There’s no doubt the Civil War was one of the defining periods in America’s history, tearing apart families and shaping the views of a nation like no other. Both sides suffered terribly, but none other than the soldiers who braved its battlefields.

A group of civilians who had no affiliation for either side provided the most comfort to the injured and dying. They included 300 women from the Daughters and Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, a community of religious women based in Emmitsburg, Md., a small town south of the Pennsylvania border.

Their story and the story of Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s (which united with the Daughters of Charity in 1850), is retold at The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, also located in Emmitsburg, through its signature tour, “Miracles Amid the Firestorm.”

The tour is significant at this time as the state commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Maryland Campaign and the nation remembers the events of the Civil War, which took place over the course of four years.

The tour takes visitors to several important buildings on the campus, including the Stone House, where Seton lived with 16 other women and children until moving to a more modern building, known as the White House. There, she founded St. Joseph’s Academy, a school for girls that many believe to be the cradle of Catholic education in the United States.

The grounds are also home to the Seton legacy garden, St. Joseph’s cemetery, the mortuary chapel and the Basilica, which seats up to 600 people and is Seton’s final resting place.

On a recent visit to the shrine, Lisa Shower, a Seton Way tour guide, recalled the events of July 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg was dangerously close to what was then farmland property and perhaps because of that, about 80,000 Union troops used the land as a stop en route to Gettysburg.

According to handwritten accounts from The Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives, the sisters served many roles on the battlefield, providing food, water, bandages and other medicinal care, as well as praying with the dying, distributing religious medals and writing letters to the soldiers’ loved ones.

Part of the archive collection, which combines the collections of four former U.S. Daughters of Charity provinces, including those located in St. Louis, Mo; Evansville, Indiana; Albany, NY; and Emmitsburg, is part of a permanent exhibit,  “Charity Afire,” which recounts the nuns’ Civil War ministry in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The exhibit, which can be found in the shrine’s visitor center, will be expanded next year to include additional accounts from the sisters’ experiences.

These stories reflect the kindness and generosity of the sisters as well as the respect they received from both sides of the divide. Like this account from July 6, 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg when a group of sisters and a priest set off to care for the wounded.

“As we passed, the Pickets lifted their caps and bowed showing their pleasure on seeing the sisters going up to attend the sufferers. But on reaching the battle grounds, awful! To see the men lying dead on the road – some by the side of their horses…..this picture of human beings being slaughtered down by their fellow men in a cruel civil war was perfectly awful.”

Another account on June 4, 1862, recalls the experiences of Sister Matilda Coskery and two other nuns who were sent to the U.S. General Hospital in Frederick to care for the sick and dying. “They (the soldiers) came to the hospital unexpectedly; therefore, no preparations had been made to receive them; hence, these poor men had to lie in the open yard of the hospital for nearly a whole day, exposed to the scorching rays of the sun until beds could be prepared for them in the barracks.”

It was a frightening time, to be sure, knowing that gunfire was so perilously close to their community. Just before the battle, approximately 100 girls were living in St. Joseph’s Academy (the White House), but many were sent home as the prospect of battle became imminent.

Today, visitors to the White House will see a replica of a classroom with original furnishings and artifacts, including a grandfather clock presented to Seton by an Emmitsburg clockmaker.

There’s also a chapel in the house, including a simple altar that Seton requested before moving into the building. It is where the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s made their vows for the first time. On the chapel walls are hand-carved medallions of the Stations of the Cross made from Meerschaum, the mineral magnesium silicate. A harpsichord that Seton brought with her from Baltimore, where she ran another school for girls, is also on view.

A statue to Our Lady of Victory, located on the grounds of the shrine and erected by the Daughters of Charity immediately after the war, is currently being renovated after more than 100 years of wear and tear. At the time, the sisters promised that if their land was protected from war, they would put up a statue on the property in thanksgiving.

In addition to the events listed below, a Heritage Expo each June features Civil War reenactments and living history exhibits. In July, a Civil War concert called “Songs from the Camps” includes music from the Civil War era. 

If you go, be sure to check out the following events:

“Miracles Amid the Firestorm” – this runs April through November 17. Fridays and Saturdays at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm. The shrine’s general tour of the grounds, historic houses, and basilica about Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton run year-round, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 3 pm. 

“Back from the Dead Cemetery Walk” – Oc. 28, 6 – 9 p.m. – an engaging and inspiring drama that teaches the spiritual principles of the communion of saints, the angels and the three great virtues: faith, hope and charity.

“Stained Glass Sunday” – Nov. 11, 2:30 p.m. – stained glass windows have been used in churches for hundreds of years. Tour and learn about the stained glass windows in the basilica, participate in a scavenger hunt and create your own stained glass piece to take home. $10 fee for materials.

“Museums by Candlelight” – Dec. 8, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. Enjoy holiday festivities such as children’s crafts, refreshments, musical performances, candlelit tours and luminaries.

Candlelit Tours – Wednesdays in December, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Experience by the glow of candlelight the historic ambiance of the Stone House and White House decorated appropriately for the season.

“Museum and a Movie” – first Saturday of every month, December through March at 4 p.m. Come early for a guided tour and fun activities before settling into the theater to enjoy a family-friendly movie.

For more information on The National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, visit or the shrine’s Facebook fan page at