Confederate States of America
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.
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.
Hattip to commenter Dennis McCutcheon for giving me the idea for this post. We Americans today view the Civil War as part of our history. If different decisions had been made at the end of that conflict, the Civil War could still be part of our current reality. Just before the surrender at Appomattox, General Porter Alexander, General Robert E. Lee’s chief of artillery, broached to Lee a proposal that the Army of Northern Virginia disband and carry out a guerrilla war against the Union occupiers. Here history balanced on a knife edge. If Lee had accepted the proposal, I have little doubt the stage would have been set for an unending war between the North and the South which would still be with us. Douglas Southall Freeman, in his magisterial R. E. Lee, tells what happened next, based upon Alexander’s memoirs, Fighting for the Confederacy.
“Thereupon Alexander proposed, as an alternative to surrender, that the men take to the woods with their arms, under orders to report to governors of their respective states.
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.