During the Civil War, the flags carried by military units had intense emotional significance for the men who fought and died under them. The flags not only symbolized the nation or state, but also stood for the units that carried them and the men who bled in their defense. At the end of the War hundreds of captured Confederate battle flags were held by the Federal government and the victorious Union states. Objects of pride for the men who had fought for the Union, their treatment as war trophies by the victorious North was a sore point in the vanquished South.
In 1887 Grover Cleveland was President. The first Democrat elected to hold the office since the Civil War, Cleveland was also the only non-Civil War veteran to hold the office since the end of the War. During the War he had hired a substitute to fight in his stead, a perfectly legal, albeit unheroic, method of not having to fight one’s self in the conflict.
In 1887 the Secretary of War mentioned to Cleveland that the Adjutant General of the Army had suggested that the return of the battle flags to the Southern states would be a graceful gesture that would be appreciated in the South. No doubt thinking that after more than two decades wartime passions had subsided, Cleveland ordered the return of the captured flags to the Southern governors. This was a major blunder. Continue reading
The peaks of Notre Dame history are shrouded in the mists of war.
Father Hugh O’Donnell, President, Notre Dame-1941
I think it was in 1964 when I read my first book on the Civil War, The American Heritage Golden Book of the Civil War, and I immediately thereafter developed a life long passion for the subject. Over the intervening 47 years, I have read hundreds of books on the War. Truth to tell, more than a few of the books I have read on the Civil War have left me with a ho hum feeling, not telling me much that I haven’t read many, many times before. I am therefore always pleasantly surprised when a tome on the Late Unpleasantness can give me lots of new information, and such is the case with Notre Dame and the Civil War, by James M. Schmidt. Mr. Schmidt, knowing of my interest in US Catholic Chaplains in the military, was kind enough to send me a review copy, and I am glad that he did, as he has brought forth facts and new pieces of information about Notre Dame and the Civil War that I have not read elsewhere.
Many Protestant denominations in the country were ripped asunder North and South by the Civil War and the decades of turmoil leading up to it. Not so the Catholic Church in America. As a global Church, it was not unusual for Catholics to find themselves on different sides in civil wars or national conflicts, and there was never any threat to the unity of the Church in America. Individual Catholics fought bravely for both the Union and the Confederacy. The Catholics of Notre Dame, except for a few students from the South, were whole heartedly for the Union.
Even before the Civil War, as Mr. Schmidt brings out, Notre Dame students were preparing to fight. Two student military companies were organized in 1858, part of the craze for militia companies, well drilled, in fancy uniforms that swept the nation in the late Fifties. It was fun being a part time soldier: drills, nice uniforms, parades, pretty girls cheering on the side lines. Many of the students of course were soon to have first hand knowledge of darker aspects of military life.
Schmidt skillfully relates the fever to enlist in the Union army that swept through the students of Notre Dame after Fort Sumter. Along with their students, Notre Dame priests also served as chaplains. Most famous among them was of course Father William Corby, who marched and fought with the Irish Brigade and who gave them mass absolution on the second day at Gettysburg before they charged into battle. The book relates the adventures of Father Corby, but also relates the stories of other Notre Dame priests who served as chaplains, including Father Paul E. Gillen, Father James Dillon, Father Joseph C. Carrier and Father Peter P. Cooney, all of whom will be featured in posts in the future.
The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame also got behind the war effort. Sixty of the Sisters would serve as nurses during the war. The role of Catholic Sisters as nurses in the Civil War is one of the great largely unsung stories of the War. Usually nursing Protestant soldiers, the Sisters, through their bravery, skill at nursing and simple charity and kindness, often turned fairly anti-Catholic men into friends of the Church and not a few converted to the Faith. Mr. Schmidt gives these heroic women their due.
