For the families of soldiers in the American Civil War, the possibility that their loved ones might not have a ‘good death’ was a constant fear. In a society accustomed to experiencing death by their families bedside, the remoteness of many Civil War fatalities denied family members the opportunity to witness their relation’s all important final moments. An awareness of this ‘need to know’ led to efforts by many comrades and carers to inform family’s of a soldiers preparedness to meet their maker, if and when the time came. The mother of Irishman Hugh McQuade received just such a letter from Richmond in 1861, as her son, wounded at Bull Run, fought to recover from the amputation of his leg. (1)
Captain Hugh McQuade of the 38th New York Infantry had been wounded and captured during First Bull Run on 21st July 1861. The severity of his wound necessitated the removal of his lower left leg, but in August it was reported that he was doing well following the operation. However, secondary infection set in, and by October his prospects had dimmed. Sister Valentine, one of the Catholic Sisters of Charity caring for the wounded in Richmond, felt the time appropriate to write to Hugh’s mother outlining his situation, assuring her of his stoicism and that he had made his peace with God. (2)
GENERAL HOSPITAL. RICHMOND, October 12th.
Dear Madam,- I cannot permit the present favorable occasion, which is afforded by friends going to Maryland, to pass, without sending a few lines informing you of your beloved son’s state of health at present.
I thought it might be a species of balm to your anxious sorrowing heart, to receive a little word of intelligence, even from an old Sister of Charity, but, from one who has watched near his beside for more than two months.
The Captain is very weak, and still suffers much from his wound, which is not as well as we found it some weeks since. The physician thinks that a second amputation will be necessary; but do not be alarmed at this intelligence, for operations of this description have been frequently followed with complete success; I know that your poor heart trembles when you reflect on the sufferings of your dear son; but have courage; let us trust all to the hands of the good God, from whom we have received so many blessings. He can restore your child’s health, if such be according to his Divine will. As to the Captain, he is perfectly resigned to the good pleasure of God, willing to die, if he is called, or, if restored, willing to serve God by a virtuous, Christian life. He edifies all by his great patience, doing all in his power to avoid giving trouble, accepting every little service with such gratitude, that it is a true pleasure to serve him.
I am very sure you envy me my post near him, and that you very often feel like flying to the sick bed of your absent one far away in a distant land, now rendered inaccessible. You may sometimes imagine that he is in need of something; but permit me to assure you, dear madam, that your son is surrounded with every care that a mother’s affection could devise, or a mother’s hands bestow. We only desire to be able to make him more comfortable; we have procured for him a nice little private room, which removes him from every annoyance, and promotes that quiet his state so much requires.
That he is truly happy, there is no doubt. He intends preparing himself for the amputation by a devout reception of the sacraments, so that in case he is called he will be prepared. What a great satisfaction for you. What greater happiness or higher hope can a Christian mother claim than to see her child submitting himself, willing and loving, to the disposal of his Creator. But you will pray for him as a mother only can pray. Beg for him the prayers of the poor and the orphans, for their prayers pierce the Heavens and reach the ear of God. Uniting myself to your prayers, I remain,
Most respectfully yours,
SISTER VALENTINE. (3)
Hugh McQuade died in Richmond as a result of his wounds on 26th December, 1861. Dr. William F. Swalm of the 14th New York State Militia had been a fellow captive, and was scathing of the treatment which led to his death. In a statement taken on 7th April 1862 he outlined the Irishman’s plight:
He received a wound in the lower part of the left leg, which rendered amputation necessary. The operation was performed in Richmond, by a surgeon of the name of Peachy, I think. The flap was a very good one, but, in consequence of inattention, the inside flap entirely mortified, so that they had to cut it completely off, leaving the bone protruding from one and a half to two inches. Inflammation set in, and extended up the limb, and in this condition he was taken down to the tobacco ware-house at mid-day, his face exposed to the hot sun, and the result was, what might have been look[ed] for, his death. (4)
Dr. Swalm also had strong views about the Sisters of Charity who were stationed at the General Hospital:
The nurses there were sisters of charity. The left portion of the building, as you entered it, was set apart for our wounded, the right for theirs, and the main body of the building was used as an operating room. I noticed that they used to bring in for their wounded nice biscuit, game, soft-boiled eggs, toast with eggs upon it, &c. This was done by the sisters of charity. I asked them to bring in some for our men, and was told they had none. Of course, seeing what I did, I knew how much to believe of that. (5)
The letter of Sister Valentine and testimony of Dr. Swalm paint very different pictures of Hugh McQuade’s final weeks. The extent to which the Sisters of Charity displayed favouritism to Confederate prisoners at the General Hospital is unknown, but it is difficult to mask the sincerity in Sister Valentine’s letter. Perhaps the nun was attempting to assuage some of the worry she knew Hugh’s mother would be feeling, and sought to shield her from the reality of the conditions he faced. It would seem that the decision to remove the officer from the General Hospital to the tobacco warehouse was what finally sealed his fate, some five months after first receiving his wound. The effect of Sister Valentine’s letter can only be imagined, but it is to be hoped that the correspondence provided some solace for the 29-year-old’s family during the dark days following his wounding and eventual death.
(1) For a superb discussion of how death and dying was dealt with in this period see Drew Gilpin Faust’s Republic of Suffering, particularly pp.3-31; (2) A-G Report 1902, New York Irish American 24th August 1861, New York Irish American 23rd November 1861; (3) New York Irish American 23rd November 1861; (4) A-G Report 1902, Joint Committee 1863: 473; (5) Joint Committee 1863: 473;
References & Further Reading
Faust, Drew Gilpin 2008. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Maher, Sister Mary Denis 1999. To Bind Up The Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War
New York A.G. 1902. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901
New York Irish American 24th August 1861. Federal Prisoners at Richmond and Manassas
New York Irish American 23rd November 1861. Captain McQuade
U.S. Government Printing Office 1863. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War