Last Father’s Day, I got a book I’d wanted for a while– Soldiers of the Cross: The Heroism of Catholic Chaplains and Sisters in the American Civil War, by David Power Conyngham (1825-1883), a Civil War veteran and journalist. For years I had heard of the manuscript, which consisted of postwar interviews with priest chaplains and nursing Sisters. For over a century, it lay in the University of Notre Dame Archives until a Church historian, Father David Endres, and a Civil War scholar, Dr. William Kurtz, turned it into a great book.
What’s the Book About?
It profiles fourteen Catholic chaplains and several more Sisters As the editors note, for too long only historians of American Catholicism knew these stories, including:
- Father James Sheeran, the Irish immigrant, widower, parent, Redemptorist priest and chaplain who served Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
- Father William Corby, the only chaplain (and Notre Dame president) to have a statue on the Gettysburg Battlefield.
- Sister Anthony O’Connell, known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her ministry to the wounded and dying.
Why’s It Important?Did you know that between 1861 and 1865, approximately 640 women from twenty-one different religious communities volunteered their nursing services? There’s a monument to them in Washington, D.C. Both Sisters and priests evangelized by example. In many places, they were the first Catholics some soldiers ever met. One Confederate soldier in a hospital, raised on anti-Catholicism, didn’t realize the Sisters were Catholic:
“Sister, is it true that you belong to the Catholic Church?”
“Yes, sir, it’s true. And that’s the source of the greatest happiness I have in this life.”
“Well, I declare. I’d never have suspected it. I’ve heard so many things . . . I thought Catholics were the worst people on earth.”
“I hope you don’t think so now.”
“Well, Sister . . . I’ll tell you. If you say you’re a Catholic, I’ll certainly have a better opinion of Catholics from now on.”
Why Should You Read It?
If you’re interested in the Civil War, you’ll enjoy this. If you’re interested in Catholics and the war, you’ll love it. As we celebrate Memorial Day, it’s important to remember the women and men who sacrificed for their country, both on and off the battlefield. This book helps us do that. Through their healing ministry, the Catholic Sisters and priests helped dissolve prejudice, preaching by quiet example. Theirs is an inspiring story that deserves to be remembered and cherished by all Americans. Therefore I highly recommend Soldiers of the Cross.
(The photo of the book cover is by Pat McNamara.)