James B. Sheeran knew many roles in his life: husband, father, Catholic priest and soldier, and whatever his role he gave everything he had. Born in Temple Mehill, County Longford, Ireland, in either 1814 or 1818, he emigrated to Canada at the age of 12. Eventually he settled in Monroe, Michigan and taught at a school run by the Redemptorist Fathers. He married and he and his wife had a son and daughter.
Tragedy stalked the family. Sheeran’s wife died in 1849 and his son also died of illness. His daughter became a nun, but also died young of an illness. Rather than retreat into bitterness, always a temptation for a man afflicted with so much sorrow, Sheeran decided that God was calling him to a new path and joined the Redemptorists, being ordained a priest in 1858. He was sent to a parish in New Orleans. In the Crescent City he found that he liked the people and became an ardent Southerner. When Louisiana seceded, he became a chaplain in the 14th Louisiana, which served in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee.
Father Sheeran was a priest who believed in speaking his mind. An example of this was caused by his habit of helping enemy wounded after he had helped the wounded Confederates. His unit had captured a Union field hospital and Father Sheeran went over to it and was appalled to see that the wounded were not being cared for. He kept a diary throughout the War and he recorded the following:
The union soldiers “told me that they had no bandages to dress the wounds, no instruments to operate with, and that they were fatigued from the labors of the night.”
“I remarked it would be some consolation to their wounded if they would but visit them and wash the wound of those who were bathed in their own blood. I next went to their men paroled to attend to the wounded, asked why they did not wait on their companions, many of whom were suffering for a drink of water. They told me that they had no one to direct them, that their surgeons seemed to take no interest in the men.”
“I became somewhat indignant to hear the excuses of these worthless nurses, and putting on an air of authority ordered them to go to the rifle pits filled with the dead bodies of their companions and they would find hundreds of knapsacks filled with shirts, handkerchiefs and other articles that would make excellent bandages.”
“They obeyed my orders with the utmost alacrity and soon returned with their arms full of excellent bandage material, and bringing them to me asked: ‘Now sir, what shall we do with them?’” Sheeran was fully prepared to give the required final direction. “Go and tell your surgeons that you have bandages enough now.”
“Off they went to the surgeons….”. “In about two hours I returned and was pleased to find the surgeons and nurses all at work attending to their wounded.”
Father Sheeran did not restrict his outspokenness only to Union soldiers. His friend Father James Flynn in 1892 wrote about one memorable run in Father Sheeran had with the legendary Stonewall Jackson:
“Going to his [Father Sheeran’s] tent one day, General Jackson sternly rebuked the priest for disobeying his orders, and reproached him for doing what he would not tolerate in any officer in his command. [The exact offense is unknown.] ‘Father Sheeran,’ said the general, ‘you ask more favors and take more privileges than any officer in the army.’ [Sheeran apparently replied] ‘General Jackson, I want you to understand that as a priest of God I outrank every officer in your command. I even outrank you, and when it is a question of duty I shall go wherever called.’ The General looked with undistinguished astonishment on the bold priest and without reply left his tent.”
This incident obviously left an impression on General Jackson. Just before the battle of Chancellorsville he had ordered that all baggage be sent to the rear which included tents. Chaplain Sheeran immediately sent in his resignation, claiming that his tent was necessary for him to perform his duties as a priest. Dr. Hunter McGuire, chief surgeon of the Second Corps, reported on what happened next:
“I said to General Jackson, that I was very sorry to give up [the] Father–; that he was one of the most useful chaplains in the service. He replied: ‘If that is the case he shall have a tent.’ And so far as I know this Roman Catholic priest was the only man in the corps who had one.”
Father Sheeran initially thought that the men of the 14th Lousiana were a rowdy and sinful lot, but he grew fond of them due to their courage and faith. Their faith was amply demonstrated on Easter Sunday 1863, as Father Sheeran noted in his diary:
Today, Easter Sunday, is one which I shall ever remember…The snow had been falling all night and early in the morning it continued to come down so thickly that one could hardly see fifty yards distant…But to my surprise I found a large concourse of boys around my tent. To see so many of our brave soldiers knee-deep in the snow, cheerfully awaiting the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, was perhaps one of the most consoling sights of my life, and never did I pray more fervently for my congregation than on this occasion.
Father Sheeran served with his boys until November 5, 1864 when he was captured while behind enemy lines while attempting to tend to enemy wounded. He was imprisoned in Fort McHenry. Nothing daunted he wrote letter after letter to Secretary of War Stanton protesting his imprisonment. He was freed after an interview with a bemused General Phil Sheridan who shared with Stonewall Jackson a reluctance to stand in the way of this determined priest.
After the War he returned to New Orleans where he distinguished himself treating victims during the yellow fever plague of 1867. He later served as a priest in Morristown, New Jersey, dying in 1881. He was a bundle of energy as a parish priest and oversaw the building of a new church for Assumption parish. On the date of its dedication, there was an immense ceremony with the Bishop of the diocese and various luminaries present, including President Ulysses S. Grant! (I have a great deal of enjoyment imagining President Grant encountering Father Sheeran!) Father Sheeran died as parish priest of Assumption. At his death his assistant Father James O’Flynn took over the parish. O’Flynn during the War had been chaplain of the Thirteenth New Jersey, and I have no doubt that rectory discussions occasionally got lively when the subject of the War came up!
Father Sheeran’s diary was published in 1960 with a foreword by famed Civil War historian Bruce Catton. Catton opined that he wished he could have met Father Sheeran and I share that wish. An outspoken priest who will let nothing stand between him and those who need his help is a treasure indeed!