Archive for the ‘Gettysburg’ Category

Civil War Chaplains and Executioners

September 21, 2008

John E. Carey

Civil War diaries and letters from the front reveal a common thread about chaplains: the soldiers almost universally admired and respected the good chaplains and treated others with distain. Chaplains had many roles to fill and their duties either endeared them to the men or caused misunderstandings or unhappiness.

Civil War chaplains served in dozens of roles both traditional and unusual. Typically, and rightly, we think of chaplains holding services, preaching to the soldiers, listening, and leading the men in church songs. But chaplains worked every day; not just on Sunday. War diaries tell us that the chaplains performed many non-traditional functions such as mailman, pay collector (sending soldiers’ pay home to their relatives), correspondent (writing letters for the wounded or illiterate and to families after deaths occurred). Some chaplains became scouts, provisioners and diplomats. Almost universally, chaplains assisted doctors in the hospitals in any number of ways. Following a Court Martial, it was often the chaplain who made that last lonely walk with the condemned man on his way to meet his maker.

Summoned by military order and sometimes in writing, the chaplain would find himself face-to-face with some wretch who had been convicted of desertion, rape or some other grievous offense. This religious duty of extending God’s graces to even the most questionable of characters meant that the priest or chaplain gained a keen insight into the depths of human nature. He became, in effect, a good judge of character.

When the chaplain encountered the “executioner,” that is, the officer who convened the Court Martial or commanded the unit involved, the chaplain’s judge of character and reputation came into harsh conflict with the rigors of military discipline.

On April 24, 1864, Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade made efforts to set aside a conviction and execution of one Private Dawson. His requests moved up the chain of command without resolution. Finally, Father Corby sent this telegram to President Abraham Lincoln: “His Excellency; A. Lincoln; President of the United States — General Meade has not the official proceedings relative to the court martial of L. Dawson who is under sentence of death to take place the 25th instant therefore….Please say what might be done.”

We can only speculate as records are incomplete but it appears that Father Corby may have previously discussed the Dawson case with President Lincoln.

Corby had put Lincoln on the spot. Lincoln had been widely known in the army as a man of reason and leniency. By 1864, military leaders considered this a severe negative influence on good order and discipline. Grant had discussed the issue himself with the president, encouraging the commander in chief to stay out of the Court Martial appeal process.

On April 25, General Meade sent this telegram to the President: “I duly received your note by Mr. Corby & after examining the case of Dawson could find nothing to justify my recommending a mitigation….Unless you intervene he will be executed.”

Dawson was executed.

Even though Corby had come into conflict with General Meade, Meade understood and respected the role of the chaplain and kept him involved with the execution process.

On July 12, 1864, Father Corby was summoned to assist a convicted man with this memorandum:

“Rev’d Sir: There are two men to be executed on the 15th inst., one of whom, especially, is very anxious to secure the services of a priest. If you will be pleased to attend him, the provost-marshal at headquarters will be instructed to furnish you all the facilities necessary to discharge the functions of your sacred office.”

“By order of Maj-Gen. Meade”

Father Corby rode off immediately to fulfill his ordered “sacred office” and upon meeting the convicted immediately sensed innocence. “He was not a low, depraved person by any means, but in time of temptation he had fallen.” Father Corby went to work ministering to the condemned man.

Military justice, more often than not, dominated any attempts to set aside a conviction. Father Corby was bound to see this execution to the end. “There were, perhaps, ten thousand men present. A strong guard conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, and I rode beside him until we reached the spot…. I attended to the two men and escorted them up the scaffold. Without very much ceremony the ropes were adjusted about their necks, and, while both continued to pray for God’s mercy, a silent signal was given and both dropped dangling at the end of the ropes – dead!”

General Meade was not inclined toward leniency.

Father Constantine L. Egan, who had served with the 9th Massachusetts until the muster-out of the regiment in June of 1864, and then was attached to the Headquarters of the 5th Army Corps, recounted a very similar summons to minister to a convicted man in April, 1865. “We have a prisoner under sentence of death for desertion; the time appointed for his execution is Friday. He desires the attention of a clergyman of your denomination…”

Egan set about to have the execution put aside. He convinced Major General S. H. Crawford of the Third Division, Fifth Army Corps, to send him to General Meade with a letter of introduction and a military escort. “The carriage was made ready with seventeen troopers, and Gen Crawford, handing me the letter, we started on our journey.”

Father Egan ultimately had a hearing with General Meade but he was not as successful in his mission as he had hoped. Egan wrote, “The principle point of my argument representing the prisoner as a reckless half-fool, non compos mentis. The general remarked that that fellow was no fool, for he broke away from the guard three times.”

Ever the tough nut on military discipline, Meade only partially relented to Egan’s argument. “Well, Father,” Egan recalls Meade as saying, “I will suspend his execution for tomorrow, but you will have to get the doctors to substantiate your claim that the prisoner is non compos mentis.”

Thus Egan the advocate bought at least a little time to gather more information in the hope of saving a man’s life.

Like the chaplains, the doctors were under military commanders and the medics of the Civil War had virtually no knowledge of the concepts later known as “battle fatigue” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” Egan would have to witness an execution.

Military chaplains who served in combat throughout history faced daily tests of their courage and faith. The Civil War chaplains were no different. No test could have been tougher than taking that last walk with a condemned man when the chaplain believed in his heart that the accused was innocent.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.


Civil War Hangings

By Mike Parker, The Kinston Free Press

(Oct. 11, 2004) — In the wee hours of Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces captured 53 men who had deserted the Stars and Bars and currently wore the uniform of those serving the Stars and Stripes. These men comprised nearly the entire roster of Company F of the Second North Carolina Volunteer Union Infantry.Within four months of capture, nearly all were dead. Many became victims of diseases after they were sent to southern prisoner of war camps.

Some were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their hips.

However, 22 of these men were publicly hanged in Kinston.

The story of these hangings, once the stuff of local legend, entered this summer into the arena of international study thanks to the efforts of Dr. Donald Collins, a retired history professor from East Carolina University.

His account of these ill-fated men appeared in the June issue of the CHAB News. CHAB stands for the Confederate Historical Association of Belgium.

The publication is a popular Civil War magazine, similar to the Civil War Times Illustrated published in the United States.

“During the past two years, interest in the story of the Kinston hangings has expanded nationally and internationally,” Collins said. “Northerners visiting the South are often dumbfounded by the interest of Southerners in the Civil War.

“They would be more surprised at the intense interest our war has generated throughout the world.”

Germans, Austrians, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians and other Europeans hold round-table discussions, and European re-enactor groups, fighting as both Federals and Confederates, recreate the battles of Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Antietam, Collins explained. The First North Carolina Cavalry has a German branch that has ridden into action for the past 12 years.

Even the Internet offers evidence of the interest people world-wide have in the American Civil War. One website’s greeting reads, “Willkommen auf des Homepages des Union and Confederate Reenactors International,” while another says, “Bienvenue sur le site du Club Confedere et Federal de France.”

