When Yankee soldiers overwhelmed the Confederate troops at Fort Macon in April 1862 in an action-packed version of “capture the flag” with real ammunition, Beaufort prepared for an extended period of “Union occupation.”
Sure enough, the Union boys quickly misbehaved. They helped themselves to the provisions stocked at the exquisite Atlantic Hotel, emptying the wine cellar and draining the liquor cabinet.
They ransacked and trashed the majestic hotel, turning it into ruins.
What was left of the hotel became Hammond General Hospital, named for Dr. William Alexander Hammond, U.S. Surgeon General, who served under President Abraham Lincoln.
Union Gen. John Gray Foster brought in nine Catholic nuns, members of the Sisters of Mercy from St. Catherine’s Convent in New York City, to provide nursing and spiritual care. They arrived July 19, 1862, to treat “200 wounded and sick soldiers.”
Conditions were deplorable. The place was filthy with no medicine or bandages. One straw broom stood lonely in the cleaning supplies closet.
Writing for Our State magazine’s August 2014 edition, freelance journalist Philip Gerard said that Mother Mary Madeline Toban sent her tally of needed supplies and equipment “directly to Gen. Foster, with an ultimatum: If the supplies are not forthcoming, she will take her eight sisters and return to New York.”
“A short time later,” Gerard wrote, “a small miracle steamed into Beaufort Harbor – a vessel loaded with food, medical supplies, cleaning tools and kitchen equipment.”
Grant Gerlich, a former archivist at Mercy Heritage Center in Belmont, said: “When the Civil War broke out, both sides were woefully unprepared for the flood of wounded and dying from the battlefields. Unsanitary conditions took their toll; infection and disease claimed the lives of many of the injured and infirmed.”
“The only trained nurses were women of religious orders. Of the 640 Catholic nuns who served during the Civil War, 100 were Sisters of Mercy,” Gerlich wrote. “The sisters...cared for Union and Confederate soldiers alike: officers and enlisted men, rich and poor, no matter their religion or heritage. Motivated by love of God, the Sisters of Mercy compassionately cared for the sick and prepared the dying for eternity.”
Philip Gerard added: “Instinctively, and as part of the discipline of their order, the nuns practiced the three most effective tools to heal the sick and wounded: good nutrition, cleanliness and gentleness – and their gentleness is what the young soldiers remembered most vividly.”
Union Pvt. Lyman Chamberlin of Massachusetts was grateful to be hospitalized in Beaufort instead of New Bern.
Vinay Giri of Duke University, who did research in 2014 on a collection of letters written by Pvt. Chamberlin and sent to folks back home, documented that Beaufort’s “fine sea breeze” aided in the rehabilitation of patients.
“In contrast, ‘bad air’ was created by the ‘dead water’ surrounding nearby New Bern, referring to the still water that allowed bacteria and mosquito larvae to thrive,” Giri reported.
Nevertheless, New Bern was better connected to the state’s transportation infrastructure and had a pre-existing trauma hospital, so hospital operations were eventually consolidated in New Bern.
The sisters were transferred to New Bern as well, so Hammond Hospital in Beaufort was destined to be rejuvenated and, once again, become a luxury hotel.
President Lincoln offered praise to the Civil War nursing corps. He stated:
“As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed, or administering the cooling, strengthening draughts as directed, they were veritable angels of mercy.”