Soldiers of the Cross: David Conyngham’s Unpublished Tribute to Catholic Priests and Nuns in the Civil War

Irish Brigade chaplains, including James Dillon (seated center) and William Corby (seated on right) from Notre Dame (Library of Congress).

David Powers Conyngham (1825-1883) was an Irish Catholic immigrant, journalist, writer, and Civil War soldier who served in both the Irish Brigade and in Sherman’s army during the Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea. Shortly after the war ended, he wrote important works about the brigade and Sherman’s campaigns before turning his attention to religious and Irish history. He never lost interest in the war, however, and from the late 1860s through to the end of his life he worked diligently on researching and writing a third book on the conflict.

Soldiers of the Cross was Conyngham’s attempt to preserve and make better known the services of Catholic chaplains and sister nurses on both sides of the conflict. “I do this not with any intention of disparaging the labors and services of the chaplains of other denominations, for there were many noble self-sacrificing Christian men and zealous workers among them,” he wrote in his introduction, “but in order that the odor of sanctity and good works [of the priests and nuns] might descend to posterity to stimulate others to take up their cross and follow in the footsteps of their Divine master.” The war had followed two decades of virulent anti-Catholicism in the United States, most infamously taking political form as the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. Conyngham believed his history would change popular perceptions of his faith just as individual chaplains and sister nurses had helped to dispelled prejudices among the Protestants they encountered on Civil War battlefields and in hospitals. Their services had earned for them and their church the “respect and admiration of good and generous men, no matter what their religion, conviction and opinions.” Indeed, he claimed that “the highest tributes paid to their charitable services and unremitting zeal in the discharge of their duties have been rendered to them by Protestant writers, officers and privates.”

Holy Cross Sisters on board USS Red Rover (Harper’s Weekly).

To bolster this claim, Conyngham wrote to the leading figures on both sides of the war asking them for their recollections of the good work done by Catholic priests and sisters. He copied many of these unpublished letters directly into his introduction, all of which praised the church’s clergy and nuns for their wartime service. For example, George B. McClellan lauded their “disinterested and most valuable efforts in the cause of humanity,” adding that he thought “it is eminently proper that a prominent record should be made of their efforts.” General Ambrose E. Burnside praised Catholic chaplains for “spar[ing] no pains and shr[inking] from no exposure or hardships in their labor for the relief of the sick and wounded.” General Joseph Hooker concurred, stating, “I always found the Catholic Chaplain faithful, attentive and zealous in the discharge of his duties.” Finally, Confederate General Robert E. Lee praised his army’s Catholic chaplains and the sister nurses in Richmond for their “assiduous” and “unremitting” care of the Confederacy’s soldiers.

Over the course of 34 chapters, Conyngham presented histories of fourteen chaplains and six female religious communities in the North and South, compiling an important resource for future historians through his impressive research. While a few chapters, such as that devoted to Fr. Peter Paul Cooney, CSC, relied heavily on previously published accounts, most were compiled by the author himself complete with excerpts from letters, diaries, and other primary sources. A few of the many highlights of Soldiers of the Cross include:

  • Excerpts from Redemptorist Father James Sheeran’s diary of his time with the Army of the Northern Virginia
  • A detailed account of Father Jeremiah Trecy’s Civil War career, focusing on his service as General William S. Rosecrans’s personal chaplain
  • A letter from a Vicksburg priest describing the siege of the city in 1863
  • The diary of Union chaplain Father Joseph Carrier, CSC, during the attack on Vicksburg
  • Letters written by soldiers and their family members to the Sisters of our Lady of Mercy of Charleston and the Sisters of Mercy of New York thanking them for their services

Although the University of Notre Dame Archives has digitized the manuscript and a 1940s typescript of the work on their website, the raw manuscript is difficult to use. It is full of misspellings, hard to read or missing words, deleted and amended passages and pages, and abbreviated names that make following Conyngham’s narratives in draft form difficult for the unfamiliar reader. Fortunately, Fr. David Endres and I have made a faithful transcription of the text that we are currently annotating. When finished, our edited edition of Conyngham’s Soldiers of the Cross will feature chapter introductions and footnotes providing context to people, events, religious communities, and places mentioned throughout the work. We hope that our edition will make this important account of the Catholic Church during the Civil War more accessible and widely available to both scholarly and general audiences.