Dr. Collins’ article in CHAB News, titled “General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina,” is just the latest chapter in the story of this professor’s personal quest.

“I became interested in this topic many years ago while doing genealogical research on my great-grandfather, Richard Louis ‘R.L.’ Collins, who was the husband of Elsy Becton of Lenoir County. R.L. Collins owned a tailor shop next to the Pollock Hotel across from the court house before the Civil War,” Collins said.

“He lost his shop at the beginning of the war when he refused to make a Confederate flag. He even refused to sell the material to make Confederate flags.”

Collins said when he learned that his great-grandfather’s death occurred around the time of the Kinston hangings, he suspected that his Union-sympathizing ancestor was possibly one of those who ended up at the end of a rope. R.L. Collins was 31 at the time of his death.

As the professor meticulously examined documents from that historical period, he pieced together the story of the captured deserters and the Kinston hangings. Major General George Pickett was in command of Confederate forces in the Kinston and Goldsboro areas at the time of the hangings.

“I never did find out how my great-grandfather died, but being a historian, I decided to write the most detailed story of the hangings possible,” Collins explained. “After I completed the article, it took years to get it into print.”

Since the story’s first appearance in print, Collins has published an expanded version of the article in The Human Tradition in the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Scholarly Resources, Inc.

In Jan. 2003, Collins told the story of the Kinston hangings to the Pickett Society in Richmond, Va., at the annual commemoration of Pickett’s birthday.

Professor Collins has no kind words for Gerard A. Patterson’s book, “Justice or Atrocity: General George E. Pickett and the Kinston, N.C. Hangings.”

“I have great disdain for Patterson’s book for two reasons. First, he took a subject too short for book-length treatment and padded it with Pickett’s love story,” Collins said.

“Even worse, he padded the text with statements that are just outright wrong. He makes mistakes page after page. The courts-martial did not take place at the courthouse but at Pickett’s headquarters, first in Kinston and then in Goldsboro. His claims to know the location of the hangings is incorrect because no one knows with certainty just where the hangings took place.”

Dr. Donald Collins is a retired history professor from East Carolina University. At the time of this article he was in the final stages of completed his latest book. “The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis,” scheduled for release in May 2005.

Account of Civil War Executions
By Rev. Francis Springer 

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment’s warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, “Well, all right.” As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been “pretty bad boys.” So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, “Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven.” At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.

This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher’s Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer’s hand signed “Thrifton” was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher’s Tale.


Marsena Patrick: Provost Marshal General of the Army of the Potomac

September 20, 2008

By John E. Carey

Generally unknown, unnoticed and little honored, the provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac proved his worth as an invaluable right-hand man to the commanding general.

During a myriad of sometimes messy, often ugly and usually distasteful assignments, one man acted aggressively, diligently and with integrity, plus a dash of God-fearing, Bible-thumping religion: Marsena Rudolph Patrick (1811-1888).


Before the war, Patrick worked on the Erie Canal, taught school and attended the U.S. Military Academy. He served in both the Seminole War and the Mexican War. During the 1850s, he became an expert farmer, intrigued by the science of agriculture. Ultimately, he became president of the New York State Agricultural College.

When the Civil War began, Patrick offered his services to New York, and the governor appointed him brigadier general and inspector general of the state militia. By March 1862, he was in command of James Wadsworth’s brigade in Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s 1st Corps.

He first learned the difficulties of managing both Union troops and semi-hostile civilians when appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Va., in April 1862. Later, Patrick and his men fought at Second Manassas and Antietam. In October 1862, Gen. George McClellan appointed Patrick provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac.

On the march

Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress.
The provost marshal almost always had troops, both infantry and cavalry, under his direct command to assist him in his duties. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.

“Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”

As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”


During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”

After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”

A town pillaged

Perhaps Patrick’s most controversial action was at Fredericksburg. In November 1862, Union troops commanded by Gen. Ambrose Burnside conducted a 40-mile forced march across rural Virginia to a position on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg.

Gen. Robert E. Lee pulled the bulk of his army out of Fredericksburg to Marye’s Heights, leaving behind sharpshooters. The 120,000-man Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and began a five-hour house-to-house engagement in the town. By the time Patrick crossed the river and entered the town, he encountered a horrifying scene, which historian Frank A. O’Reilly called “a bizarre, bacchanal carnival kind of atmosphere.”

“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”

Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”

Some gave Patrick credit for stopping the looting, but in the post-battle finger-pointing, Army leaders and politicians in Washington wanted Patrick’s head for the “sacking of Fredericksburg.” Messages from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton annoyed and depressed Patrick, who believed he had done his duty to the best of his ability in a miserable situation.

“I then wrote [to Stanton] saying that So far as the Pillage of [Fredericksburg] was concerned,” Patrick wrote in his diary on March 19, 1863, “I had nothing further to say, and that the Court of Inquiry would elicit the facts in the case.”

A myriad of tasks

Despite criticism, Patrick kept to the task at hand, performing any number of unusual and often unseemly, yet necessary, duties.

In camp, his “routine” was never routine. “I have been overrun with applications for Bakeries, for Agencies, for Eating Houses, for any and every thing in fact, even to holding my horse, if I pay, roundly,” the provost marshal wrote.

Often, he had to deal with cheaters, moneymaking schemes and the like. “We have made a large number of arrests today, of Soldiers selling [stolen] passes [to return home from the army].” One unusual diary entry is unexplained, but it certainly entailed malfeasance: “I drove up to the Hospital to see about some charges against the embalmers.”

Some complaints Patrick encountered give insight into the lively camp life of the Army of the Potomac. He wrote on Sept. 22, 1864: “This Evening I have had Rev. Mr. Burdick, Chaplain of the 61st New York here, for the 2nd time, in regard to a gross outrage committed upon him by Capt. & Lieut. Ames of a Battery in the 1st N.Y. Artillery, in the 2nd Corps – They tied him up to a Battery Waggon & the trial seems to be a farce.”

Newspapermen were not always treated well by the army. Negative reports from the front could mean banishment, or worse, for the offending scribe. Patrick wrote about “a Man named Cropsey of the Phil. Inquirer, who is to be sent off on account of a Libel on [Army commander George] Meade.” Patrick describes Mr. Cropsey’s punishment: “He was placed on a horse, with breast and back boards Marked ‘Libeller, of the Press’ & marched in rear of my flag, [through] the army, after which he was sent North.”

Patrick frequently interrogated the prisoners in his charge. He nicknamed the holding pen for these men the “Bull Ring”: “I went over to the Bull Ring and brought out a number of cases for examination.” He commented that many commanders found no value in Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and their intelligence. Many believed that between the interrogations of the prisoners and other information dug up by Patrick and his men, all intelligence to be had was obtained.

No alcohol, please

Practically every unwanted and difficult task, it seemed, wound up in Marsena Patrick’s hands. Just before Christmas 1863, he wrote: “I have had the Oyster business in hand, it having been referred back to me by Gen. Meade. I have, this evening, sent down an Advertisement, to appear in the Chronicle, & it has been telegraphed to the Associated Press. The bids are to be opened on Saturday the 2nd of January ’64.”

