Civil War Veterans and the Laetare Medal

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Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal (commencement.nd.edu)

Last week, the University of Notre Dame announced that it was awarding its Laetare Medal to Vice President Joe Biden (D) and former Speaker of the House John Boehner (R). The award, first established in 1883, is intended to honor American Catholics who have made significant contributions to the Church or American society. The Laetare Medal has since become the most prestigious award bestowed upon a Catholic man or woman in the United States.

As the first Laetare Medal was awarded less than 20 years after the Civil War ended, one might suspect that at least one veteran may have received the award. But did you know that a total of six former soldiers, five who fought for the Union and one for the Confederacy, received the award and that only one of them received it specifically for his wartime military service? Below is a short description of each of these men, focusing on their Civil War service, their post-war careers, and why each was considered worthy of receiving this honor.


Newton
General John Newton

1886 John Newton

Despite his Virginia birth, John Newton remained loyal to the U.S. Army and the Union in 1861, rising to command a Union Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg. Having taken part in an ill-conceived plot against Major General Ambrose E. Burnside the year before, General Newton was eventually transferred out of the Army of the Potomac and ended his wartime career in Florida.

Nonetheless, Newton stayed in the Army Corps of Engineers after the war, rising to fame by destroying the infamous Hell Gate obstruction located in the East River near New York City in 1885. It was this feat specifically, as well as his wartime service and “brilliant exploits in scientific fields” more generally, that led Notre Dame to award him the Laetare Medal the following year. In reviewing his career, the Notre Dame Scholastic, the school’s official newspaper, wrote, “Who shall say that science and religion are in conflict?” You can learn more about Newton at his Encyclopedia Virginia entry.

1892 Henry F. Brownson

Son of the famous convert and lay thinker, Orestes A. Brownson, Henry served as a junior officer in the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. Badly wounded at Malvern Hill in 1862, he rejoined the army the following year. His military career extended beyond Lee’s surrender in 1865, and he served as a major in the early years of Reconstruction. He was one of two of Orestes’s sons to serve in the war. The other, Edward P. Brownson, died at the Battle of Ream’s Station in August 1864.

Henry became an important writer and thinker in his own right and played a leading role in post-war Catholic life. He was one of the leaders and major organizers of the American Catholic Lay Congress in 1889. Henry received the Laetare Medal in 1892 for his intellectual accomplishments and belief in the laity’s role in Church life. The Scholastic declared him “a worthy son of a worthy father,” praising “his discretion, judgment and zeal [through which] much has been realized and much is expected.” Patheos has a concise write up about his career.

Rosecrans
Major General William S. Rosecrans

1896 William Starke Rosecrans

Converting to Catholicism in the early 1840s while serving as an instructor at West Point, William S. Rosecrans seemed destined for greatness in engineering. Having retired from the army before the outbreak of the Civil War, Rosecrans soon offered his services to his native state of Ohio, playing an important role in campaigns in West Virginia in 1861. Transferred to the West to serve under Ulysses S. Grant, Rosecrans won the battles of Iuka and Corinth which propelled him to the command of the Army of the Cumberland in late 1862. Rosecrans then won the important Battle of Stones River on January 2, 1863. Although his successful Tullahoma campaign and subsequent capture of Chattanooga in mid-1863 were notable accomplishments, his defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga in September led to his dismissal from his post. He was transferred to Missouri where he served until he was relieved of command at the end of 1864.

After the war, Rosecrans sought his fortune in mining and railroad construction in the West, and was elected to represent San Francisco’s district in Congress in 1880. Retiring to California in the early 1890s, Rosecrans received both an honorary degree from Georgetown as well as the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. As the only winner to be awarded the medal specifically for his Civil War service, Rosecrans became the most important and highest-ranked devout Catholic to serve on either side of the conflict. For more on Rosecrans’s life and career, see his entry in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress and my article for the U.S. Catholic Historian.

1898 Timothy Edward Howard

Timothy Howard was a student at Notre Dame until he left to serve in the Union Army’s Twelfth Michigan Infantry. Howard was badly wounded on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, forcing him to cut short his army career and return to Notre Dame to finish his studies.

After the war, Howard pursued a successful career first as a professor at Notre Dame and later as a jurist serving on the Supreme Court of Indiana. He authored several books on Indiana and Notre Dame history as well as on legal subjects. In 1898 he became the first Notre Dame graduate to receive the Laetare Medal “in recognition of his faithful services in behalf of religion and morality, education and law.” The Scholastic went on to commend his reputation “as one of the most impartial and incorruptible judges that have been elected to the [Indiana] supreme court since the political organization of the State.” The Indiana court system has a concise summary of Howard’s life and career here.

1904 Richard C. Kerens

Richard C. Kerens, like the four previous Civil War veterans to win the award, served in the Union Army. Born in Ireland, Kerens served in the East in the transportation department until being transferred West to the Missouri and Arkansas theatres in 1863.

After the war, Kerens became a successful businessman involved in railroad construction in the West and was a major fundraiser for the Republic Party. It was for his devout faith and his successes in business and politics that he won the Laetare Medal in 1904. The Notre Dame Scholastic praised him as a “prince among laymen worthy of [Notre Dame’s] highest honor.” Kerens received the award in a ceremony at his St Louis home, attended by Notre Dame’s president, Andrew Morrisey, as well as Archbishops John Glennon (St. Louis) and John Ireland (St. Paul). Later he became a trustee of the Catholic University of America and served as ambassador to Austria-Hungary from 1910 to 1913. Online sources about Kerens are scarce, but he does have a short entry on Wikipedia.

White
Chief Justice Edward D. White

1914 Edward Douglass White

Edward D. White was the only Confederate veteran who served on the Confederate side of the war to win the Laetare Medal. Although little is known about his life as a soldier, White did achieve the rank of lieutenant, serving in his home state of Louisiana until his capture at the end of the war.

After 1865, White studied law and served in both in state and federal offices before ascending to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. He notably sided with the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the infamous decision that upheld segregation in public places. President William H. Taft appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1910. In 1914,  White received the Laetare Medal for his “eminent attainments in Constitutional jurisprudence” and his service on the Supreme Court as Chief Justice.  The Scholastic declared, “Chief Justice White’s life, deeds and attainments constitute an eloquent refutation of the ancient calumny which held that true Catholicism and perfect patriotism were not compatible.” You can learn more about White at his Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress entry.


 

All photographs above are courtesy the Library of Congress.