A family’s experience during the Civil War

Bethany Beach resident Jeanne Golibart O’Brien Rodgers is a descendant of ancestors who lived through and were affected by the Civil War. A story about Rebel soldiers confiscating a horse from a family farm in Maryland appeared in a previous column (“A confiscated gray mare finds her way home,” (Coastal Point, Aug. 12, 2016).

Jeanne’s daughter Marian O’Brien enjoys discovering and sharing stories with the rest of her large family. She tells us about Jeremiah O’Brien, who immigrated from Ireland in the early 19th century and settled in the Fells Point area of Baltimore near the Inner Harbor.

Jeremiah and his wife, Bridget, produced three children, Matthew Victor, Michael James and Anna Magdalen. All three would serve in some capacity during the Civil War years.

Matthew was based in Richmond, Va., with the Adams Express Company, when war erupted in 1861. His brother Michael enlisted to serve in the Confederate Navy at New Orleans.

When Union forces attacked Confederate forces and gained control of New Orleans in April 1862, Michael went to Richmond and joined the Southern Express Company. The company sent him to Montgomery, Ala., and then on to Atlanta, Ga., to manage the office there.

The express business of conveying large sums of money, goods and soldiers, as well as prisoners of war, was considered vital to the war effort. Confederate President Jefferson Davis emphasized the importance of this work by instructing the Southern Express staff to stay on the job, rather than going off to serve on the battlefront with the military.

The other member of the O’Brien family, Anna Magdalen, responded to the call for service with the Lord, and joined the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Vincent’s Home & School in Washington, D.C. She adopted the name Sister Madeleine.

Her first assignment was to St. Joseph’s Asylum & School in Richmond, Va., in 1858. In the 1860s, children of high-ranking Confederate military and government officials attended and also lived at the school.

During the Civil War, the Daughters of Charity were called on to serve as nurses for the wounded soldiers of both the Confederate and Union armies. In Marian O’Brien’s research, she found that at the onset of the War Between the States, there were virtually no trained nurses available.

During four years of warfare, there was an unprecedented need for hospitals and medical personnel. As Sister Mary Denis Maher wrote in “To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War,” when the call went out, some 600 Catholic nuns responded from 12 different religious communities to serve as nurses — about half were from the Daughters of Charity.

Their contributions were lauded, and the “angels of the battlefield” became a common sight at military hospitals, wearing their distinctive winged cornettes.

While working mainly in Union hospitals and field units, as Sister Betty Ann McNeil points out in her Vincentian Heritage Journal article, “The Daughters of Charity as Civil War Nurses, Caring without Boundaries,” these nuns served the Confederacy, as well at locations in Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri.

Accounts of the work of Sister Madeleine portray her as a lively, intelligent person with a good sense of humor, and who was extraordinarily kind. Not long after the Civil War ended in 1865, she transferred to St. Joseph’s Provincial House in Emmitsburg, Md.

Sister Madeleine’s family is proud that she was remembered by a surgeon at Richmond General Hospital #1, where she had been assigned. He had written to the Sister Superior at Emmitsburg to let her know that they wanted “to preserve the names of the noble and devoted Sisters” who had served in Richmond during the war.

The surgeon specified that he wanted a photograph of Sister Madeleine O’Brien, and that “it will be treasured by the devoted surgeons of the Association of Medical Officers of the Army and Navy of the Confederacy.”

Marian O’Brien, who resides in Eastsound, Wash., is to be commended for researching her family’s history and sharing her ancestors’ accomplishments over the past two centuries since Jeremiah O’Brien arrived on these shores. Our knowledge of what occurred during the Civil War is enhanced by stories like these that continually come to light.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point