A teetotaling Presbyterian, Patrick took a stern approach to any amusement, especially involving alcohol, that made him both a pain in the neck and the perfect rule enforcer. On one St. Patrick’s Day, Patrick wrote: “In accordance with a Special request from [Gen. Joseph] Hooker, I agreed to go over & witness some of the festivities at the Head Quarters of Meagher’s Irish Brigade. We brought up in the midst of a grand steeple chase, from which the crowd soon adjourned to drink punch at Meagher’s Head Quarters – Everybody got tight & I found it was no place for me – so I came home.”

Patrick investigated his boss’s own servant for misuse of alcohol. “There has been a court Martial over at headquarters today to try Meade’s Steward, E.A. Paul for Selling Whiskey to Soldiers.” Later, Patrick enforced a “no alcohol” order by the notoriously non-teetotaling Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Picture of honor

More than once, Patrick officiated at an execution, taking the opportunity to address the troops on the value of good conduct and discipline. On July 15, 1864, Patrick wrote: “I read the Order of the Court & Sentence – The Clergy talked with them a few moments & at their request the feet were tied, the eyes bandaged, the ropes adjusted, the tap upon the drum & the drop fell! I remounted the Scaffold & said such words of warning, of reproof & of correction as seemed proper.”

After Lee surrendered his army to Grant at Appomattox, Mathew Brady posed Grant and his staff for one final photograph in the field. On April 12, 1865, Grant, the hero of the hour, posed in a high-backed chair. All his other staff officers stood on either side. The bald, well-built Patrick, wearing a startling 6- or 7-inch white beard, draped his right arm over the left shoulder of Grant’s chair. Patrick appears calm, serene and in command of the minutiae no other general needed or wanted.

As provost marshal general of the Army of the Potomac, Patrick had served Gens. McClellan, Burnside, Hooker and Meade, the enforcer of discipline, the repairman of messes, the handler of the distasteful.

He did his duty honorably and well. Every large military unit requires a man like him.

John E. Carey writes history in northern Virginia.

Adultery, Bloodshed and “The Trial of the Century”

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey

Betrayal. Revenge. Murder. Defending one’s honor. The “Dream Team.”
The “Trial of the Century.”

A Famous athlete’s trial? A President impeached? No.

It’s the story of Congressman Daniel Sickles in 1859.

In February 1859, the 39 year old New York Congressman Daniel Sickles learned from a note signed “R.P.G.” that his wife Teresa had, in her own words, “an intimacy of an improper kind” with Washington, D.C. District Attorney Philip Barton Key. Sickles, a competent lawyer, extracted a written confession from his wife on February 26, 1859. “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do,” she wrote. She confirmed to her husband what the note writer had alleged: that the son of the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner” signaled readiness for these liaisons by tying a white string to a shutter on his house near Lafayette Park – and just a block from the Sickles home. Key also occasionally signaled his amorous intentions by waving a handkerchief outside the Sickles home.

After Teresa’s confession, Sickles spent the night commiserating with his good friend, lawyer Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher later described Sickles as in “a state of nearly constant sobbing and shaking.” Apparently, though historical records of this are incomplete, a fair amount of alcohol was consumed by Sickles and Meagher during the night of February 26 and the morning of the 27th. When Sickles made preparations to depart his home at about 2 p.m. on February 27 to walk to the Clubhouse, a popular drinking establishment and boarding house across Lafayette Square, he either encountered Key handkerchief in hand or noticed the white string on the shutter.

Sickles accosted Key with the words, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.” Sickles fired a shot from one of his three sidearms, hitting Key a grazing wound. “Murderer,” screamed Key. “Don’t shoot me, don’t murder me!” Sickles fired a second shot, hitting Key in the groin. Key collapsed into the gutter.

Sickles third round struck Key in the chest. Sickles, according to several accounts from passers-by on the busy Square, approached Key, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. The gun mis-fired; and friends grabbed Sickles to end the assault. Key soon died from his wounds.

Sickles walked the two blocks to U. S. Attorney General Jeremiah Black’s house to turn himself in. Sickles told Black there was “one less wretch in the world.”

Thomas Francis Meagher was summoned to immediately begin to prepare the defense of his friend and client. He volunteered his service to Sickles and visited President Buchanan in the White House. Sickles was a dear friend of the president. The two lived together in London while Buchanan was Ambassador to the court of Saint James. Sickles had been Buchanan’s most trusted advisor and confidant.

When Meagher informed the president that his friend Sickles had just gunned down the Federal Prosecutor, the president informed Meagher that he was already aware of the crime. A White House servant had witnessed the murder, and rushed to inform the president. The president gave the servant $200 and told him to flee Washington – thus, arguably, committing obstruction of justice.

During Meagher’s conversation with Buchanan, Meagher urged the president to swiftly appoint Key’s deputy, Robert Ould, as the new federal prosecutor. Ould, who had been a lawyer for 17 years but had almost no trial experience, became the President’s choice in an apparent second attempt by the president to help his friend.

Meagher began to assemble his own “dream team” of talented lawyers to assist in Sickles’ defense. He recruited the legal giants of the day, including James Brady, who had already won 51 of 52 murder cases. Edwin M. Stanton joined the defense team. Stanton, the future Secretary of War in President Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet, was a friend of President Buchanan’s and Sickles’ and he may have joined the defense team at Buchanan’s request. Attorneys John Graham, Daniel Ratcliffe, Allan Magruder, Samuel Chilton, and Phillip Phillips also joined in the defense.

Edwin M. Stanton
Edwin M. Stanton

America’s newspapers, including the already well regarded New York Times, screamed out the news. As the trial commenced, headlines about the Sickles case frequently were sprawled across all columns of America’s daily papers. Leslie’s Illustrated printed 200,000 copies of it’s magazine as the trial opened, but demand prompted editors to print 300,000 more. Adultery, and an aggrieved husband’s right to take the law into his own hands, became the topic of discussion throughout the nation.

For twenty-two days, the Sickles trial dominated America’s newspapers. And the trial made for interesting, even salacious, reading.

“Whenever [Key] met her, the whole object of his acquaintance was the gratification of his lust,” defense attorney John Graham told the jury.

Sickles became something of a media darling, certainly a celebrity. He retained his seat in Congress. Cabinet members visited him in jail and his meals were catered from home. Hundreds of spectators packed the court room each day. The Washington,
D. C. police chief added extra officers to the courtroom detail.

Sickles’ defense lawyers argued that Key, a widower, should have understood better his marriage vows. Their case is nearly one of justifiable homicide – but using eyewitness accounts of friends that saw Sickles’ state of torment after learning of his wife’s infidelity, a strong case for temporary insanity was presented. No American jury had ever acquitted an accused on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The “Dream Team” won. Sickles was acquitted – a verdict that was largely supported in the land. But Sickles’ notoriety would fade quickly when he announced to the newspapers his intention of forgiving Teresa her indiscretions. Said Sickles, “I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.”