There were a great many brave men during the Civil War, but I think it is a safe wager that none were braver than Father John B. Bannon. Born on January 29, 1829 in Dublin, Ireland, after he was ordained a priest he was sent in 1853 to Missouri to minister to the large Irish population in Saint Louis. In 1858 he was appointed pastor of St. John’s parish on the west side of the city. Always energetic and determined, he was instrumental in the construction Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist church. Out of his hectic schedule he somehow found time to become a chaplain in the Missouri Volunteer Militia and became friends with many soldiers who, unbeknownst to them all, would soon be called on for something other than peaceful militia drills. In November 1860 he marched with the Washington Blues under the command of Captain Joseph Kelly to defend the state from Jayhawkers from “Bleeding Kansas”.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, most of the Saint Louis Irish were strongly Confederate in their sympathies and Father Bannon was of their number. The Irish viewed the conflict in light of their experiences in Ireland with the English invaders, with the Southerners in the role of the Irish and the Northerners as the English. Confederate militia gathered at Camp Jackson after the firing on Fort Sumter, and Father Bannon went there as chaplain of the Washington Blues. Camp Jackson eventually surrendered to Union forces, and Father Bannon was held in Union custody until May 11, 1861. He resumed his parish duties, although he made no secret from the pulpit where his personal sympathies lay. Targeted for arrest by the Union military in Saint Louis, on December 15, 1861, he slipped out of the back door of his rectory, in disguise and wearing a fake beard, as Union troops entered the front door.
He made his way to Springfield, Missouri where Confederate forces were gathering, and enlisted in the Patriot Army of Missouri under the colorful General Sterling Price, who would say after the War that Father Bannon was the greatest soldier he ever met.
He became a chaplain in the First Missouri Confederate Brigade, and would serve in that capacity until the unit surrendered at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. He quickly became a legend not only in his brigade, but in the entire army to which it was attached and an inspiration to the soldiers, Catholic and Protestant alike. At the three day battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, March 6-8, 1862, he disobeyed orders for chaplains to remain in the rear and joined the soldiers on the firing line, giving human assistance to the wounded, and divine assistance for those beyond human aid. For Catholic soldiers he would give them the Last Rites, and Protestant soldiers, if they wished, he would baptize. Continue reading
Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, is largely forgotten today, which is a pity. His actions in 1824 helped lead to Union victory in the Civil War.
Illinois came into the Union as a free state in 1818. However, a majority of settlers in Illinois initially came from the South and some of them brought slaves, illegally, into the Sucker State. In 1822 Edward Coles, a 36 year old native of Virginia who had settled in Illinois in 1818, was elected Governor. Coles came from a slave-holding family, but he had long been convinced that slavery was morally wrong. When he arrived in Illinois he freed his ten slaves and deeded to each head of a family 160 acres of land to help give them a new start in a free state. He ran for governor because he was alarmed with the growing strength of pro-slavery forces in his new home state. In a tight four way race he won.
As Governor, Coles fought against laws in Illinois that discriminated against blacks and against indenture laws that attempted to establish black slavery in Illinois under another name. In 1823 pro-slavery forces had a call for a constitutional convention put on the ballot in 1824. Had a convention been called, there is little doubt that Illinois would have been transformed into a slave state. Working feverishly, Coles and his allies narrowly defeated the call for a constitutional convention at the ballot box in 1824 and Illinois remained a free state. Had the Civil War begun with an Illinois that had been part of the Confederacy, or, more likely, split in two as Missouri was throughout the war between rival Union and Confederate camps, it is hard for me to see a Union victory. Illinois contributed a quarter of a million men to the Union cause, and without those men the war in the West could never have been won.
Paul Zummo, the Cranky Conservative, and I run a blog on American History: Almost Chosen People. Yesterday Paul raised the question: Is Robert E. Lee Overrated?
Yeah, the post title is somewhat deliberately provocative, but it’s also meant to be a serious question that I hope will spark some discussion. I was going to ask it in the comments to Donald’s post below, but thought it might be useful fodder for debate in its own right.
Some of our readers south of the Mason-Dixon line no doubt have perhaps felt left out in my many posts regarding Abraham Lincoln. I am fully aware that great Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War, and one of the greatest of Americans, of his time or any time, was Robert E. Lee.