by James M. Gallen
Jim Gallen is an attorney practicing in St. Louis. He is a member of the Wm. T. Sherman/Billy Yank Camp No. 65 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He has written numerous articles on the Civil War and other historical topics which have been published in newsletters and posted on websites across the country.
“John B. Bannon: Chaplain, Soldier and Diplomat” previously published in “The Christian Banner”, Vol. XV, #1, 1999; Bushwacker (Civil War Round Table of St. Louis), Vol. IV, #93, October 25, 2000; Bugle Call Echoes, San Joaquin Valley Civil War Round Table, Vol. IX, No. 3, March, 2001.
JOHN B. BANNON:
CHAPLAIN, SOLDIER AND DIPLOMAT
James M. Gallen
Rev. John B. Bannon was one of the most prominent and respected chaplains to serve in the Civil War. General Sterling Price, whose men he served, remarked: “I have no hesitancy in saying that the greatest soldier I ever saw was Father Bannon.” Father Bannon’s service to the Confederacy as chaplain, soldier and diplomat makes his story one worth telling.
Like so many of the troops who fought in the Civil War, Father Bannon’s story did not begin in America. He was born on December 29, 1829 in Roosky, Ireland. He was ordained into the priesthood at Maynooth, County Kildare, in May, 1853. He volunteered to follow so may of his countrymen who had fled famine and sought a new life in America. He chose to serve the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri whose Archbishop, Peter Kenrick, was also a son of Ireland.
Father Bannon was soon recognized as one of the leading clergymen in St. Louis, and in 1858, was assigned as pastor of the new parish of St. John the Apostle on the then west end of the city. While there he supervised the building of the church building.
In the St. Louis area, which Father Bannon served, he became a prominent leader of the Irish community, many of whom joined him when he went to war. The coming of the War found St. Louis, a deeply divided community. Archbishop Kenrick attempted to guide his divided flock by adopting a policy of neutrality toward the war which surrounded him. In support of this policy Kenrick discouraged his priests from serving as chaplains for either army. Father Bannon, however, could not be dissuaded,
Father Bannon’s military career commenced in November, 1860 when he joined Captain Kelly’s Washington Blues as a chaplain in its response to a call for militia troops to defend western Missouri from raiders from “Bloody Kansas.” The campaign was short and Father Bannon was back in St. Louis by the first Sunday of December, 1860.
After the firing on Fort Sumter, St. Louis began to polarize into two armed camps. In early May, Bannon remained close to Captain Kelly’s troops at Camp Jackson on the western edge of the city. After the surrender of Camp Jackson its troops, including Bannon, became prisoners of the Federal forces until release on May 11, 1861. Bannon returned to St. John’s where he remained until December 15, 1861. At the time of his departure Bannon was targeted for arrest by Federal authorities due to the views which he had expressed from the pulpit. On the night of the 15th, Bannon snuck out of the back door in disguise and a false beard, while Federal officials entered the front door. He then continued his clandestine journey across Missouri to Springfield where he became a member of the “Patriot Army of Missouri,” under the command of General Sterling Price. He then commenced his service as a chaplain, initially voluntary, to the First Missouri Confederate Brigade.
Bannon remained with the First Missouri Confederate Brigade until August 4, 1863. He and the rest of the Brigade had been taken prisoner at the fall of Vicksburg. Although not officially paroled, Bannon was released and went to Mobile and then on to Richmond.
Although his main service was to the Irish Catholic members of the First Missouri, some of whom had been parishioners at St. John’s, Bannon was widely respected in the army. He quickly earned the title of “the Catholic priest who always went into battle.” In accord with instructions to remain in the rear, it was the practice of may Confederate chaplains to pray with their men before battle and then remain in the rear to comfort the wounded Bannon, however, believed that the chaplains who shared their men’s hardships and dangers “were much respected by all the men, whether Catholics or not; for they saw that [I] did not shrink from danger or labor to assist them.” In his view the practice of many chaplains caused them to become “frequently objects of derision, always disappearing on the eve of an action, when they would stay behind in some farm house till all was quiet.”
At the battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas, Bannon was seen to be in the thick of the action. As firing continued, Father Bannon was seen to be blessing, standing or kneeling with soldiers, and administering the last rites to the dying. His service during this battle led General Price to comment: “The greatest soldier I ever saw was Father Bannon. In the midst of the fray he would step in and take up a fallen soldier. If he were a Catholic, he would give him the rites of the Church; if a Protestant, and if he desired, he would baptize him.” Toward the end of the battle Bannon met general Van Dorn who ordered him to the rear. Bannon refused an order to move to the field hospitals, even under thereat of arrest, responding, “I can attend there later. I must attend now to those who are not able to be removed from the field.” Bannon explained his understanding of his duty when he wrote, “I am doing God’s work, and He has no use for cowards or skilkers. A Catholic priest must do his duty and never consider the time or place. If I am killed, I am not afraid to meet my fate. I am in God’s keeping. His holy will be done.”