Sickles became a pariah – other Congressmen refused even to speak to him.

Some said the Sickles verdict was a shock: that a man who obviously killed his wife’s lover might be acquitted. But the late Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, wrote that the outcome was nothing special. “[A]n article in the March 12, 1859, edition of Harper’s Weekly concluded that Sickles would have been justified in killing the man who seduced his wife,” wrote Rehnquist, “and predicted that no jury in the United States would convict him even of manslaughter.”

For Sickles, the attack on Fort Sumter came none too soon. He volunteered his services to his home state of New York and was made a brigadier general. He rose to command the III Corps of the Army of the Potomac. But controversy always followed him, at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and even into the post Civil War years where his frequent philandering caused rumors to abound.

In Sickles’ later life, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the battlefield at Gettysburg. Generations owe him a debt of gratitude.

Sickles remains today one of the most controversial leaders of the American Civil War.

Meagher went on to found the Irish Brigade – and drowned after the Civil War while, most probably, intoxicated. Stanton became Lincoln’s right hand man as Secretary of War. Both played important roles in a most unusual trial, arguably, the “Trial of the Century.”

“Dagger” John Hughes: Lincoln’s Emissary

August 30, 2008

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.

View of the cathedral from Rockefeller Center.

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.”

Archbishop John Hughes

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.


On War and Love: John Reynolds and Kate

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey

Many students of the Civil War and the battle of Gettysburg know the tragic tale of Major General John Reynolds. But not as many know that General Reynolds had a secret love named “Kate” that even the Reynolds family knew nothing about prior to John Reynolds’ death at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

 John F. Reynolds

In May, 1863, the Army of the Potomac suffered a stinging defeat at the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. President Lincoln was fed up with his eastern army commanders.

He had already relieved Burnside after Fredericksburg and had tired of McClellan’s plodding pursuit of General Lee and the Rebel Army.

Lincoln’s advisors told him the most well regarded officer in the Union Army was John Fulton Reynolds, the 42 year old Pennsylvanian and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (just fifty miles from the battlefield at Gettysburg), Reynolds was frequently the subject of praise-filled words by his contemporaries.

McClellan wrote that Reynolds was “remarkably brave and intelligent, an honest, true gentleman.”

Reynolds was quiet, efficient and dedicated to the Union cause. Reviews of contemporary letters and diaries can uncover no negative words about Reynolds.

Frank Haskell called Reynolds “one of the soldier generals of the army, a man whose soul was in his country’s work.”

“General Reynolds obeys orders literally himself, and expects all under him to do the same,” wrote artilleryman Charles Wainwright. “General Reynolds is very different from Hooker, in that he never expresses an opinion about other officers,” he wrote. “I can get nothing out of him.”

Lincoln invited Reynolds to the White House and, although they met privately, many historians believe that Lincoln offered command of the Army of the Potomac to the taciturn Reynolds. Reynolds wanted unfettered control of the Army: a stipulation Lincoln would not allow.

JFReynolds GB2.jpg
Gen. John Reynolds statue at Gettysburg

A few weeks later, President Lincoln ordered the relief of General Joseph Hooker. On the night of June 27, 1863, General George Gordon Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac in Frederick, Maryland.

General Meade

Meade had to immediately deal with General Lee’s invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He drew up a defense plan that included a line of troops known as the Pipe Creek Defense Line. This line stretched from Middleburg to Manchester, Maryland.

By July 30, Reynolds and his First Corps was in the middle of this line and nearing Emmitsburg, Maryland. By the evening before the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, Reynolds was at Emmitsburg with 80,000 troops.

The Union Army campsite covered the grounds of what is now the Department of Homeland Security’s National Emergency Training Center (then the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Academy), through the property of what is now the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine, and reached almost to what is now the Post Office.

An Illinois officer wrote that the weary soldiers found themselves near a Catholic Convent. “The beauty and tranquility of this place, so strikingly in contrast with a military tumult which suddenly invested it, are vividly remembered,” he recorded.

The Sisters of Charity made bread for their new flock.

General Buford and his cavalry were the first to encounter Lee’s Confederate forces just outside of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. He hastily scribbled notes to Reynolds, the commander of the Union Army’s First Corps, urging his rapid march to the battle site.

General John Buford

Buford was conducting a defense in depth – all the while slowing down the Confederates of General Henry Heath’s division but also executing a slow, organized withdrawal.

Buford was at the Seminary in Gettysburg when Reynolds and his forces came on the scene. In a famous exchange, Reynolds called out, “What goes, John?” Buford characteristically replied, “The Devil’s to pay!”

Reynolds entered the fray, quickly assessed the situation and made a report to his commander, General Meade. Reynolds sent a member of his staff, Capt. Stephen Minot Weld, to Meade with this situation report: “Tell the General that we will hold the heights to the south of the town, and that I will barricade the streets of the town if necessary.”

Personally directing his men after arriving on the field, General Reynolds shouted out, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods.”

But before long a Confederate sniper shot Reynolds who wheeled and fell from his horse.

The characteristically quiet Reynolds was dead – a tragic loss to the Union cause.

The Union Army quietly removed the body of its First Corps commander from the field by ambulance. Then, because his family lived so close to the battlefield, Reynolds remains and personal effects were sent home to his family. Among those effects, the Reynolds family discovered a previously unknown ring engraved with the words “Dear Kate.”

The Reynolds family never knew that John Reynolds had a secret love. General Reynolds had met and fallen in love with Catherine Hewitt in California in 1860.

When General Reynolds was then transferred to West Point, Miss Hewitt traveled back east with him While Reynolds taught at West Point, Catherine attended the Sacred Heart Academy near Torresdale, Pennsylvania.

General Reynolds planned to marry his ‘Kate,’ but postponed the event as the war erupted.

Kate vowed to join the convent if anything happened to her John.

After John Reynolds death, Catherine Hewitt met the Reynolds family and became like a daughter to the surprised Reynolds family.

Then she traveled to Emmitsburg and entered the Daughters of Charity community (convent). Miss Hewitt became Sister Hildegardi.

Kate kept in touch with the Reynolds family until 1868 when she left the convent. The sisters at Emmittsburg, according to Kate’s biographer and author of “Is She Kate?” Marian Latimer, found Kate “unsuitable for community life.”

Brooding, mourning for a man that was neither husband nor blood relative, Kate was alone in the world. She apparently gave up on her Catholic faith and returned to her first home in Stillwater, New York.

Catherine Mary Hewitt died of pneumonia in Stillwater, New York, in 1895. She is not buried in a Catholic cemetery.

Mr. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of The Washington Times.

Irish Brigade’s Flags Add Green to the Blue

August 30, 2008

National and regimental flags represented prized symbols of honor and tradition for any Civil War military unit, Union or Confederate. However, knowledge about many of those military flags is limited, poorly documented or dependent on word-of-mouth histories or inaccurate museum notations.

