Washington, D.C.’s Memorial to Civil War Sister Nurses

The Washington, D.C. Civil War monuments are some of the most visible reminders of the war’s outcome. Triumphant equestrian statues of Union generals tower over the city streets on large, stone pedestals, signaling the nation’s defeat over the Confederacy and the emancipation of slavery. However, one memorial stands apart from the others in both design and meaning. Much like the individuals it commemorates, this monument is modest and unpretentious.

The Washington, D.C. Civil War Monuments to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. George H. Thomas, and Gen. George G. Meade. Wikipedia.

The Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial, located at the corner of M Street and Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, commemorates more than 600 Roman Catholic nuns who nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers during the war. It is the only Civil War monument in the District of Columbia that directly recognizes the role of women in the conflict and is the first public memorial in Washington to honor the work of Catholic women religious.[1] Conceived by Ellen Ryan Jolly in 1912, the Nuns of the Battlefield memorial boasts a unique history.

Born in Rhode Island to Irish Catholic immigrants, Jolly grew up hearing the stories of brave Catholic nuns who ministered to sick and dying soldiers on Civil War battlefields. She also took pride in her Irish Catholic heritage and, by the turn of the century, was intimately involved in several ethnic and civic groups, including the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernian (an Irish fraternal organization).[2] In 1906, she was elected president of the Providence division of the Ladies’ Auxiliary and campaigned to institute an Irish history curriculum in local public schools.[3] When she was elected national president of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Order in 1912, she decided to honor Irish-American heritage on a grander scale.[4] Jolly decided on erecting a statue in Washington, D.C. that honored the sacrifices of Irish Catholic women and conveniently coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Civil War.

The idea received robust approval at the National Convention of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Norfolk, Virginia. However, when Jolly brought her campaign to the War Department, she was promptly rebuffed. “It was made very clear [. . .] that absolute proofs of the services rendered by the Sisters during the Civil War must be submitted to the War Department before it could conscientiously approve the granting of a site,” she later wrote.[5] The War Department also maintained that any allocation of national property for a privately funded monument required an act of Congress. Jolly originally intended the monument to be placed in Arlington National Cemetery. However, Secretary of War Lindley Garrison informed her that monuments in Arlington could only commemorate those individuals buried in the cemetery.

But Jolly was unperturbed by these setbacks. For the next ten years, she conducted research and compiled evidence on the heroic service of nuns during the Civil War. She visited the 12 different congregations that sent sister-nurses, corresponded with general superiors, and conducted interviews with surviving sisters. She also enlisted the Order of Hibernians to raise $500,000 and urged her members of the Ladies’ Auxiliary to write to their senators and congressmen to persuade them to vote in favor of the memorial. Representative Ambrose Kennedy of Rhode Island, a longtime ally of the Hibernians, proved to be an influential voice in the House in support of the memorial.[6]

Jerome Connor. Wikipedia.

 

In 1918, Congress finally authorized creation of the Nuns’ memorial and appointed the Commission of Fine Arts to oversee installation. After achieving legislative approval, Jolly and the monument committee set to work on finding a sculptor. After a national search, they settled on Jerome Stanley Connor, an Irish American immigrant from Holyoke, Massachusetts who specialized in Irish and Catholic subjects. His statues of Bishop John Carroll at Georgetown University and Irish rebel Robert Emmet likely caught the eye of the Hibernians.[7] While Jolly and her Ladies’ Auxiliary favored the sculptor, the Commission of Fine Arts did not. They disapproved of Connor’s first site selection (along North B Street by the Pan American Union building) as well as critiqued his original design. Connor’s confidence in his unrivaled artistic abilities also placed him at odds with the commission’s stipulations. For nearly a year, the commission bickered with Connor about the details of his memorial. In 1919, they finally approved his design, and he set to work sculpting it. Likewise, Jolly, Connor, and the commission agreed on an appropriate location.[8] They chose the parklet at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and M Street.[9]

Connor opted for a modest design, reflective of the nuns’ humble way of life. He decided on a large rectangular granite slab with a bas relief depicting 12 different nuns—representing the 12 different orders that sent nurses during the war. Two life-size statues depicting the angels of Patriotism and Peace flank the bas relief. On the left, Patriotism sits with a helmet and shield in hand, ready to guard against any threat. And Peace sits complacently on the right, wearing a traditional religious veil. Connor also allowed room for two inscriptions. The top inscription reads, “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty,” while the bottom one states, “To the Memory and honor of the various orders of sisters who gave their services as nurses on battlefields and in hospitals in the Civil War.” Connor worked tirelessly on the monument for seven years. Jolly frequently visited him in his studio, keeping a close eye on his progress.

Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial bas relief depicting the 12 different congregations that sisters to serve as nurses in the Civil War. Photo by Sarah Kay Bierle.

Final placement of the memorial began July 28, 1924, and it was dedicated on September 20, 1924, at the culmination of a week-long meeting of Catholics from around the nation. Thousands flocked to Washington that day, which the city designated “Sisters’ Day”. Archbishop William Henry O’Connell of Boston gave the keynote address, in which he lauded the nuns as “angels of the battlefield.” After a speaker erroneously stated that none of the Civil War sisters had lived to see the memorial’s dedication, one surviving nun stood from the crowd to show herself.[10] Then, a proud Ellen Ryan Jolly approached the slab of granite and withdrew an American flag to reveal the finished memorial. Sailors quickly hoisted banners that spelled “faith, hope, and charity,” while others released a flock of white pigeons to punctuate the end of the ceremony.[11]

And with that, Jolly’s decade-long project to champion her Irish American Catholic forebearers was complete. She successfully brought the efforts of more than 600 sisters into the national consciousness with an unprecedented memorial. In a larger sense, the memorial signaled an indelible shift in the American attitude toward Roman Catholicism. Catholic soldiers often found religious prejudice lurking in both armies, which consisted primarily of Protestants. “All have their religious services in the field around [this] place, just not the Catholics,” one soldier wrote.[12]

Jolly’s memorial proved that a faith that was often ostracized throughout the 1800s could now be openly celebrated in the new century. The Nuns of the Battlefield Memorial still sits at the corner of M Street and Rhode Island Avenue—a solemn reminder that the war’s participants included more than just soldiers.

 

[1] Kathleen Szpila, “Lest We Forget: Ellen Ryan Jolly and the Nuns of the Battlefield Monument,” American Catholic Studies, Winter 2012, vol. 123, no. 4, 23.

[2] Kathryn Allmong Jacob, Testament to Union: Civil War monuments in Washington, Part 3, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 125.

[3] Szpila, “Lest We forget,” 29-30.

[4] Jacob, Testament to Union, 125.

[5] Ellen Ryan Jolly, Nuns of the Battlefield, (Providence, RI: The Provincial Visitor Press, 1927), viii.

[6] “A.O.H. President Active: Members of Both Branches of National Legislature Interviewed; Hopeful for Monument to Nuns. Four Minnesota Legislators give Favorable Response,” The Irish Standard, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 1, 1916, Newspapers.com, (accessed April 3, 2024).

[7] “Resolution for Erection of Nuns’ Memorial Passes Congress,” The Catholic Advance, Wichita, Kansas, March 30, 1918, Newspapers.com, (accessed April 9, 2024); Jacob, Testament to Union, 126.

[8] Jacob, Testament to Union, 126.

[9] “Site Selected for Memorial To Nuns,” The Tablet, Brooklyn, NY, July 19, 1919, Newspapers.com, (accessed April 5, 2024).

[10] “Prince of Church Dedicates Token,” Evening Star, Washington, D.C., September 20, 1924, Newspapers.com, (accessed April 9, 2024); Jacob, Testament to Union, 127.

[11] Jacob, Testament to Union, 127.

[12] Br. Bonaventure Gaul to unknown, Summer 1864, translated by Fr. Warren D. Murrman, O.S.B., VH-41, “Letters of Civil War,” Archives of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, PA.



2 Responses to Washington, D.C.’s Memorial to Civil War Sister Nurses

  1. Evan, thanks for remembering these women — one my aunts was a Sister of St. Joseph … for those interested in the history of the monument landscape in Washington DC, i highly recommend Monument Wars by Kirk Savage.

    1. Thanks for the praise, Mark. One of my great aunts was a Sister of St. Joseph, as well. Just read Savage’s book for my master’s class! It has quickly become one of my favorites.

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