“The Blue, the Gray, and the Black”: The Paulists and the American Civil War

On May 25, 1872, three young men, members of the Paulist community, were ordained priests at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan. This was a unique ordination class in that all had been profoundly affected by the recent Civil War. One had been a Union soldier, the other a Confederate, and the third was the son of a prominent general.

Father Walter Elliott (1842-1928) served in the Union Army during the war. Born in Detroit to Irish immigrants, he studied at Notre Dame before enlisting in the Fifth Ohio Infantry. He fought in some of the war’s great battles: Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. His two brothers also served; both of them were killed in battle.

After the war he worked as a lawyer before joining the Paulists in 1868. For the rest of his life, Father Elliott wore a ring engraved with the number 5, to remind him of his old regiment. One historian writes of him that

The war remained vivid in his memory. He read much about it in his later years, he revisited battlefields, spun many a yarn—some of them historical, some of them humorous tall tales. Having attained the rank of sergeant, he never quite abandoned the attitude and tone that traditionally go with chevrons, observing strict discipline from himself and exacting it from others.

Father Thomas Verney Robinson (1840-1903) was raised Episcopalian in a wealthy Virginia slaveholding family. Before the war he attended the Virginia Military Institute, where one of his professors was Stonewall Jackson. When Virginia seceded, Robinson enlisted in the Richmond Howitzers, an artillery unit. (Paulist lore holds that his cannons fired on Elliott’s unit at Chancellorsville.)

Reaching the rank of sergeant, Robinson was captured in early 1865 and imprisoned on Ward’s Island, New York. When peace came, he stayed in Manhattan as a teacher. In 1867, he converted to Catholicism and soon joined the Paulists. He spent the rest of his life in New York, but an obituary in a Confederate veterans magazine noted:

His allegiance to the Confederate cause was something wonderful. He never faltered in it. To him, as to many other heroic sons of the South, there was no ‘lost cause.’ Wholly devoid of bitterness, he was yet steadfast and outspoken in his loyalty to the great movement for Southern independence.

Father Adrian L. Rosecrans (1849-1876) was the son of Major General William Starke Rosecrans. A student at Notre Dame during the war, he wanted to enlist but his father wouldn’t let him. Young Adrian had grown up in a devout Catholic family; his parents were converts and his uncle was a bishop in Ohio. It was through reading the biography of a French priest named John Vianney (canonized in 1925) that he found his vocation. In 1867, he joined the Paulists.

Father George Deshon (1823-1903), a founding member of the Paulists, was a close friend of General Rosecrans. The son of a Protestant minister, Deshon graduated from West Point in 1843. His roommate there was Ulysses S. Grant. Deshon converted to Catholicism in 1851, and he soon resigned his army commission in order to study for the priesthood. General Grant later said of him: “I was always sorry that Deshon left the army. I believe he would have made a conspicuous mark in the Civil War.”

In 1897, Deshon was elected superior general of the Paulists. Father Elliott became a leading figure in the community and one of America’s premier evangelizers. Father Robinson was a much loved parish priest at St. Paul’s. Plagued with poor health, Father Rosecrans died at twenty-seven. When General Rosecrans was asked where he wished him buried, he replied: “Bury him beside his Paulist brethren to await the great resurrection day, and may God bless all who have been kind to him.”

About Pat McNamara

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