Officially, according to regulations, regular Army units were authorized just three flags: two national flags and a state flag. The first U.S. flag was a huge 36-by-20-foot heavy-bunting flag intended to fly on a pole over camp or garrison. The Stars and Stripes that units carried into battle were 6-by-6 on a 19-foot staff.

According to Army regulations in 1861, “The second, or regimental color, to be blue, with the arms of the United States embroidered in silk on the center. The name of the regiment on a scroll, underneath the eagle.”Because largely ethnic units, such as Irish, German or Italian, usually were state volunteers, they freely deviated from these federal rules. Some carried no blue flag. Some of the Irish carried the Stars and Stripes, the blue New York flag and a green regimental flag. Other flags might be used as guidons at the end of regimental lines.


The original Irish Harp flag presented to the 28th Massachusetts Volunteers by the Mayor Joseph Wightman of Boston, and called the ‘Pilot’ flag because of this illustration from that Irish Catholic newspaper in Boston.  The publisher was a strong supporter of the raising of the regiment.

Among the most recognizable regimental flags were the green silk flags of the Irish Brigade. At least three regiments of the Irish Brigade officially carried green flags: the 63rd Regiment, New York Volunteers; the 69th Regiment, New York Volunteers; and the 88th Regiment, New York Volunteers.A final 10th Regiment, New York Volunteers, was partially organized and then folded into the existing Irish units.As casualties among the Irish mounted in 1862, the 29th Massachusetts Regiment was added to the brigade, but this unit was not Irish. The 29th was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts, and then the 116th Pennsylvania joined the Irish Brigade. These units were almost entirely composed of Irishmen.

Confusion sometimes exists concerning the very names of these units, as accounts often refer to the 63rd Volunteer Infantry or the 69th Militia. As if that weren’t enough, the first Irish unit formed, the 63rd, is called the 3rd Irish (Independent) Regiment.The 69th is called the 1st Irish Regiment, and the 37th New York Irish Rifles is called the 2nd Irish Regiment.To further add to the confusion, the 23rd Illinois Volunteers is sometimes referred to as the “Irish Brigade of the West.”As flags were damaged beyond repair in battle or otherwise replaced, the lineage of the flags is denoted by a number, such as “the first Irish colors” for the first green flag carried by the unit.Most is known about the green flags of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Volunteers. The 28th Massachusetts apparently also carried a green flag, but the 116th Pennsylvania did not. The green regimental colors were rich in symbolism.

Most featured the Brian Boru harp, the symbol of the only king of a united Ireland, who died in battle in 1014. The sunburst often is above the harp, a symbol of hope and good times common among the American Fenians.

Shamrocks appear on several flags, in reference to the green hills of Ireland and its Catholic heritage. Many flags have patriotic Irish mottos such as “Riamh Nar Druid O Spairn Iann’” – “Who never retreated from the clash of lances.”Many of the green flags were presented to the regiments by wealthy donors. The most costly and ornate green flags, meant for presentation and ceremonies but not battle, were made by Tiffany Co.

How important can these flags be?

During the war, their value was inestimable. Brevet Brig. Gen. Ezra Carman, 13th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, recalls this scene at Antietam: “The ranks of [Thomas] Meagher’s [Irish] Brigade had been greatly thinned. The 69th New York had nearly melted away but a few [troopers] were left, huddling about its two colors, when one of the enemy shouted from the Sunken Road: ‘Bring them colors in here,’ upon which the two color bearers instantly advanced a few steps, shook their colors in the very face of the enemy and replied: ‘Come and take them you damned rebels.'”Capt. D.P. Conyngham wrote about “the green flag” at Antietam. “[It] was completely riddled, and it appeared certain death to anyone to bear it, for eight color bearers had already fallen.”The flags of the Irish Brigade, like other brigade banners, made the units recognizable and represented the bravery of the men who fought beneath them. At Fredericksburg, Confederate Gen. George Pickett marveled at the bravery of the Irish.

“The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish Brigade was beyond description. … We forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”After Fredericksburg, though, some of the Irish feared they had lost their colors and shamed the brigade.

2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV

Conyngham wrote: “Next day the color-sergeant was found sitting up against a tree, dead, and his hands clasped upon his chest, as if protecting something. Near him was the staff of the missing flag. When removing the body, the men found the flag wrapped around it, with a bullet hole right through it and his heart.”

Anyone with interest in the Irish Brigade will appreciate the historical memoirs and letters used, the carefully documented illustrations and the detailed endnotes and references in a recent book about the green flags: “Blue for the Union and Green for Ireland: The Civil War Flags of the 63rd New York Volunteers, Irish Brigade,” written by Peter J. Lysy and published by the Archives of the University of Notre Dame.

John E. Carey is descended from members of the Irish Brigade. He is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.

Nurses From the Holy Sisters and Nuns: Angels in War

August 30, 2008

By John E. Carey
The Washington Times

The Roman Catholic nuns who went to war (American Civil War 1861-1865) to help out as nurses were the most highly praised and prized of the female attendants.

Doctors, Sanitary Commission members and the men themselves generals to privates commented on the efficiency of the nuns.

Many of the nuns did not come from nursing backgrounds or formal nursing training, but they had learned the “basics” of care in their large Catholic families. Many were fairly well educated, for women of the time. Some were teachers.

Above all, the nuns were quiet, cooperative and, to use a more modern term, “low maintenance.” Some women who volunteered as nurses from civil life did not adapt easily to a demanding and regimented military environment.

At the Mound City, Ill., military hospital, Dr. John Brinton called most female volunteers “terrible, irritable and unhappy.”

The work was tough, disgusting and fatiguing. Brinton heard about the Catholic nuns and asked if any could assist him:”In answer to my request to the Catholic authorities of South Bend, Indiana, a number of sisters were sent down to act as nurses in the hospital. Those sent were from a teaching and not a nursing order, but in a short time they adapted themselves admirably to their new duties.”

The sisters were from the Holy Cross Order of Catholic nuns at St. Mary’s College at Notre Dame. Brinton continues: “When I asked the Mother [Superior] who accompanied them, what accommodations they required, the answer was, ‘One room, Doctor,’ and there were, I think, fourteen or fifteen of them.”

The nuns shared the bed, sleeping in shifts and sometimes on the floor.

More than 600 Catholic nuns went to war as nurses, including in the Confederacy, from 21 different religious communities and 12 different orders. They almost always took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They had a deep sense of duty and worked long hours without complaint.

This certainly is not to denigrate the contributions of so many other women during the war.

British observer George Augustus Sala called the Civil War “a woman’s war.” Thousands of women contributed by sewing, making bandages, cooking and providing food, and in other ways. When it came to nursing, however, discipline and a keen understanding of medicine was in order.

Union nurse Jane Woolsey said the problem was that often volunteer groups of eight to 20 slightly educated women were turned loose in a hospital without guidance or supervision. Some had questionable motivations.

