- The Civil War Diary of Father James Sheeran: Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist ed. by Patrick J. Hayes
Although the study of religion during the U.S. Civil War has boomed over the last decade, scholars have focused on mainline and evangelical Protestants who dominated the country’s landscape both numerically and in social and intellectual importance. Civil War scholars seeking to understand the growing yet small body of Roman Catholic Americans (perhaps 10 percent of the total population in 1860) have faced a number of obstacles, from a basic ignorance of Catholic archives and their rich records to an extreme paucity of published primary sources. Thus Patrick J. Hayes’s new edition of the diary of Father James Sheeran, CSsR (1819–1881) is a welcome effort to make a major primary source on wartime Catholic life more accessible to historians and the general public. Although a previous edition was published in 1960 by renowned Catholic historian Joseph T. Durkin, SJ, only Hayes’s edition publishes the diary in full. Hayes admits that the manuscript diary used for this edition, which is located at the Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, may [End Page 89] not be written in Sheeran’s hand. Still, he argues persuasively that the words are Sheeran’s even if an amanuensis wrote out the surviving diary manuscript.
Born in Ireland, Sheeran was married and had three children prior to his religious vocation later in life. Ordained a Redemptorist in 1858, Sheeran was assigned to Louisiana shortly before the Civil War. Despite spending most of his antebellum life in the North, Sheeran left New Orleans in August 1861 to serve as chaplain of the 14th Louisiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Confederate Army. Unlike most Catholic chaplains on either side, Sheeran left behind a detailed record of his activities in General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a diary chronicling his experiences from the second half of 1862 through the last days of the Civil War.
Sheeran’s diary is most useful for understanding the nature of a Civil War chaplain’s service, how the conflict affected civilians in Virginia, and Catholic life in the Old Dominion state. Although the American church had always counseled its priests to stay out of politics, the war provided space for the Irish American Sheeran to become not just a regimental chaplain but a full-fledged advocate of the Confederacy and its right to secession and national existence. Having sparred with anti-Catholic editors over parochial schools before the war, Sheeran was highly opinionated and quick to criticize anyone who crossed him.
Sheeran frequently quarreled with Union prisoners, including Catholics, over the cause of the war. He denounced federal attacks on southern civilians such as the shelling of Charlestown, South Carolina, as “diabolical” (294). Like many southerners he blamed abolitionists for causing the war, writing, “Were it not for this fanaticism of the demonical Abolitionists of New England, this unholy and murderous war should never have taken place” (203–204). While Sheeran criticized Protestant bigotry wherever he found it, he himself was extremely anti-Protestant. For example, he refused to associate with other chaplains in Lee’s army, whom he denounced as “a parcel of excommunicated Heretics” (225). In addition to looking after the souls of Catholic soldiers, Sheeran was the moral policeman of his brigade, and was completely unafraid to correct the disrespectful or immoral behavior of any Confederate officer. He even chastised John McGill, the bishop of Richmond, for not doing enough to support Catholic schools. Finally, he publicly denounced Union General Philip Sheridan in print for arresting him without cause in late 1864. Even after his release, Sheeran personally berated Sheridan, whose hands were “stained . . . with blood, rapine and every species of injustice,” over his poor treatment of a Catholic priest. [End Page 90]
In assessing the diary’s value as an accurate and contemporary window into Catholic life in Lee’s Confederate army, it is important to note it is...