The nights before a battle were busy ones for Bannon. Throughout the night he, “Would go up to a watch-fire, and waking one of the men, called him aside, hear his confession, and send him to summon another. The whole night would be spent thus in going from campfire to campfire. The men were always willing to come, generally too glad of the opportunity; some would even be watching for me.” When the night was over and the hour for the battle had arrived, Father Bannon had to substitute group for individual service. “When the time came for advancing, I made a sigh for them all to kneel, and gave them absolution (and) I then went to the second line, or the reserve, till it was their turn also to advance.” It was reported that “no men fight more bravely than Catholics who approach the sacraments before battle.” Bannon only reported one soldier who evaded his service. An Irish Catholic artillery gunner declined because he had been long from the Sacraments and was afraid of confession.” Father Bannon tried to win him over with the assurance: “Come, man, I know what a soldier’s confession is.” Unfortunately the soldier refused reconciliation and was killed the next day.
Father Bannon’s support of the Confederate cause was based on deeply felt principles. His feelings derived from three influences, ethnic, religious and a general observation of the state of America in his day.
Among many Irish-Americans of his day, a parallel was seen between the British desire to impose its culture and will on Ireland and the efforts of the North to impose its standards on the South. This identification of the North as the oppressor led many Irish-Americans to support the Confederacy.
The circumstances prevalent in St. Louis led some Catholics to identify abolitionism with anti-Catholicism. Many Germans who had participated in the revolutions in Europe in 1848 had immigrated to St. Louis. In their struggles in Europe for freedom and the unification of Germany, their main enemy had been the Austrian Empire, which was identified with Catholicism. The hostility of the German community toward the Irish and its prominence in the Union cause in St. Louis drove many Irish Catholics, including Father Bannon, into the Confederate camp.
His observation of Northern and Southern society also led Bannon to his decision to support the Confederacy. In Bannon’s view the issue could be defined in terms of good versus evil and the forces of light against the darkness. His view of the struggle was revealed in his sermons. The Southerners were God’s chosen people while the Unionists were the Egyptians or philistines. He preached that the struggle was on between “the cross and the crescent, for which the last, the Yankee substitutes the dollar; a war between materialism and infidelity of the North, and the remnant of Christian civilization yet dominant in the South.” The clash between an industrial and an agrarian culture, again reminiscent of the struggle between Britain and Ireland, was on over the future development of North America. Bannon clearly shared the Southern vision.
Father Bannon’s service to the Confederacy did not end when he left the First Missouri Brigade. At the time of his visit to Richmond, one of the main military problems facing the Confederacy was the growing imbalance in military strength due in part to the influx of immigrants, many of them Irish, into the Union Army. On August 30, 1863, Bannon was surprised to receive a request from President Jefferson Davis to meet him at the President’s house. During the visit President Davis asked Bannon to undertake a secret diplomatic mission to Ireland to discourage Irish immigrants from enlisting in the Union Army. In further conversation with Davis and Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, Bannon suggested that his mission be expanded to include an attempt to persuade the Papal States to extend recognition to the Confederacy. It was hoped that recognition by one European state would induce others to follow.
Bannon left America on October 3, 1863 aboard the Robert E. Lee. After arriving in Liverpool, England, Bannon headed for Italy. While in the Vatican he was accorded several long audiences with Pope Pius IX, during which he argued the Confederate cause. Although formal recognition was not obtained, the Pope did speak warmly of the Confederacy. In early December, Pope Pius did send a letter addressed “to the Illustrious and Honorable Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.” This was taken as a defacto recognition by many and generated widespread outrage in the North. It would also be helpful in Bannon’s mission in Ireland.
After the conclusion of the Vatican effort, Bannon returned to his native Isle in October, 1863. His first duty was to write long letters to the families of fifty or sixty Irish natives who had died while fighting for the First Missouri. Bannon them approached his diplomatic mission with zeal. He found that his mission to the Vatican increased his acceptance among the Irish clergy to circulate handbills at the major ports of departure. The handbill reported that the Irish immigrant would be cajoled to join the union Army and be sent to be slaughtered in a “fight for a People that has the greatest antipathy to his birth and creed.” Besides the handbills, Bannon employed a series of large posters which were nailed up in major ports and on the Churches of Cublin. The most effective poster, employed in 1864 contained the exchange of letters between Pope Pius IX and President Davis and a letter from Bannon. After he had won over the upper and middle classes, Bannon made an effort to reach the common people, who provided the recruits. To do this he sent a copy of his poster to every parish priest in Ireland. The poster was entitled “remnant of Christian civilization was yet dominant in the South.” He concluded his statement with the assertion; “As a priest of the Catholic Church, I am anxious to see the desires of the Holy Father realized speedily, and therefore have taken this means to lay before you the expression of his sentiments on the subject of the American War, knowing that no Catholic will persevere in the advocacy of an aggression condemned by his Holiness.”
The campaign by Bannon was highly effective. It is estimated the Irish recruits for the Union Army dropped two-thirds between December, 1863 and May, 1864. On May 28, 1864 Bannon reported to Secretary of State Benjamin that his money was exhausted and his mission complete. Benjamin had expressed his gratitude for the services provided by Bannon.
Bannon never returned to America. After the war he was prohibited by law from preaching at St. John’s Church. He joined the Jesuit order, of which he was one of its most distinguished Irish members until his death on July 14, 1913. Although he is little remembered in America, his legacy lives on in St. John’s Church which continues to serve the people of downtown St. Louis.
For more information of Father Bannon see:
- The Confederacy’s Fighting Chaplain, Father John B. Bannon, by Phillip
Thomas Tucker, University of Alabama Press, Tusculoosa, 1992.
- The Fourth Career of John B. Bannon, by William B. Faherty, S.J., C&D
Publishing, Portland, 1994.