Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Onward Christian Soldiers: Civil War Religion


My wife and I are having supper with our priest tonight, so I have been pondering religious matters.  Naturally, anytime I think about any subject, I always try to find a connection with the Civil War.  One of the interesting things about the Civil War is that both sides prayed to the same God.  Both thought that God was on their side.  They both spoke the same language.  Though the first time I met a Bostonian, I wasn't sure that we actually did speak the same language!  I mean no offense to those from Boston.  It is a beautiful city. And they could say the same about my accent.

Consider this.  Northern ministers used the Bible to condemn slavery.  Southern ministers used the same Bible to defend it.  Both could point to passages to support their point of view.  The slavery question caused denominations to split apart.  Some ministers such as Bishop Leonidas K. Polk, joined the fray as an officer. In Polk's case, he was a general.  Polk was far from being the Confederacy's greatest general.  It makes me wonder if it is really true that God called Polk to be his sword arm.  Bishop/General Polk was killed in action  during the Atlanta Campaign.  Along the same lines, another Episcopal Bishop, Charles Quintard, is also well known in Civil War circles.  He was asked to serve as the Regimental Chaplain for the 1st Tennessee Infantry.  He accepted, despite his initial pro-Union stance.  Quintard was also a medical man and helped with surgeries as well.  Several of my ancestors served in this regiment.  They were all Irish Catholics, but I have no doubt that they found something familiar in the 19th Century Episcopal "high church" mass.

And speaking of Irish Catholics, I have to mention my favorite chaplain of the wartime era, Father Corby of the famed Irish Brigade.  He ministered the the needs of one of the elite brigades in the Union Army.  Catholics in the United States, and Irish Catholics in particular, were not very well thought of in the urban areas of the Northeast.  But the same North that despised their very existence relied on the prowess in a tight spot.  At Antietam he rode back and forth on horseback in front of the 69th New York as they advanced on the Sunken Road blessing the soldiers.  He is best known from granting "conditional absolution" to the men of the Irish Brigade, both Catholic and non, on the second day at Gettysburg shortly before they entered the fight at in the Wheat Field.  This scene is immortalized the movie.  There is a statue to him there which you can view by clicking here.  The statue is said to be placed on the same rock where he stood.  There is a similar statue of him at Notre Dame where he served as president.

Irish Brigade Chaplains: Father Corby is seated at the right.

There is an old saying that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.  Civil War soldiers sought comfort in religion while on battlefields that must have resembled hell on earth.  When we think about the Civil War, we often neglect to mention the chaplains who often braved shot and shell to minister to their flock.  Men like Father Corby and Bishop Quintard are true American heroes and should be remember as such.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Civil War Addict.