Henry Mosler authored a few particularly vivid entries in his diary. This one from early October 1862 is perhaps of my favorites. In it, he describes a visit to a convent located near Bardstown. He wrote:
Meanwhile for curiosity I traveled down this lane which wound its way into more and more picturesque scenery untill we beheld rising above the
beautifull foliage a Castle (so it appeared) I could hardly believe my eyes that really it existed or whether I was dreaming. The major and myself rode on towards this sight, when we where surprised to find ourselves in the Court entering a beautifull Broad Gate passing closer we found it to be a nonery. We watered our horses in the tank that was placed there for that purpose, dismounted and surveyed the church in the rear where we found nons strolling in their white caps and pale faces further and we saw a group of soldiers who had gone for water looking in the high and gothic shaped windows giggling and laughing and enjoying themselves highly which immediately drew our attention and the first thing I knew I found myself also staring in the large window into the large school room where about a hundred of beautifull girls now prommenading up down joking and laughing at the soldiers as they, but to tell the truth I never beheld _ more beautifull girls than I saw there In the evening we encamped ‘ about 2 miles this side of Bardstown Camped all night marched all day to day about 16 miles
Where was he? Whose convent was this? Who were these beautiful women in white caps?
Intrigued, I started sleuthing. After I emailing several religious orders in the region, I struck up an exchange with Kathy Hertel-Baker, Director of Archival Center of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. She confirmed a story about troops visiting their campus during the Civil War.
She included a passage from Anna Blanche McGill's Sisters of Charity of Nazareth the centennial history of the Congregation, 1812-1912, published in 1917.
"Within Nazareth’s secluded precincts one day appeared a foraging corps. Mother Columba consented to share her stores, provided the no annoyance was given by the soldiers. The captain gave his promise, which some of his men disrespectfully broke; a group of them crowded toward the windows of the recreation hall, endeavoring to engage the attention of the schoolgirls who were already in a condition of excitement and anxiety. Immediately, Mother Columba with her marvelous dignity passed into the yard; one of the officers stepped up and asked if she wished anything. ‘I am looking for a gentleman,’ said she, and the words proved sufficient to disperse the offenders."
Hertel-Baker attached an illustration of the Nazareth campus buildings dating from 1871.
She explained, "The Church is on the far right, and as you move to the left, there is the Motherhouse, and finally, the large Nazareth Academy building. The men would have been looking into the first floor windows of the wing second from the left."
This find was one of those exhilarating moments during a research project when one can connect the dots and fill in details. Marshaling evidence from Mosler's diary, period maps, and the convent's library allowed me to understand the scene much more fully. I appreciated being able to compare the accounts of men peering in and women peering out. And, I was especially pleased to corroborate Mosler's whereabouts in early October 1862.
Quinn is the Terra Foundation Project Manager for Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives at the Archives of American Art