When the Pope celebrated Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in April 2008, a TV newsman reminded us that the cornerstone of that magnificent church was laid in 1858. But I was reminded of one of the men who made that church possible: “Dagger” John Hughes….
By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
John Joseph Hughes (1797–1864), Catholic Archbishop of New York, played three critical roles for Lincoln and the United States during the Civil War. He traveled to Europe in search of able-bodied Irishmen to enlist in the Union Army. He participated in tricky diplomatic missions to France and the Vatican to keep them out of the war. Finally, Hughes used his personal powers of persuasion and clout to help quell the 1863 draft riots in New York.
Archbishop John Hughes is also responsible for starting the project, raising the first monies and laying the cornerstone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York — where Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Catholic Mass this week end.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York
By the time of the Civil War, “Dagger” John Hughes was nearing the end of his influence and his life. He earned the nickname “Dagger” for two reasons: first, he signed his name to include a small cross, often confused for a dagger. Second: Hughes’ hard-nosed style and ability to toughly face difficult challenges earned him the reputation as the “Dagger” of the Irish community in New York.After the Civil War began in 1861, Lincoln desperately needed to keep up a dialogue of understanding with European monarchs. Lincoln wanted to keep European nations from assisting the Confederacy. Lincoln wanted a Catholic of stature to assist him in dealing with the Catholic leaders in Europe. He chose Dagger John Hughes.
Lincoln paired Hughes with Thurlow Weed to head the mission to Europe.
Harper’s Weekly reported on November 23, 1861 that “Mr. Weed [and Archbishop Hughes] left this port [New York] on Saturday last for Europe. He states himself that he goes on private business; the public, however, will be apt to suspect that his private business concerns the public interest. If the suspicion be correct, we may feel assured that our affairs will suffer no mischance in his hands. Few men in the country are such true patriots as Thurlow Weed.”
European leaders wanted a divided nation on the American continent. In September 1861, England’s former Colonial secretary Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton stated that a permanent division of the United States would benefit the “safety of Europe.” A truly united United States “hung over Europe like a gathering and destructive thundercloud … [but] as America shall become subdivided into separate states … her ambition would be less formidable for the rest of the world.”
“Dagger” John understood his mission and President Lincoln’s concerns: even though he harbored no animosity toward the Confederacy. “My mission was and is a mission of peace between France and England on the one side, and the United States on the other. ….I made it known to the President that if I should come to Europe it would not be as a partisan of the North more than of the South; that I should represent the interests of the South as well as of the North; in short, the interests of all the United States just the same as if they had not been distracted by the present civil war. The people of the South know that I am not opposed to their interests.”
While Weed headed to London to apply his tact and persuasion on members of Queen Victoria’s government, Dagger John went to France to call upon Napoleon III.
Historian Dean B. Mahin wrote that “Napoleon thought an independent Confederacy would provide a buffer between royalist Mexico and the republican United States.”
Even so, Hughes convinced the monarch to avoid involvement in the American conflict.
Then Hughes went to Italy on two missions. The first mission involved convincing the Vatican to keep out of the conflict. Hughes’ second mission was to persuade Irishmen serving as mercenaries in the Army of the Vatican to join their Irish immigrant countrymen in America and fight for the Union.
Hughes accomplished both missions. The Catholic Pope stayed out of the war, despite intense pressure and diplomatic maneuvering from the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis sent Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston to the Vatican in 1861 and Father John Bannon in 1864. Nether could change the neutrality of the influential Pontiff.
In Rome, Hughes also met with leading and influential Irish mercenaries, including Miles Keogh and John Coppinger. Both agreed to join the Union cause and both persuaded others to join them.
A short time later General George McClellan described Keogh as “a most gentlemanlike man, of soldierly appearance,” whose “record had been remarkable for the short time he had been in the army.”
Keogh would serve in many engagements of the Civil War and die alongside George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876.
Bishop Hughes recruit John J. Coppinger also served with Custer. During the Civil War, General Custer wrote that Coppinger’s “ability as an officer is of the highest order. … As a soldier I consider him a model.”
Coppinger was still serving the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898 when he was promoted to Major-General of Volunteers.
Hughes remained on his diplomatic mission in Europe until the summer of 1862.
Dagger John’s final, but perhaps most significant, contribution to the Union cause came during New York’s draft riots of July 1863.
The Irish, most of whom were Catholics, hated the Union Army draft. Most Irishmen lacked the funds to buy their way out of service, the way more wealthy men did throughout the war. The Irish also avidly read newspapers recounting the valor of the Irish Brigade and other units. But Irish losses appalled them — and seemed disproportionate to the losses of non-Irish units. Irish boys made up about 15 percent of the Union army – and they were dying in droves.
The Irish had also reacted badly to Lincoln’s January Emancipation Proclamation. The Irish, arguably members of the lowest echelon of free American society, believed Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves only added another large population to their small niche of society.
So when Lincoln called a draft of even more men, the Irish went wild.
The New York Times reported that, “It seemed to be an understood thing that the negroes should be attacked wherever found.” An orphanage was burned to the ground, stores were ransacked and dozens of police officers were killed or injured.
In three days of mayhem and unrest, 443 people were arrested, 128 wounded, and over 50 people dead. The rioters also burned down more than 100 buildings and damaged about 200 others. Many of the killed and wounded were free Black men. were killed. Irishmen were largely responsible for the rioting.
“In New York no one had to ask who ruled the Church,” explained Professor Jay P. Dolan of the University of Notre Dame in his book “The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865.”
“John Hughes was boss….He ruled like an Irish chieftain,” wrote Professor Dolan. A newspaper reporter of the time wrote that Archbishop Hughes was “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity.”
But Hughes and the Irish did not rule all New York. New York was rued by Protestants, who winked at the unruliness of the Irish Catholics. The historian E.P. Spann called New York City in the mid-19th century “the capital of Protestant America.” Protestant leadership, said Spann, “made no secret of their belief that Roman Catholicism was alien and inferior.” Though not condoning the riot, the Protestant leadership of New York largely considered the disorder “a Catholic problem.”
Hughes left his death bed to appeal to the Irish, their honor and their pride. Hughes challenged the Irish leaders with the words, “no blood of innocent martyrs, shed by Irish Catholics, has ever stained the soil of Ireland.” Thus Archbishop Hughes convinced the Irish to end the rioting and peace was restored in New York.
President Lincoln wrote that “having formed the Archbishop’s acquaintance in the earliest days of our country’s present troubles, his counsel and advice were gladly sought and continually received by the Government on those points which his position enabled him better than others to consider. At a conjuncture of deep interest to the country, the Archbishop, associated with others, went abroad, and did the nation a service there with all the loyalty, fidelity and practical wisdom which on so many other occasions illustrated his great ability for administration.”
Dagger John Hughes proved himself a formidable force in an era when a fighting bishop was needed. When the Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Bedini, asked an American priest to explain why people in America held Archbishop Hughes in such esteem, the answer was: “It is because he is always game.”
Dagger John Hughes: Lincoln emissary and leader of American Irishmen died in New York on January 3, 1864.
John Hughes is also the one man most responsible for the building of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Catholics have made a very long and indelible contribution to the history of North, South and Central America. It is appropriate at the time of Pope Benedict’s visit to recall Archbishop John Hughes.
Mr. Carey is president of International Defense Consultants, Inc. He writes for the Washington Times.