Civil War chaplaincy counted Father Ireland among its ranks

| Nikki Rajala for The Catholic Spirit | November 21, 2011 | 0 Comments
Father Ireland

Father Ireland

In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for priests to serve as Civil War hospital chaplains. Twenty-two answered, among them a young Minnesotan.

At the Battle of Corinth, Miss., Oct. 4, 1862, a badly wounded Catholic boy called out to the Minnesota priest. Though the soldier had hardly attended Mass, he had, as a 9-year-old, promised his mother on her deathbed to recite a daily Hail Mary, the sum of his faith.

After the priest ministered to him, the soldier “received the sacraments” and died.

The priest — 24-year-old chaplain Father John Ireland, ordained less than a year — was ministering to soldiers hardly older than he was in the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. In 1862, the chaplaincy corps had only 472 chaplains, Catholics and Protestants.

In his own words

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States.

In 1892, Archbishop Ireland jotted memories of his wartime chaplaincy in a letter to Holy Cross Father Peter Cooney, who proposed compiling a history of the Civil War chaplains’ corps. The letter, “Archbishop Ireland’s Experiences as a Civil War Chaplain,” reprinted in an article published by Catholic University of America Press in 1953, is found in papers housed at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He referred to himself for most of the letter as “he.”

Archbishop Ireland recalled that in 1862 Bishop Thomas Grace of St. Paul, noting that Irish Catholics were well represented in Minnesota’s regiments and comprised a third of the Fifth Minnesota, requested a state chaplain to be appointed for all Minnesota regiments.

Fresh from seminary study in France, then-Father Ireland joined the Fifth Minnesota in Mississippi shortly after the Battle of Pittsburg Landing [Shiloh] and took over as chaplain on June 23, 1862.

“Numberless thousands of Catholics scattered through the army never saw a priest during the war,” he wrote. “No one was near them at moment [sic] of death … The chaplains actually put into the field were a mere handful.”

Regiments without priests, he wrote, became reckless and indifferent to religion. So his mission was to celebrate Mass on Sundays and offer brief homilies.

Impassioned, he served his own regiment and others if needed, he wrote, “visiting hospitals — riding 10, 20 miles or more across country” to reach them. He ministered in stifling heat with men suffering from battle wounds as well as typhoid, malaria and other diseases.

A Catholic soldier, he wrote in the letter, was sick in a Tennessee hospital, having eaten only crackers and water every Friday for two years, unaware that servicemen had been exempted from such privations during wartime.

Treated with respect from all, regardless of their religion, he recalled “Protestants vieing [sic] with Catholics to make him feel comfortable — to divide with him their last cracker.”

On battlefields and in hospital tents he called out to Catholics. He regularly heard their confessions, especially when rumors of a battle were brewing, as on the eve of the Battle of Iuka, Miss., Sept. 18-19, 1862, when he sat all night under a tree hearing confessions. Catholics were unburdened of their sins, he jotted, and non-Catholics received into the church as well.

“. . . On one occasion, an officer was dying — shot in the face — blood pouring out. He wrote on a slip of paper: ‘Chaplain,’ and the slip, red with blood, was carried around by a soldier, seeking for a chaplain. I hurried: the man was conscious — dying fast. ‘Speak to me,’ he said, ‘of Jesus.’ He had been baptized — there was no time to talk of Church. I talked of the Savior, and of sorrow for sin. The memory of that scene has never been effaced from my mind. I have not doubted the salvation of that soul.”

He maintained his fervor through Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louis­iana, suffering drudgery, dirt, loneliness, bad food and sickness with the men.

However, explaining to his bishop the reduced number of Catholics in his regiment, he resigned the appointment on April 3, 1863.

At an 1891 reunion of the regiment, Archbishop Ireland wrote in the reminiscence, “Two soldiers he had not met since the days of war took affectionately his [my] hand. One of them had been in 1862 taken down with Small-pox, near Germantown, Miss. — and had been placed under cover of a small tent at safe distance from the camp. Another soldier had volunteered and had been allowed to stay with him to nurse him. For many weary days they were alone — their spirits drooping; the one cheering circumstance was the occasional visit of their young chaplain.  . . . Both soldiers were Protestants.”

Though short, his ministry in the war was important for the church. Father Ireland ended his letter to Father Cooney with: “My years of chaplaincy were the happiest and most fruitful years of my ministry.”

Minnesota and the Civil War: 1861-1866

  • What: A special Civil War exhibit featuring rare artifacts, photos, uniforms and clothing and interactive computer programs.
  • Where: Minnesota Military Museum, 15000 Hwy 115, Camp Ripley, Little Falls.


  • When: Thursdays and Fridays 9.a.m. to 4 p.m. November through April (1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 25-26).


  • Cost: Adult: $5?Children 6-16: $2



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Category: Local News, Spotlight