Inspirational Story From the Civil War: Father James Sheeran

By John E. Carey

The Reverend James Sheeran, a Catholic priest, served with the 14th Louisiana Regiment from New Orleans in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Writer and historian Bruce Catton once said he wished he had met Sheeran. Sheeran perplexed “Stonewall” Jackson by his tenacity and self assurance. Robert E. Lee and Phil Sheridan both backed down in the face of Sheeran’s logic and determination.

Father Sheeran ministered to those in need of religious support, cared for the sick and wounded, and performed innumerable acts of kindness for his fellow man. Sheeran’s determination and righteousness, grounded in God, inspired common soldiers and generals alike. In the face of all kinds of adversity, Sheeran displayed real backbone.

Three things seemed to guide Sheeran in every action, every disagreement and every situation. He believed in duty, the word of the Lord, and his home in the Confederacy.

During a confrontation at a hospital, Sheeran demonstrated some of his strengths.

“Across the road from our hospital,” Sheeran wrote, “was one full of Yankees. As usual having attended to the wants of our own men I visited the wounded of the enemy and offered my service.”

What Father Sheeran found in the Yankee hospital infuriated him. “I enquired if they had no surgeon of their own or any person to dress their wounds. They told me that they had several surgeons over there (pointing to the adjacent building), but they paid no attention to them, did not even come to see them.”

Sheeran marched directly to find the surgeons responsible for the Yankee wounded, telling them “of the painful condition of the wounded and requested them as a matter of humanity not to neglect them so….”

The Union medical staff “told me that they had no bandages to dress the wounds, no instruments to operate with, and that they were fatigued from the labors of the night.”

“I remarked it would be some consolation to their wounded if they would but visit them and wash the wound of those who were bathed in their own blood. I next went to their men paroled to attend to the wounded, asked why they did not wait on their companions, many of whom were suffering for a drink of water. They told me that they had no one to direct them, that their surgeons seemed to take no interest in the men.”

“I became somewhat indignant to hear the excuses of these worthless nurses, and putting on an air of authority ordered them to go to the rifle pits filled with the dead bodies of their companions and they would find hundreds of knapsacks filled with shirts, handkerchiefs and other articles that would make excellent bandages.”

“They obeyed my orders with the utmost alacrity and soon returned with their arms full of excellent bandage material, and bringing them to me asked: ‘Now sir, what shall we do with them?’” Sheeran was fully prepared to give the required final direction. “Go and tell your surgeons that you have bandages enough now.”

“Off they went to the surgeons….” Sheeran records. “In about two hours I returned and was pleased to find the surgeons and nurses all at work attending to their wounded.”

Sheeran spoke his mind and, when he believed he was in the right, he was not afraid of any man. In 1892, a Sheeran friend, Father Joseph Flynn wrote down this account of Sheeran’s run in with Stonewall Jackson:

“Going to his [Father Sheeran’s] tent one day, General Jackson sternly rebuked the priest for disobeying his orders, and reproached him for doing what he would not tolerate in any officer in his command. [The exact offense is unknown.] ‘Father Sheeran,’ said the general, ‘you ask more favors and take more privileges than any officer in the army.’ [Sheeran apparently replied] ‘General Jackson, I want you to understand that as a priest of God I outrank every officer in your command. I even outrank you, and when it is a question of duty I shall go wherever called.’ The General looked with undistinguished astonishment on the bold priest and without reply left his tent.”

Dr. Hunter McGuire, Chief Surgeon of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, recalled another incident between Father Sheeran and Stonewall Jackson. “At one time just before the fight at Chancellorsville,” Dr. McGuire said, “we were ordered to send to the rear all surplus baggage. All tents were discarded…. A Catholic priest belonging to one of the Louisiana brigades sent up his resignation because he was not permitted to have a tent, which he thought necessary to the proper performance of his office.”

“I said to General Jackson,” reported McGuire, “that I was very sorry to give up [the] Father–; that he was one of the most useful chaplains in the service. He replied: ‘If that is the case he shall have a tent.’ And so far as I know this Roman Catholic priest was the only man in the corps who had one.”

Above: “Stonewall” Jackson

Looking to clear the way for unrestricted access to men in need throughout the army and the countryside, Sheeran sought an authorization to go wherever and whenever he is needed. This led the chaplain into conflict with both Robert E. Lee and Phil Sheridan. Army red tape tends to restrict one’s movements to designated times and places. Sheeran set out to attain a pass authorizing the fullest freedoms imaginable.

After hearing half-answers, excuses and outright lies from dozens of officers, Sheeran obtained entry into General Lee’s presence. Lee, at first, refused to support Sheeran. But then Sheeran explained his army role, the length and arduous nature of his service, and the number of men he has prayed with and assisted along the way. Lee scribbled Sheeran a pass “that will last me the rest of the war if I should last so long.”

Later in the war, Union troops arrested Sheeran for crossing into Yankee lines. The Union Army imprisoned Sheeran at the old horse stables of Fort McHenry. Civil War Historian Scott Sheads at Fort Mc Henry in Baltimore pulled Sheeran’s file for us.

“The Reverend James Sheeran was arrested at Winchester, Virginia on November5, 1864 and confined at Fort McHenry on November 10, 1864. Arrested byorder of Major General Philip Sheridan.”

In the cold, cramped, dung and vermin filled environment, of Civil War Fort McHenry, Sheeran tired physically but his resolve stiffened. He wrote letters to General Sheridan and the Union Secretary of War, denouncing his treatment.

Ultimately, the Union Army set Sheeran free. But he again encountered red tape; only this time it is in the form of Union Army rules and restrictions. Sheeran again explained his case, this time to a befuddled General Phil Sheridan. Sheeran, as usual, departed with the passes and respect he thought he deserved.

James Sheeran knew God wanted him at his place at the front. During one engagement, Sheeran actually formed and “commanded” a rag-tag force of troops. “Our ambulance drivers….as well as our stragglers, were for stampeding,” wrote Sheeran. “Mounting my Grey and riding down….I ordered [them] to move forward as quickly as possible….” Before infantry officers arrived to take over, Sheeran wrote, “I took command of the stragglers and formed them in a line…”

Throughout the war, Sheeran retained his sense of humor and his sense of perspective.

Father Sheeran was born in Temple Mehill, County Longford, Ireland, in 1818. At the age of twelve, he emigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Monroe, Michigan where he taught in a boy’s school opened by the Catholic Redemptorist Fathers.

Sheeran married and fathered a son and a daughter. But his wife died in 1849 and Sheeran was drawn to the life of a Catholic priest. He joined the Redemptorist Congregation 1855 and was ordained a priest in 1858. At about the same time, his daughter became a nun and his son succumbed to illness.

Assigned to a parish in New Orleans, he became an ardent Southerner. When the leader of his Catholic province asked for volunteers to serve as chaplains in the Confederate Army, Father Sheeran enthusiastically offered his service.

In 1960, Bruce Catton’s wrote, “[To Father Sheeran] the real enemy appears to be war itself, and not just the opposing army.”

Father Joseph Durkin wrote of Father Sheeran, “He may have been, at times, unduly stern and uncompromising. He may have lacked some of the gentler virtues. But, in a world which so readily sells responsibility for ease, and integrity for profit, we may well prefer Father Sheeran’s iron to a more sophisticated irony.”

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