Emerging Civil War welcomes Jon-Erik M. Gilot
When Sister Marie Therese Rainey, VHM, Order of the Visitation, passed away in January 2000, in Wheeling, West Virginia, she left a secret under her bed. Sister Marie had been living at Mount de Chantal Visitation Monastery in Wheeling since 1977. She ran the library at the Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy and served on the school’s board of trustees. Sister Mary Grace Flynn, Superior of the Wheeling Visitation Monastery, recalled that Sister Marie “was a wonderful community sister,” and that “she did not put any of the burden of sadness from Baltimore on us.” [i]
Sister Marie Therese had served as the last Superior of the Baltimore Monastery and Academy of the Visitation in the Roland Park neighborhood of the city. The monastery had been founded in 1837 and educated the young women of Baltimore for more than a century before the increasing age of the Sisters and a lack of new vocations closed the academy in 1975. When she arrived in Wheeling in 1977, Sister Marie brought with her two boxes, marked “Baltimore Treasures,” and placed them in safekeeping under her bed. These boxes held the surviving archives of the Baltimore Visitation Monastery.
Following Sister Marie’s death the boxes were transferred to the Mount de Chantal archives, which in turn were transferred to the archives of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in 2010 following the closure of the academy and the transfer of the sisters to Georgetown Visitation Monastery. Included in the “Baltimore Treasures” were nearly 200 years of written history – handwritten homilies from the early archbishops of Baltimore; circulars, diaries and daybooks of the Baltimore sisters; a stack of Confederate currency and bonds; and perhaps most precious of all, the handwritten annals of the Baltimore Monastery.
These annals form something of a diary or narrative record of daily and weekly events within the monastery and academy. The annals of religious communities offer us a wealth of information on how these early sisters lived, worked, and prayed within their community. The annals don’t often deviate to discuss political or national events outside the monastery walls, which is why the following account caught my eye and may interest readers of the blog.
The Pratt Street Riot of April 19, 1861 is well known to students of the American Civil War as some of the earliest bloodshed associated with the conflict. Soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Militia were attacked while traveling by railcar and foot between the lines of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio. Rioters blocked the rail tracks and began pelting the soldiers with stones, bricks, pavers and gunshots. The regiment opened fire on the mob, killing approximately a dozen civilians, while four of the Massachusetts men were left dead and another three dozen injured.
The Baltimore Visitation Monastery was located at the corner of Park Avenue & Centre Street in Downtown Baltimore. The course of the riot passed several blocks to their south, while the Washington Monument – a rallying point for many pro-Southern meetings in April of 1861 – was just a few blocks to the east. One can imagine the fear and trepidation that must have consumed the Sisters in the days following the riot, without students, supplies or a means of reaching the outside world, even fearing to walk the walled grounds of their monastery.
The following is a brief unpublished account of the Baltimore Riot as recorded by the Sisters of the Baltimore Visitation Monastery:
Sad days and times were staring us in the face; the political clouds that had long been looming up in the horizon were ready to burst forth. President Lincoln, having a forecast of the troubles in our country, the land of the free and home of the brave, ordered the gathering of the Army in and about Washington. Consequently, troops were continually marching through our city. Baltimore was destined to witness the first bloodshed of the unfortunate Civil War.
April 19, a regiment from Massachusetts was insolently attacked in one of our principal streets by an infuriated mob of ragamuffins and other degraded creatures. They pelted the soldiers with brickbats, stones and whatever else they could lay hands on. The soldiers fired upon them and a frightful scene occurred. The entire city seemed the join the excited crowd: men, women and children ran through the streets crying out “the war has begun, the war has begun.” Our pupils were sent for by their parents and for a few days we had but a small attendance. Meetings were held in many sections of the city and a condemnation of the northerners passed from mouth to mouth. We knew not what would be the result of such disorder; we could only pray and hope for the best. Some of the men that supplied our community with the necessities of life were afraid to venture out with their wagons, knowing not what might befall them. At length the excitement cooled down and we resumed our usual routine. On April 20th our good Abp. [Archbishop] came over quite early in the morning and advised us to have the Most Bd. [Blessed] Sacrament removed to a place of safety or to St. Alphonsus Church. The chaplain took it from the tabernacle and as we thought carried it away, but to our astonishment we found it had been deposited on the vesting press in the sacristy while we were deploring its loss from beneath our roof and lamenting our loneliness.
How we rejoiced when we discovered our Lord’s unwillingness to leave us orphans for even one day! No one can form an idea of our anxiety during the summer and fall of 1861. The steam cars passed our wall on Howard St. every few moments; immense trains filled with soldiers, or mules and ammunition, would sometimes halt in sight of us. There was no privacy for us and we feared to venture in our garden. It was a time for prayer and sacrifice and often were we reminded to observe our holy rules with increased fervor and exactitude. [ii]
[ii] Annals, 1852 – 1876; C-MDC, S-BVM; B-01, F-02; Office of Archives & Records, Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
Jon-Erik M. Gilot, Director of Archives & Record for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, is a 2006 graduate of Bethany College with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a 2011 graduate of Kent State University with a Master of Library and Information Science. Prior to his current position, he spent time working at the Library of Congress as well as a Pittsburgh-based preservation firm. A native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio – birthplace of abolitionist printing and focal point of Underground Railroad activity – Jon-Erik has spent more than two decades researching and writing on the Civil War era. He was a member of the Wheeling Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee and a contributing writer for the 2015 book “Wheeling During the Civil War.” He is a board member of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation; a Wheeling Historic Landmarks commissioner; and a frequent lecturer on Civil War and archival topics.