The Religious Influence on the Irish Soldier during the American Civil War

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXIX (6) start of chapter

There is a passage in a diary kept by Father Sheeran, which exemplifies the conduct of the Irish soldier better than any description could do. Father Sheeran was one day rebuking a simple Irishman, who with others had been taken prisoner by a surprise attack upon the Federals, for having taken part, as he alleged he had, in the plunder and oppression of the South. The Irishman's reply, while bearing the impress of truth, represents accurately what was the feeling and conduct of his countrymen during the war.

'Well, father,' said he, 'I know they done them things, but I never took part with them. Many a day I went hungry before I would take anything from the people. Even when we had to fall back from Lynchburg under Hunter thro' Western Virginia, and our men were dropping by the roadside with hunger, and some were eating the bark off the trees, I never took a meal of victuals without paying for it.'

The truth is, not only was the Irishman free from the angry passions by which others were animated, but he was constantly impressed by the strongest religious influence; and to this may be ascribed much of the chivalrous bearing which he displayed in the midst of the most trying temptation to licence and excess. The war had in it nothing more remarkable than the religious devotion of the Irish soldier whenever he was within the reach of a chaplain. The practice of their faith, whether before battle or in retreat, in camp or in bivouac, exalted them into heroes. The regiment that, in some hollow of the field, knelt down to receive, bare-headed, the benediction of their priest, next moment rushed into the fray with a wilder cheer and a more impetuous dash. That benediction nerved, not unmanned, those gallant men, as the enemy discovered to their cost. Even in the depth of winter, when the snow lay thick on the earth, the Irish Catholic—Federal or Confederate, it mattered not which—would hear mass devoutly on the bleak plain or the wild hill-side, standing only when that posture was customary, and kneeling in the snow and slush during the greater portion of the time. The same Father Sheeran to whom I have referred, told me how he was impressed with the piety of his poor fellows on one desperate Christmas morning, when so heavy was the snow-storm that he quite lost his way, and did not for a considerable time reach the appointed place where he was to celebrate mass. But there, when he arrived, was a great crowd of whitened figures clustered round the little tent, in which an altar had been erected by the soldiers—the only cleared place being the spot on which the tent was placed. And there, while the storm raged, and sky and earth were enveloped in the whirling snow, the gallant Irishmen prayed with a fervour that was proof against every discouragement.

Before battle, it was not unusual for the Catholic soldiers to go to confession in great numbers, and prepare by a worthy communion to meet whatever fate God might send them in the coming fight. This practice excited the ridicule—the quiet ridicule—of some, but it also excited the respect of others. A distinguished colonel, of genuine American race, who bore on his body the marks of many wounds, life memorials of desperate fights, was speaking to me of the gallantry of the Irish; and he thus wound up: 'Their chaplain—a plucky fellow, sir, I can tell you —had extraordinary influence over them; indeed he was better, sir, I do believe, than any provost-marshal. They would go to mass regularly, and frequently to confession. 'Tis rather a curious thing I'm going to tell you; but it's true, sir. When I saw those Irishmen going to confession, and kneeling down to receive the priest's blessing, I used to laugh in my sleeve at the whole thing. The fact is—you will pardon me—I thought it all so much damned tomfoolery and humbug. That was at first, sir. But I found the most pious of them the very bravest—and that astonished me more than anything. Sir, I saw these men tried in every way that men could be tried, and I never saw anything superior to them. Why, sir, if I wanted to storm the gates of hell, I didn't want any finer or braver fellows than those Irishmen. I tell you, sir, I hated the "blarney" before the war; but now I feel like meeting a brother when I meet an Irishman. I saw them in battle, sir; but I also saw them sick and dying in the hospital, and how their religion gave them courage to meet death with cheerful resignation. Well, sir,'—and the great grim war-beaten soldier softly laughed as he added—'I am a Catholic now, and I no longer scoff at a priest's blessing, or consider confession a humbug. I can understand the difference now, I assure you.'

There were other converts of the battle-field and the hospital, besides my friend the colonel—and of higher rank, too—who, like him, caught their first impression of the truth from the men whom religion made more daring in the fight, more resigned in sickness, more courageous in death.

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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