Three Great Chaplains

, Charles G. Mills, Leave a comment

GLEN COVE, NY — The Chaplains Corps of the Confederate Army
was underfunded and underequipped by the Confederate Congress, and
yet it produced some extraordinary men. This is the story of three
of them.

Father John B. Bannon, S. J.
Father John B. Bannon was born and ordained in Ireland. His maternal
grandfather was part of the titled Irish aristocracy. He immigrated
to Saint Louis and was appointed pastor of Saint John the Apostle
Parish in 1858. In 1860, he served for about a month as chaplain
to a militia unit protecting Missouri from an attack by Kansas. In
May, he was captured by Northern troops near his parish and was released
in a few days. He then preached sermons in Saint John’s that
included statements such as the War was 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 remnants of Christian civilization yet dominant in the South.”

The Northern Army decided to arrest him, but he escaped through the
back door of the church before they could make the arrest and joined
the First Missouri Confederate Brigade as a chaplain. Father Bannon
was known for going onto the battlefield with his troops during the
battle, in defiance of Confederate Army regulations. There he administered
Extreme Unction to dying Catholic soldiers and baptized dying Protestant
soldiers who had never been baptized but wanted to be. In 1863, the
entire brigade was captured. Father Bannon was released and went to

Confederate President Jefferson Davis asked him to undertake a double
mission in Europe. Father Bannon took a letter from President Davis
to the Blessed Pius IX and had several audiences with the Pope, resulting
in the Pope’s letter to President Davis that infuriated the Lincoln

He then went to Ireland, where he handed out leaflets on the docks
warning those about to sail for America of the dangers of serving in
the Northern Army; he also prepared a poster that he distributed to
every parish in Ireland. The poster contained President Davis’ letter
to Pius IX, Pius IX’s letter to President Davis, and his own
statement expressing his confidence “that no Catholic will persevere
in the advocacy of an aggression condemned by his Holiness.” Although
historians disagree how much Irish recruitment by the Northern Army
dropped, they do agree that it was significant. He never returned to
America. After the War, he became a Jesuit and lived until 1913.

Father Abram Joseph Ryan, C. M.
Father Abram
Joseph Ryan

was born in Virginia and grew up in Saint Louis, where he went to
a Christian Brother’s school. He studied for the priesthood
at Niagara University in New York and was ordained as a Vincentian
in 1856. At the outbreak of the War, he was teaching at the seminary
in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

In 1862, he joined the Confederate Army as a chaplain and served
throughout the War. His brother, a Confederate soldier, was killed
in action. Father Ryan wrote two poems about his brother’s death.
After the War, he served in a number of parishes in Mississippi, Georgia,
and Tennessee. In 1866, he published a poem about the Confederate flag
called “The Conquered Banner”,
which immediately became popular throughout the South and was memorized
by school children for generations. It was prominently featured in
volume I, issue 1, of The Confederate Veteran magazine. By this time,
he was the best known Confederate veteran chaplain.

Much of his poetry for the rest of his life featured Confederate
themes. He was immensely popular and known as the “Poet-Priest
of the Confederacy” and the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” He
died in 1886 in a Franciscan monastery. There is a statue of him in
Mobile and a stained glass window in New Orleans. A number of memorial
plaques in various locations recall his contributions.

Father James Sheeran, C. R.
James Sheeran was born in Ireland and immigrated first to Canada and
then to Michigan. He was married and had two children. After the
death of his wife, he pursued a religious vocation and was ordained
as a Redemptorist in 1858.

He was assigned to a New Orleans parish; when his Redemptorist provincial
asked for volunteers as Confederate chaplains, he enthusiastically
joined and served with the 14th Louisiana Regiment in the Army of Northern

He seems to have been a man of extraordinary courage and determination
in doing what he thought was right and a man who rarely conformed to
military regulations.

One night, after ministering to the Confederate wounded in a military
hospital, he went to the nearby Northern military hospital and found
that their wounded were receiving no medical care. He indignantly stormed
into the room where the Northern military surgeons were and demanded
to know why they were not treating their wounded. They gave a number
of excuses, of which the only possibly persuasive one was that they
had no bandages. He then went to a number of leaderless Northern nurses
and, with an air of authority, ordered them to go to the battlefield
and take the shirts, handkerchiefs, and everything else suitable for
bandaging from the packs of the dead. When they returned with a large
quantity of bandaging material, he ordered them to go to the surgeons
and tell them they had plenty of bandages. Within hours, the Northern
wounded were receiving medical treatment.

He won a number of confrontations with Confederate General Stonewall
Jackson. In one of his confrontations, he is supposed to have said, “General
Jackson, I want you to understand that as a priest of God I outrank
every officer in your command. I even outrank you.” He even won
an argument with Jackson over whether he should have a tent, which
no one else had.

He also emerged victorious in a confrontation with Confederate General
Robert E. Lee, who reluctantly gave him an indefinite pass allowing
him to go anywhere he wanted. He frequently crossed the lines and was
arrested in November 1964 by order of Northern General Philip Sheridan.
He wrote indignant letters to Sheridan and to Lincoln’s Secretary
of War and obtained his release. After he was released, he had a face-to-face
showdown with Sheridan over the restrictions placed on him and again

After the War, Father Sheeran was released from the Redemptorist
Congregation and became a very successful pastor in Morristown, New

Father Sheeran died in 1881.

The Confederate

The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2009
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation,
All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.