Charles Ewing: Catholic Union General and University of Virginia Wahoo

UVA alumnus and Union General Charles Ewing (1835-1883) (courtesy Library of Congress).

At the Nau Center for Civil War History, I spend most of my time working on our three digital projects: a study of African American soldiers from Albemarle County, Virginia, called Black Virginians in Blue; a geographical and statistical analysis of Civil War prisons; and an effort to create the first definitive list of University of Virginia students who served in the Union Army or Navy. It was while working on the latter project that my Nau Center work and personal interests in U.S. Catholic history collided.

While paging through UVA Professor Maximillian Schele DeVere’s Students of the University of Virginia: A Semi-centennial Catalogue (1878) I happened to notice the name of Charles Ewing of Lancaster, Ohio, listed as a student at the university from 1856-1858.  Unlike other students near him in the Catalogue who are clearly identified as former Confederate soldiers, DeVere failed to note Charles’s service in the Union Army. This was a typical omission, as only a handful of men in the catalogue are listed as serving in the federal army or navy during the war. While most UVA students (well over 2,500) served in the Confederate military, dozens of former students remained loyal to the Union during the war.

Charles Ewing (1835-1883) like his siblings was raised in the Catholic faith by his devout Irish American mother, Maria Boyle Ewing. William Tecumseh Sherman, who grew up in the Ewing household after his father’s untimely death, eventually married Charles’s sister, Ellen B. Ewing. Sherman, Charles, and his two brothers, Hugh and Thomas, Jr., all became Union generals during the Civil War.[1]

Entry for Charles Ewing in Prof. Maximillian Schele DeVere’s Students of the University of Virginia: A Semi-centennial Catalogue (1878).

Charles was one of only a few northerners or Catholics at the school in the 1850s. The earliest religious census of the University I have found, printed in an April 1902 issue of the school’s Alumni Bulletin, states that of 570 students at UVA only eleven were Catholic. It is very likely that the proportion of Catholics in the student body was similarly small during the mid-19th century, as Charlottesville’s first Catholic church was not built until 1880.[2] The Jesuit-run Georgetown College in Washington, DC, was a much more obvious destination for Catholic college students at this time.

Charles Ewing’s faith and northern birth made him unique among his classmates at UVA, and his success during the war and after as a lawyer made him one of the school’s most prominent Union veterans. His efforts on behalf of Catholic missions to Native Americans led Pope Pius IX to make him a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory in 1877. Unfortunately, his Civil War service, like that of dozens of others of Union UVA veterans that we have recently found, was obscured by the school’s single-minded focus on its Confederate veterans. In 1913, at a time when the University was holding reunions for Confederates on grounds, an editorial in the Staunton Daily News publicly lamented the lack of attention paid to Virginia students who served in the Union military. Just over 100 years later, the Nau Center hopes to correct that oversight. By identifying all Virginia Wahoos who, like General Ewing, wore the Union blue, we will tell a larger, more diverse story about the university and its students, alumni, and faculty during the Civil War.[3]

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[1] For more on the Ewing family and their wartime experiences, please see John Ewing, “Thomas Ewing,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 5 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), retrieved May 31, 2017 from New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05672b.htm, and Kenneth J. Heineman, Civil War Dynasty: The Ewing Family of Ohio (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

[2] Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia (April, 1902):53 and (October, 1910):500.

[3] In addition to the work being done in Schele DeVere’s Catalogue by our summer intern, UVA undergraduate Jane Diamond, our recent progress in finding Unionist students would not have been possible without the work of graduate student Brian Neumann. Brian is painstakingly reviewing UVA’s antebellum student catalogues to identify students who supported the Union as soldiers, sailors, and politicians, while also discovering many Confederate soldiers missed by DeVere.