huge crowds expected in Gettysburg June 28 to July 7.
Why is the shrine observing such a tumultuous and tragic event in American history? Because St. Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters, who devoted their lives to nursing and education, unexpectedly became engulfed in events leading to Gettysburg when the Army occupied St. Joseph's Valley 150 years ago.
Seton's former home on the shrine's grounds, called the White House, served as the location for a war council of Union generals plotting their battle strategy for Gettysburg.
During the three-day Heritage Days event, living historians and re-enactors on the shrine's grounds will bring the women's stories to life. The event will culminate with a 150th commemoration concert 4-6 p.m. June 30 in the Basilica by the Williamsport, Md., Band and the Metropolitan of Detroit Chorale.
One of the other more moving experiences of the observance will be the 8-10 p.m. programs June 28 and 29. Titled "Back from the Dead: Soldiers and Angels," they feature encounters with "dead soldiers and Sisters who'll describe what they saw at Gettysburg." The programs will take place in St. Joseph's Cemetery at the shrine.
Be prepared for descriptions and stories that will paint graphic pictures of the overwhelming and sad aftermath of the battle.
Daughter of Charity Marie Louise Caulfield, who traveled by horse and buggy to Gettysburg to minister to the wounded, wrote of seeing "thousands of guns and swords laying around … further on we saw many soldiers on horseback as silent almost as the dead who lay there … The rain had filled the roads with water, and here it was red with blood. Our carriage wheels rolling through blood! Our horses could hardly be made to proceed on account of the horrid objects lying about them …"
Another of the women, Camilla O'Keefe, left a written account but had trouble finding the right words for what she had seen. It was "impossible to describe the condition of the poor wounded men," she wrote. "The weather was warm and very damp for some days after the battle. Generally [as is] the case where there is so much powder used, the men were covered with vermin … we could hardly bear this part of the filth."
Father Burlando, the priest accompanying the Sisters, observed, "The officers seemed well-pleased and told us to go into the town and we would find sufficient employment for our zealous charity. Every large building in the town was being filled as fast as the wounded could be brought in, and in and around the town were 113 hospitals in operation. Besides those in private houses."
The Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Charity (another order) played a prominent role throughout the Civil War as nurses and aid workers providing compassion in an otherwise violent and painful epoch, says Rob Judge, executive director of The National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. He adds, "It's our mission to share this somewhat unknown part of history with the public and educate them about the women's mission on the battlefields in the North and South."
According to a booklet about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her shrine, "almost 270 Daughters of Charity cared for the sick and wounded of both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War at 60 different sites in 15 states and the District of Columbia."
Even Abraham Lincoln appreciated their efforts. He said, "Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic Sisters were among the most efficient. More lovely than anything I had ever seen in art, so long devoted to illustrations of love, mercy and charity, are the pictures that remain of these modest Sisters going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying."
Besides recalling their work during the Heritage Days observance, the shrine's museum exhibit called "Charity Afire" contains Sisters' personal accounts, a display explaining their distinctive dress and the equipment they used to tend to soldiers' spiritual and medical needs. Also on view are weapons and bullet fragments and other battlefield remnants plus large panoramic images and photos from the battle.
In addition, the exhibit tells a sad but true story of two lovers and their connection to the Daughters of Charity. Union Gen. John F. Reynolds and Catherine Mary (Kate) Hewitt met and fell in love on a voyage from San Francisco to New York. The pair exchanged rings, and Hewitt told Reynolds she would enter the religious life if Reynolds was killed. Sadly, he died on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and Hewitt would stay true to her pledge. On March 17, 1864, she joined the Daughters of Charity.
You can take a Miracles Amid the Fire Storm walking tour at the shrine to learn more about the soldiers' sudden arrival and the miracle that helped to feed them.
Walking-tour guide Lisa Shower tells of the community's farm manager, who expected to thresh a field of clover on June 28 but woke to find the clover had been devoured overnight by hungry horses belonging to the Union Army cavalry. One of the generals in command was Michigan's George Armstrong Custer.
When the Mother Superior and her assistant heard sounds of horses and men arriving in the night, they climbed a belfry to see what was going on. Their eyes fell upon thousands of men who would remain on their St. Joseph's Valley farm until they advanced on Gettysburg.
The women immediately set about the work of feeding an army, praying all the while no fighting would break out in Emmitsburg. Sister Mary Jane Stokes, responsible for making bread for everyone, couldn't keep up. She reported there wasn't going to be enough for breakfast the following day. But when she went to the kitchen, she found enough bread loaves to feed everyone. A miracle?
Although Father Burlando wrote 80,000 men were encamped on the Sisters' 300-acre farm June 27-30, Shower says, "It was more like 8,000 to 10,000 troops, but probably seemed like 8 million to the Daughters who were surrounded by their ranks."
•Info: 301-447-6606 or http://www.setonheritage.org
CELEBRATING works of daughters of charity
•What: Charity Afire museum exhibit and Miracles Amid the Fire Storm walking tour
•Where: National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton museum, 339 S. Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, Md.
•When: Charity Afire is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Sunday year-round; Miracles Amid the Fire Storm tours through November at noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Fridays. From July 2-7, tour also will be offered at noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
•How much: $5 per person donation suggested.
•Festival: Heritage Days at the Shrine, June 28-30, corresponds to the dates when the U.S. Army occupied St. Joseph's Valley, Emmitsburg, Md., 150 years ago. The three-day festival includes living history presentations about the Civil War as well as a Civil War focus by re-enactors, vendors and crafters.
•Tip 1: Visitors also can tour the basilica at National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton and the nearby Grotto of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary's University, http://www.msmary.edu/grotto
•Tip 2: If you're in Emmitsburg at lunch or dinner time, the Carriage House Restaurant, 200 S. Seton Ave., makes tasty crab cakes!