The famed Dorothea Dix tried to correct this problem by creating standards for the nurses. The “fine print” in Dix circulars seeking nurses included the paragraph: “No women under thirty need apply to serve in the government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black with no bows, no curls, no jewelry and no hoop skirts.”

In 1921, Rhode Island Rep. Ambrose Kennedy referred to, “the ‘nuns of the battlefield,’ whose services were not only conspicuously national; they were also singular and unique.” This is high praise, but usually the nuns were in hospitals. Perhaps less than one in five saw battlefield conditions, in which soldiers usually assisted the doctors.Confederate nurse Kate Cumming said, “It seems strange that [the sisters] can do with honor what is wrong for other Christian women.”
A painting of cornette-wearing Daughters of Charity by Armand Gautier (1825–1894)

Above: A painting of cornette-wearing Daughters of Charity by Armand Gautier (1825–1894)

The nuns came from a church that was a male-dominated hierarchical organization not unlike the military. The nuns could take orders and were used to the gradations of place and status rank in the military culture.

The first nurses at sea served aboard a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Red Rover, a specially configured hospital ship operating in the Mississippi River and Western theater of war.

The nuns, also from St. Mary’s College, established a military-style “chain of command.” They answered to the ship’s captain for routine items, to the chief surgeon for medical matters and to their order for religious issues.

They established the nursing routine in the ship and organized the black women who assisted them as attendants. They were Sister Mary (often abbreviated as M.) Adela (Catherine Morane), Sister M. Callista (Esther Pointan), Sister M. John of the Cross (Catherine McLoughlin) and Sister M. Veronica (Regina School).

After the Civil War, The Rev. William Corby, chaplain to the Irish Brigade during the war and later president of the University of Notre Dame, wrote a tribute honoring the Sisters of the Holy Cross, of St. Mary’s Convent at Notre Dame, and to the Sisters of Charity.
USS Red Rover.jpg
Nuns turned nurses put together the first hospital ship, USS Red Rover

This tribute is published in “Our Army Nurses: Stories From Women in Civil War,” edited by Mary Gardner Holland (Edinborough Press, 1998 and 2000).”Sixty Sisters of the Order of the Holy Cross from Saint Mary’s convent … went out under the intelligent Mother Mary Angela as superioress. These sisters volunteered their services to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers, hundreds of whom, moved to sentiments of purest piety by the words and example of their angel nurses, begged to be baptized in articulo mortis’ at the point of death.

“The labors and self sacrifices of the Sisters during the war need no praise here. Their praise is on the lips of every surviving soldier who experienced their kind and careful ministrations,” Father Corby continued.”Many other Orders made costly sacrifices to save life and to save souls, notably the noble Order of the Sisters of Charity. To members of this Order I am personally indebted. When prostrate with camp-fever [malaria], insensible for three days, my life was entrusted to their care. Like guardian angels, these daughters of Saint Vincent watched every symptom of the fever, and by their skill and care I was soon able to return to my post of duty.”

* John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

John Bachelder: Gettysburg’s Historian and Mapmaker

August 30, 2008

From the time of the battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, John Bachelder (1825-1894) proved himself the leading historian of that historic battle. He made maps, hosted reunions, interviewed thousands of participants, and assisted in the placement of monuments. Without John Bachelder, the “open book” at “The Angle,” otherwise known as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” monument might not exist. In fact, the term “high water mark” was one of John Bachelder’s many contributions.

Bachelder was so thorough in his work, so detailed and exacting, and so convincing in his presentation that General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was seriously wounded at the “high water mark” during Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, sent Bachelder and his map to see President Lincoln.
John B. Bachelder and his wife Elizabeth at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1890.

Above: John B. Bachelder and his wife Elizabeth at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1890.

In a letter to John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s secretary, dated February 20, 1865, Hancock wrote, “My Dear Sir, I think the President would like to see the great map of the battle field of Gettysburg and in order that he may have that opportunity I have sent the author, with a copy of the map to you: The Gentleman’s name is J. B. Bachelder of Boston Mass.”

Editions of the map from 1864, 1865, and 1866 are still on hand at the Library of Congress, which describes the map as: “Colored bird’s-eye view showing the topography of the battlefield by the perspective of the drawing, shading and coloring. Drainage, vegetation, roads and streets, railroads, bridges, houses and names of residents, fences, points of interest on the battlefield, including designations of places where officers were killed or wounded, are indicated. ….The locations of the corps, divisions, brigades, etc. of both armies, with the names of commanding officers, are given in detail. Badge symbols are used to identify the Federal corps.”

Additionally, the maps bear this inscription: “The positions of the troops of our respective commands represented upon this picture have been arranged under our immediate direction and may be relied upon as substantially correct.” The inscription appears above reproduced signatures of Union Generals Doubleday, John Newton, Winfield Hancock, David Birney, George Sykes, John Sedgwick, O. O. Howard, A. S. Williams, and Henry Slocum.

Although Bachelder missed the battle, he arrived within a week, and fervently began collecting information by interviewing wounded soldiers.

This, along with the proper placement of the right and left flanks of engaged units and the production of the detailed topographic sketches, became lifelong obsessions for Bachelder. As a result, he became, unquestionably the leading authority on the battle of Gettysburg almost from the time the smoke and rain cleared in July 1863 until his death in 1894.

Expertise Not Without Controversy

As the wounded made their way home from Gettysburg, Bachelder followed the Union Army. He set about to accomplish a goal that historians would thank him for: he interviewed officers from every Union regiment that fought at Gettysburg. In fact, he wound up interviewing every officer he could find who had been present at Gettysburg. From this work sprang his intriguing three-dimensional map showing the positions of the units.

Bachelder’s map proved such a sensation that news of his expertise, knowledge and desire to interview battle participants spread rapidly. He began to receive hundreds of unsolicited personal accounts of the battle: an avalanche of information that further expanded his knowledge and his reputation as the Gettysburg expert.

Bachelder even began to host reunions of veterans at Gettysburg. These events gave him ample opportunities to interview battle participants while they explored the ground they fought over.

He was also understood the benefits of making the battle come alive. In 1870, Bachelder commissioned artist James Walker to paint an account of Pickett’s Charge, entitled “The Repulse of Longstreet’s Assault at the Battle of Gettysburg,” a massive work that measured 7.5 by 20 feet. Bachelder wrote the accompanying guidebook and went on tour himself with the artwork, lecturing as he went.

By 1880, the Congress authorized the unheard of sum of $50,000 to be paid to Bachelder to produce the authoritative, written account of the battle. But by this time, Bachelder was embroiled in controversies from all sides. Men wanting to glorify and expand upon the importance of their unit’s contributions caused Bachelder to become uncooperative and even a might difficult. Failing memories clashed with his earlier eye-witness accounts.

When Bachelder completed his history of the Battle of Gettysburg, participants, generals, congressmen and an almost unanimous outcry of others expressed dismay. Perturbed by the disagreements and arguments with eye-witness participants, Bachelder elected to rely primarily upon the official records of commanders. Thus his eight volume tome largely neglected the treasure trove of eye-witness accounts that he had assembled over nearly twenty years. Less than 10 percent of the project reflected the work he had collected on his own.

