This is an interview that I did recently for the Hagerstown Herald-Mail. It was put together by Lifestyle Editor Crystal Schelle.
Name: James Rada Jr.
City in which you reside: Gettysburg, Pa.
Day job: Freelance writer
Book title: “Battlefield Angels: The Daughters of Charity Work as Civil War Nurses”
Synopsis: The Daughters of Charity were the only trained nurses in the country at the start of the Civil War. Their work on the battlefields, in hospitals, on floating hospitals and in POW camps helped saved thousands of soldiers’ lives.
Publisher: Legacy Publishing
How did you discover the stories of the nuns at Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md.?
I was working for a newspaper in Emmitsburg, and I encountered sisters at meetings and other events. When they found out that I was interested in history, some of them told me about the Daughters of Charity’s involvement in the Civil War. Never having heard the story before, I was interested and wanted to know more.
Why did you feel it was important to tell their story?
While the involvement of Catholic sisters is a little-known story, the Daughters of Charity’s story is more obscure. The Daughters of Charity were, by far, the largest group of Catholic sisters involved in the Civil War. However, when you read newspaper accounts or diaries, they are usually called Sisters of Charity or Sisters of Mercy. These were different orders. I wanted to call attention specifically to the Daughters of Charity and separate their work from the work of the other orders.
How did their training differ from that of others, like Clara Barton?
Daughters of Charity first became involved in health care in 1823. At first, their role was administrative, but they soon expanded into nursing. In the years leading up to the war, many of the sisters gained experience in large-scale health crises by nursing the sick during yellow fever and typhoid outbreaks. As they took on the role of nursing more often, one of the sisters even authored a textbook on the subject, which was used as a training manual for other sisters. They were even caring for Confederate soldiers in New Orleans before war broke out. Once hostilities began, they not only had the experience to help with a large number of casualties, but they had trained sisters in most of the states in the war, ready to go and help.
Barton was not working as a nurse when the war began. She joined with one of the many aid societies that formed after war broke out. These societies were groups of volunteers who were trained in how to provide care to soldiers. They were also limited somewhat in where they could go. This drove her to become an independent nurse in order to be able to go to the soldiers who were still on the battlefield.
During your research, what surprised you the most about the Daughters of Charity?
The first thing that caught my attention was that the Daughters of Charity were so trusted by both the Federal and Confederate governments that they were allowed to cross lines in order give care to any soldier who needed it. This ended after the first year of the war, though, when Confederate spies disguised as sisters were caught.
The other thing that really surprised me was that the Daughters of Charity were the only trained nurses in the country at the time of the war. I guess I had always considered nursing as having a much older history. Most nursing was done by family members or, if the patient was in a hospital, by other ambulatory patients. It wasn’t considered a lady-like career.
During a time when disease was the biggest killer of soldiers, how were the sisters able to save so many men?
Their experiences, which were captured in the textbook I mentioned earlier, allowed them to have a lot of practical knowledge. They knew that patients in a well-ventilated area recovered better. They had seen that patients kept in clean clothes and on clean sheets had fewer infections. They didn’t know why at the time, only that it worked, and that was what was important to them. When disease broke out, they were willing to risk exposure themselves in order to treat the symptoms that soldiers suffered. In many cases, that was enough help to allow the soldiers to recover.
What do you believe would have been the outcome of triage medicine if more women like the Daughters of Charity were on the battlefield?
I believe more soldiers’ lives could have been saved. The Daughters of Charity found themselves stretched pretty thin throughout the war. There were always places they were needed. Some sisters worked in hospitals, while others were sent from hot spot to hot spot. After the Battle of Antietam, only two sisters could be sent to help. When Gen. McClellan found this out, he was a bit upset because he had been hoping for many more, but there weren’t any available to send. Now, once the soldiers were taken off the battlefield and sent to a hospital, they were often cared for by Daughters of Charity there. For instance, many of the Antietam casualties were sent to hospitals in Frederick, Md., that were run by the Daughters of Charity.
What do you hope people learn from your book?
I want people to know what these ladies did during the war. Their contributions were just as important as the battles. Without their knowledge and experience, the casualties during the Civil War could have been much greater.
Where can readers purchase your novel?
While any bookstore can order the book from Ingram, I do know that Turn the Page in Boonsboro carries copies on the shelf. The book also can be purchased from online retailers, including Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, or from my website, www.jamesrada.com. If someone wants a signed copy, then either Turn the Page or my website is the place to get one.