The Catholic Chaplain in the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXV (15) start of chapter

Whether in the hospital and the prison, or on the field of battle, the Catholic Chaplain won the respect of all classes and ranks of men. I have heard soldiers of worldwide fame speak with enthusiasm of the gallantry and devotion of the Catholic Military Chaplains, who calmly performed their duty amidst the fury of conflict, and while bullets whistled by them, and shells shrieked as they passed over their heads. The idea of danger may cross the mind of the Catholic priest, but it never deters him from the discharge of his duty, which is performed as coolly on the battle-field as in the wards of an hospital. Soldier of the Cross, he encounters danger in every form and under every aspect. Without departing in the least from his ordinary course, or making the slightest attempt at display, the Catholic Priest—so long the object of the foulest calumny and the most disgusting ribaldry—found in the events of the war daily opportunities of exhibiting himself in his true light; and soon was suspicion changed into confidence, and prejudice into respect. Unswerving attention to duty is the grand characteristic of the Catholic priest; and when the non Catholic officer or private found the priest always at his post, attending on the sick, raising the drooping spirits of the patient, preparing the dying for their last hour, he could not help contrasting the untiring devotion of the Catholic Chaplain with the lax zeal —if zeal it could be called—of too many of those who assumed that office, or that distinctive title, during the war. When men are stretched on a sick bed, and they depend so entirely for assistance or relief on the attention and kindness of those around them, they form rapid and unerring estimates of merit; and if they cannot be deceived by the sham nurse or the worthless physician, neither can they be hoodwinked by pharisaical cant or religious pretension. The genuine metal was tested in the fire of the crucible, and was admitted to be sterling.

Throughout the war the Catholic priest acted in the spirit of his Church. The Church was a peace-maker, not a partisan. So were her ministers. It little mattered to the priest at which side the wounded soldier had fought, or in what cause the prisoner had been made captive; it was sufficient for him to know that the sick and the imprisoned stood in need of his assistance, which he never failed to afford. The Church deplored the outbreak of war, mourned over its horrors, and prayed for its cessation. As with the Church, so with the priest. It is not in human nature to suppose that the Catholic priests did not feel a sympathy with one side or the other; but no weakness common to humanity could deaden the feeling of charity, which is the living principle of Catholicity; and while the Federal Chaplain ministered to the Confederate soldier or prisoner, the Confederate Chaplain ministered with equal care and solicitude to the soldier who fought under the banner of the Union. This Catholic charity—this spiritual bridging over of the yawning gulf of raging passions—produced a deep impression on the minds of thoughtful men. Many instances might be told of the manner in which this feeling operated on the minds of individuals: one will suffice:

A lawyer of Louisiana was practising in Missouri at the opening of the war; and being known as a Confederate sympathiser, was arrested, and sent as a prisoner to Fort Warren, in Boston Harbour. He had studied law in Boston, where he imagined he had made several lasting friends of members of his profession. Taking means to communicate with some of those on whom he most relied for sympathy, if not for assistance, he informed them of his position, and besought their aid, in the name of friendship and the memory of the pleasant days of the past; but he appealed in vain—fear of being compromised by a suspected rebel, or the bitter prejudice born of the hour, was too strong to be overcome by a momentary impulse; and the prisoner languished in captivity. They—the friends of his youth—came not; but an Irish priest did. Attracted to the prisoner by feelings of compassion, he comforted and consoled him, and assisted him to the utmost of his means and influence. That lawyer learned to love the Church of which that priest was a worthy minister; and his own words may throw light on his conversion, which took place soon after:—'Looking back upon the war, I see that the Protestants of the North were charitable to their own side, and that the Protestants of the South were very charitable to their side; but the Catholics are the only body of Christians who practised charity for its own sake, irrespective of politics, and who did so even when it was unpopular, if not dangerous for them to do so.'

The lawyer who languished in the prison of Boston Harbour was not the only one who experienced the value of a charity which has neither sect nor party, and knew no difference between cause or banner in that hour of national convulsion.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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