By John E. Carey
“During the siege of Vicksburg, Father Bannon was daily at the breastworks and could not be kept away,” scribbled a soldier into his diary. At Vicksburg, Bannon faced his greatest challenge. He made a point of visiting his Missourians at the front daily, but he never forgot those hospitalized in town. He ate horse and rat meat (which the city folk called “ground squirrel”) before the siege would end.
Dr. John Leavy made note of Bannon when he wrote in his journal of “Father Bannon, the Catholic priest who accompanied the artillerymen of Guibor’s command [and] who joked and laughed with them in bivouac and went with them into action … and who prayed with the dying on the battlefield.”
During the Vicksburg siege, Union artillery shells frequently disrupted Mass, doctors in hospital, and every other activity. After one explosion in a hospital, a soldier wrote, “Father Bannon was unhurt, and by his quick action he rendered Dr. Britts, saving the doctor’s life by stopping the flow of blood.”
When a shell came screaming through the church during Mass, a soldier wrote, “The congregation [had risen] to rush out, but Father Bannon continued the service as though nothing unusual had happened.”
Leavy recounted a discussion with Bannon at City Hospital during the shelling. “While talking to me about the urgent necessity for attending to one’s religious duties and the uncertainty of life, a large fragment of shell came through the building, and struck a St. Louis boy in the hip, crushing the bones, and imbedding itself in the tissue.” Leavy attended to the wounded man’s bleeding. Bannon went to work to save his soul.
The soldiers also noticed Bannon’s daily treks to visit the men engaged with Grant’s army in the trenches surrounding Vicksburg. On one occasion, when summoned to assist the severely wounded at the height of the fighting, Bannon’s “magnificent black horse … started to gallop more than a mile to the position.” The observer noted “the troops on both sides, Federal and Confederate, struck by his heroism, started up from their trenches, ceased firing, and cheered him loudly.”
Father John Bannon left an indelible imprint on many men.
Back to Ireland
After Vicksburg, Bannon traveled east to Richmond. Here, Jefferson Davis persuaded him to make the perilous trip to Ireland and to persuade the Irish to stop their migration to the Union side. Irishmen upon arrival in New York or Boston were easily recruited into the Union Army with cash enticements and the promise of regular pay. The Confederacy desperately wanted to stop this influx of new men into the Union Army. Bannon had become a diplomat.
John Bannon went to Ireland at the behest of his government. And he traveled to Rome in an effort to persuade the pope to recognize the Confederacy. But Bannon’s final service to the Confederate government failed to change the outcome of the war.
Because of the ever-tightening Union blockade of the Confederacy, Bannon was unable to return to his adoptive home. After the war ended, authorities in St. Louis made sure John Bannon would never again be allowed to preach in his beloved city.
Bannon would live out his days in Ireland after joining the renowned Jesuit order of Catholic priests. St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier, who found God in all things, started the Jesuits, or more formally the Society of Jesus, in 1540. This militaristic order was perfect for Father John Bannon, who found God even in America’s most horrific war.
John Bannon: an ordinary Irish farm boy who became a heroic soldier, priest, diplomat and servant of the people of God.
• John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of the Washington Times.