The War Department was not pleased. Though Bachelder was paid his fee, his manuscript went unpublished.

Bachelder continued his work all through the 1880s at the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association which was charged with preserving select features of the battlefield. In 1893 the Secretary of War appointed Bachelder to a three-man commission responsible for marking and enlarging the Gettysburg battlefield—but Bachelder died the next year.

Bachelder died of pneumonia in Hyde Park, Mass, in 1894. His body was then transported the 79 miles to be buried in a family plot with his wife and daughter, on Stevens Hill Road in Nottingham, New Hampshire, close to the family home. His widow, Elizabeth, died in 1914. In 1921, her sisters, Amanda and Charlotte Butler Stevens, donated a large collection of Bachelder’s Gettysburg materials and personal papers to the New Hampshire Historical Society. There they sat, unmolested and almost entirely unexplored, until the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Historian Edwin B. Coddington stumbled upon Bachelder’s long-forgotten collection of correspondence from eye-witnesses: soldiers recollections and other letters. One letter, from Father William Corby, explained the background behind the chaplain of the Irish Brigade’s actions at Gettysburg.

But there were also letters from Longstreet, Meade, Humphreys, Early, Hunt, and Howard. Perhaps more significantly, there were hundreds of letters from sergeants, artillerymen and cavalry troopers. Bachelder’s wonderful archives cut across all ranks of both armies and many men had important details to offer that are found nowhere else.

Coddington poured over the Bachelder papers and ultimately created a priceless addition to Gettysburg’s historical record: The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Civil War experts consider Coddington’s volume an indispensable reference work.

David L. and Audrey J. Ladd turned the Bachelder papers and eye-witness accounts into another book: The Bachelder Papers: Gettysburg in Their Own Words.

Although some of Bachelder’s works are now out of print, crafty internet surfers can find many relevant volumes and maps available for sale. The out of print books by Bachelder occasionally get reprinted when sufficient pre-publication orders exist.

University of Virginia Civil War Historian Gary Gallagher summed up Bachelder this way: “I have always had a high opinion of Bachelder and his work. His maps and the correspondence he collected are both very valuable. I can’t say as much for his own tedious history of the battle.”

John Bachelder’s obsession with the battle of Gettysburg is his gift to us and to the generations to follow. Bachelder contributed immeasurably through his maps and correspondence but his cumbersome history troubled his contemporaries so much that it became “lost to history” until it was resurrected by others decades later.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page. He can be reached at And his stories are on line at: Father Corby is his great-uncle.

Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade

August 30, 2008

By John E, Carey

The Rev. William Corby, chaplain of the famed Irish Brigade, was nominated for the Medal of Honor, wrote a moving and yet humorous book, and distributed the Word of God to soldiers going into battle. After the war he became a two-time university president and a leader of his religious community.

Corby wrote about his Civil War experiences in “Memoirs of a Chaplains Life,” first published in 1893 and republished by Fordham University Press in 1992. The book was rediscovered by University of Alabama history professor Lawrence Frederick Kohl. He brings Corby’s words alive in our century and fills in several details of the priest’s life.
"Fair-Catch Corby" Gettysburg Statue of Father William Corby offering last rites to the Irish Brigade; a copy of this statue is on the campus of Notre Dame University

Statue of Father William Corby.  Gettysburgh National Military Park.
On Memorial day, soldiers put the flag on the graves of the fallen….

At the start of the Civil War in 1861, Edward Sorin, first president of the University of Notre Dame recognized the importance of helping the Union cause and knew the Irish could either choose to support the Union or suffer the blame of not contributing. He urged his clergymen to minister to the men under arms and the Irish Brigade in particular.

Corby and six other priests of Holy Cross order, a third of the order’s members in the United States, eventually joined up. But Corby was the first Catholic priest with the Army of the Potomac. He chose to serve the Irish Brigade extended his ministry to the entire Army because of the paucity of serving clergy, especially among Catholics, in the early stages of the war.

Corby and other chaplains at the start of the war received no pay and held no rank. Later, Washington recognized the importance of chaplains and offered each an officer’s commission and pay. The Corby family sent the young priest to war on a fine horse that others, less impressively mounted, frequently “borrowed” so they might present a more stately appearance. The bearded 28 year-old chaplain tells of being mistaken for a general because of mount and fine clothes. Then after a dusty forced march, he mused: “How hath my greatness fallen in one night…. Last night I was taken for a General; this morning I am taken for a loafer.”

Death, of course, was a daily consequence of life in the Army of the Potomac during Corby’s three years with the troops. The priest was a witness to many men about to meet their God. His supreme respect for the sanctity of life stands out in his memoirs. After the gruesome 1862 battle at Antietam, Corby wrote:

“The field presented a sickening sight the day after the battle on September 18, 1862 [Gen. Thomas Francis] Meagher’s brigade did its duty as a military body and received the highest commendation from Gen. McClelland and from many historians since”.


Gen. McClellan, in a long report of its charge and other actions during the battle, says, among many other words of praise: ‘The Irish Brigade sustained its well earned reputation.”‘

In “The Irish Brigade” written in 1969, Paul Jones describes Corby at Antietam, riding along the ranks beside Meagher, encouraging the men and giving general absolution from horseback.

Corby’s was a personal ministry, and he was chaplain to the brigade, not just to the Catholics. As often as possible in the field, he would improvise an altar to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the soldiers: This re-creation of Christ’s Last Supper must have had indelible significance among men who were facing death.

General Absolution at Gettysburg

One of Corby’s most memorable acts was on the second day at Gettysburg, which he modestly did not describe but for which he set the scene in his book: “And now, the two great armies are confronting each other…. At about four o’clock the Confederates commenced firing, and one hundred and twenty cannon from their side belched forth from their fiery throats missiles of death into our lines…The proportions of the pending crash seemed so great, as the armies eye each other, that even veterans who had often ’smelled powder’ quailed at the thought of the final conflict. The Third Corps were pressed back, and at this critical moment I proposed to give a general absolution.”

Maj. Gen. St. Clair Mulholland described the scene: “Now help is called for, and Hancock tells Caldwell to have his men ready… The Irish Brigade whose green flag has been unfurled in every battle in which the Army of the Potomac has been engaged from Bull Run to Appomattox, formed a part of this division… The Chaplain of this brigade, Rev. William Corby, proposed to give a general absolution to all the men before going into the fight. While this is customary in the armies of Catholic countries in Europe, it was perhaps the first time it was ever witnessed on this continent.

Father Corby stood on a large rock in front of the brigade. “The brigade was standing at order arms!’ As he closed his address, every man, Catholic and non-Catholic, fell on his knees with his head bowed down. Then stretching his right hand toward the Brigade, Father Corby pronounced the words of absolution:
‘Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat.”‘

Mulholland wrote, “The scene was more than impressive. It was awe inspiring.”

Another eye-witness, General Samuel K. Zook (He led the Third Brigade belonging to Brigadier-General John C. Caldwell’s First Division, part of Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps), turned to his aide, James D. Brady and said, “My God! Brady, that was the most impressive sight I have ever witnessed.”

Corby Pleads for Condemned Man

At another time during the Civil War, Corby was asked by men of the brigade to appeal on behalf of a condemned man. The priest worked is way up the chain of command seeking clemency. Eventually he reached the White House and made his case to President Lincoln. Lincoln, often criticized by generals for his leniency gave Corby a note: “I will pardon, if McClellan will pardon.” McClellan told Corby the man must hang: Discipline had to be maintained.

Recalled to Notre Dame near the end of the war, Corby served his university and his nation for the rest of his life. He was a vice president at Notre Dame in 1865 and when the Rev. Patrick Dillon died the next year, Corby, at age 33, became the third president of the university.

In 1872, the head of his religious order in the United States asked Corby to move to Sacred Heart College in Watertown, Wis., to put it on a firm financial foundation, which he did. In 1877, he was summoned back to Notre Dame for a second time to lead it. On April 23, 1879, Notre Dame was nearly destroyed by a severe fire. Corby set about raising the money to rebuild. The classrooms were reopened the following autumn, and the priest was called the “Second Founder of Notre Dame.” In 1886, he was elected provincial general of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The men who had so appreciated his wartime ministry, the veterans of the Irish Brigade, nominated Corby for the Medal of Honor in 1893. By then, many of the more influential men who had known him in the Civil War, such as Meagher, were dead. But there still were many who remembered his devotion and courage.Maj. W.L.D. O’Grady wrote that “Father Corby was known as the ‘Fighting Chaplain”‘ and that “no spot was too dangerous or too much exposed to the fire of the enemy” for the Irish Brigade’s priest.”

But Corby did not consider himself a hero – just a servant of God doing his duty.

Corby was, most of all, a practical man. Thus he used his powers to provide a battlefield absolution to scores of troops on at least two occasions that we can document: at Antietam and Gettysburg. Anther example of Corby’s practicality was recorded by William Eastman, a Congregational minister from New York

Understanding the importance Catholics placed upon the sacraments, especially confession and the last rights, Eastman sought out a Catholic chaplain just after a battle, as men lay wounded and dying on the field. He came upon Father Corby and urged him to return to give the sacraments to a man that had specifically requested a Catholic priest. Corby said, “There are fifty right here whose souls may be passing.” Eastman, dumbfounded, said, “Then what shall we do?” Corby answered: “Tell him to confess to you.” Corby explained, “And tell him that I said so and that whatever you say to him or do for him is right.”

Father William Corby: man of practicality.

Although Corby was not awarded a Medal of Honor, the brigade veterans presented him with a chalice, the sacred cup used in the sacrament of Mass. It was among his most cherished possessions. A statue of Corby blessing the troops at Gettysburg is among the monuments at the battlefield, and a copy of the statue stands in front of the aging Corby Hall at Notre Dame.

John E Cary, a retired Navy commander, graduated from Notre Dame in 1976. His mother, Marie Corby Carey, is a niece of the Irish brigade’s chaplain.

Notre Dame, Ind Jan 4 1879 To – Col John B Bachelder, Chelsea, Mass
Dear Sir – I rec’d a letter from St Clair Mulholland, late Brevt Maj Gen – an old friend – asking me to write up a few outlines of the general absolution given at Gettysburg PA. Enclosed please find said lines which in the past few minutes I have hastily scratched off. I kept no notes of my army life & had to depend entirely on my memory for the rude sketch I have given you. To praise the Brigade or to say anything of my own career in the army I leave to some person who has more time & ability than I. Most of our Brigade were from New York City & there are a number of officers there who knew me well.

I will simply say here that I was with the “Army of the Potomac” – in all the principal battles – except the 1st Bull Run.
You may use as much or as little of what I send as you may see fit. I gave facts only – but poorly put together.

Very Respectfully Yours, W Corby CSC

PS Would be glad to have a few copies of your history when published.
Scene of a Religious Character on the Historic Battlefield of Gettysburg
Several days prior to this battle, the “Army of the Potomac” under the command of Genl Meade was continually on the march. The day before the battle, the 2d Army Corps left Frederick City MD about 5 in the morning & halted at 12 (midnight) to rest during the balance of the night on the cold wet ground, and next morning opened fire on the enemy with artillery. The enemy responded in full numbers. Shells were bursting thick & fast all morning over the 2d Army Corps until finally all the troops were drawn up in line of battle.

The men were ordered to “prime” & now everything was ready for the word “advance.” At this moment, the Very Rev W Corby CSC, Chaplain of the Irish Brigade (the only priest then in the Army of the Potomac – now President of Notre Dame University, Indiana), stepped in front of the battle line & addressed the men & officers (in substance) as follows.

“My Dear Christian Friends! In consideration of the want of time for each one to confess his sins in due order as required for the reception of the sacrament of Penance, I will give you general absolution. But, my dear friends, while we stand here & in the presence of Eternity, so to speak, with a well-armed force in front & with missiles of death in the form of shells bursting over our heads, we must humble ourselves before the great Creator of all men & acknowledge our great unworthiness & conceive a heartfelt sorrow for the sins by which we have ungratefully offended the Divine Author of all good things. Him Whom we ought to love, we have despised by sinning against his laws. Him Whom we should have honored by lives of virtue, we have dishonored by sin.”

“We stand in debt to our great Lord & Master. He loves us but we, by sin, have forfeited that love. Now, to receive a full pardon for our sins & regain the favor of God, do not think it is sufficient to get the priest’s absolution. It is true as a minister of God he has recd the power to pronounce your sins absolved. ‘Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven’ – John 20, 23 – by virtue of this power given the Apostles & their lawful successors, the priest acts. But the absolution – pronounced by the priest or by St Peter himself – would be worthless unless the penitent conceives a true sorrow for his sins. Which sorrow should include a firm determination never more to willfully offend & to do all in his power to atone for the past sins. Therefore, my dear friends, in the solemn presence of Eternity, excite in your minds a deep sorrow for all the sins, negligences, & transgressions of your past lives.
‘Rend your hearts & not your garments,’ & I the consecrated minister of God will give you general absolution.”

At this moment, all fell on their knees & recited an act of contrition. Officers mounted waiting to advance removed their hats, and then the Chaplain, in solemn fervent tones pronounced the words of Absolution. A few minutes after, all were plunged into the dense smoke of battle.

A more impressive scene, perhaps, never took place on any battlefield. It was indeed so earnest & truly sublime that non-Catholics prostrated themselves in humble adoration of the true God while they felt that perhaps in less than half an hour their eyes would open to see into the Ocean of Eternity.

Dominus noster Jesus Christus vos absolvat, et ego, auctoritate ispsius, vos absolvo ab omni vinculo, excommunicationis interdicti, in quantum possum et vos indigetis deinde ego absolvo vos, a pecatis vestris, in nomini Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, Amen.

Fr. William Corby