August 31, 1864: Death Comes For Father Emery

 

 

Destiny attended Emmeran Bliemel at his birth on the feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel, patron saint of soldiers, in 1831 in Bavaria.  From his early boyhood his burning desire was to be a missionary to German Catholics in far off America.  Joining a Benedictine Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1851, he was ordained a priest in 1856. (more…)

Published in: on August 31, 2014 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Priest of Andersonville

I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of.  During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food.  The worst by far was Andersonville.
The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.

First and foremost was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system.  From the summer of 1862 to the summer of 1863, captured Union and Confederate troops would be released within 10 days after giving their parole.  This was a promise not to fight until after they had properly been exchanged for a prisoner on the other side.  The system operated by exchanging paroles from prisoners of equivalent ranks or of different ranks as follows: 1 general = 46 privates, 1 major general = 40 privates, 1 brigadier general = 20 privates, 1 colonel = 15 privates, 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates, 1 major = 8 privates, 1 captain = 6 privates, 1 lieutenant = 4 privates, 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates.   The system worked reasonably well until the issue of the treatment of black troops came up.  The Confederates refused to recognize black soldiers as Union troops under the system and reduced many of them to slavery.  The Union as a result refused to abide by the system.  General Grant also had suspicions that the system wasn’t being  completely honored in any case.  After Vicksburg he had paroled the entire Confederate army that had been captured after the fall of that city.  In the fighting around Chattanooga later that year he was dismayed to find among the captured Confederate troops men who had surrendered at Vicksburg and who had not been exchanged.  Realizing that the Confederates needed their prisoners back in their ranks , and that the Union had an endless supply of manpower, he thought that it was a benefit for the Union that the system had broken down and adamantly refused Confederate attempts in 1864 to revive prisoner exchanges. A good article on the exchange of prisoners is here.

Second was the series of small POW camps in the vicinity of Richmond, which, with the break down in the prisoner exchange system, were soon overflowing with Union prisoners.  In November 1863 Captain Richard Widner came to the hamlet (population 20) of Andersonville, Georgia  to investigate the prospects of building a large POW camp there.  He liked what he saw:  plenty of water near at hand, located near a railhead and situated in the Deep South, far away from the Union armies.  In December of 1863 he began construction of Andersonville  Prison.   (The official name of the prison was Camp Sumter.)   Local slaves were brought in to clear the land in January 1864 and to build the stockade.  The Prison encompassed 16.5 acres  with a small creek flowing through the site to provide water.   No barracks were built to shelter the prisoners.  The capacity of prisoners that could be held there was estimated to be 10,000.  The first Union prisoners were shipped to  in February 1864.  With heavy fighting that began in May as Grant battled his way towards Richmond, the number of prisoners swelled to well beyond the capacity of the prison.  By June the prison population had ballooned to 20,000.  The boundary of the prison was extended using prison labor labor 610 feet to the north during June.  By August 33,000 Union prisoners were held within the stockade of Andersonville.

Third, for security reasons, the prisoners were not given the materials to build barracks.  Andersonville’s prison guards consisted of overaged men and underaged boys, and permanent barracks where the prisoners could live, and plot escape attempts unobserved, were thought by the authorities to be too much of risk with prison guards of this calibre.  The Union prisoners, except for what makeshift shelters they could improvise, were exposed to the elements at all times.

Fourth, the creek flowing through Andersonville served both as a source of water and as a latrine.  The Union troops, with appropriate black humor, labeled the creek “Sweet Water Branch’.

Fifth, medical care at Andersonville was basically non-existent, with the small medical staff completely overwhelmed.

Sixth, the Union soldiers were in theory to get the same daily ration as a Confederate soldier.  What they received, if they were lucky, was rancid grain and a spoonful or two of peas or beans.   To be fair, the Confederates during this stage of the war had a great deal of difficulty providing rations to their own troops.

Seventh, incompetence on the part of the camp’s commander Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz.  Ironically trained as a medical doctor in Europe prior to the Civil War, the Swiss born Wirz took command of Andersonville in March 1864.  Tried and executed after the war,  the only Confederate to be executed following the war, Wirz has been called both an innocent scapegoat and a demon of cruelty incarnate.  I will not venture into that battleground.  I will note that in the face of the humanitarian disaster that developed at Andersonville Wirz did little and seemed to spend most of his time trying to get promoted, eventually getting his wish and attaining the rank of Major shortly before the end of the War.

All of these factors led to the deaths of almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who passed through Andersonville.  Surgeon Joseph Jones of the Confederate Army on an inspection tour wrote a report to the Surgeon General of the Confederacy on October19, 1864 regarding conditions at Andersonville: (more…)

Published in: on February 27, 2014 at 5:35 am  Comments (2)  
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Ladder to Heaven

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Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born into a large Cajun family in Ville Platte Louisiana on January 24, 1912.  From early childhood his ambition was to be a priest.  Entering Saint Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Saint Benedict, Louisiana he quickly became noted for his good humor, quick wit and athletic prowess.  He also had a marked interest in French military history and would recite the last words of Marshal Michel Ney before his execution by the restored Bourbons after the Hundred Days:  “Come see how a soldier dies in battle, but he dies not.”

Ordained in 1938 he was assigned as assistant pastor at Saint Mary Magdalene in Abbeville, Louisiana.  Depression era Louisiana knew poverty that people today would find hard to believe.  Father Lafleur supplied balls, bats and gloves to the boys in his parish and helped organize baseball games.  After his death some of the boys learned that Father Lafleur had purchased the equipment by pawning his wristwatch.

Father LaFleur joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 over six months before Pearl Harbor.  Four months later Lieutenant LaFleur was sent with the 19th Bombardment Group to Clark Field in the Philippines.  The new chaplain was popular with the men:  he helped organize a baseball team, founded a discussion group and his door was always open to them.

On December 8, 1941 the Japanese attacked Clark Field and Chaplain LaFleur sprang into action.  Ignoring exploding bombs and flying shrapnel he helped treat the wounded and administered the Last Rites to those beyond human help.  For his actions that day he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

As the Philippines were conquered by the Japanese Father LaFleur passed up an opportunity for evacuation, stating that his place was with the men. (more…)

With the Wolfhounds

Father John Scannell

NEC ASPERA TERRENT

No Fear on Earth-motto of the Wolfhounds

John W. Scannell came into this Vale of Tears on March 28, 1907.  Ordained a priest on May 26, 1934 for the Archdiocese of Denver and was assigned to Saint Mary’s in Colorado Springs.  Father Scannell relates how he came to join the Army as a chaplain:

It was during July, 1937 that two members of the Colorado Springs Reserve Officer’s Association came to the parish rectory of St. Mary’s stating that they had no chaplain and asked if I would consider joining the Reserve Corps as a chaplain.

I said that I would take steps to join and thanked them. The physical examination was passed successfully. One obstacle had to be overcome. At that time it was required of chaplain candidates to write a thesis on some ethical question, but I was unable to write the thesis because the pastor of the parish became ill. This meant that two priests had to do the work of three.

However, early in March 1939, I saw the war clouds loom over Europe and I hurriedly wrote the necessary document and forwarded same to the War Department. In July I was informed that my physical exam was passe’ and ordered to get another. This I proceeded to do. Finally on Jan 26, 1940, I received my commission in the Army of the United States. I became a First Lt. in the Chaplains’ Corps.

Early in March, 1941, I received orders from the War Dept. directing me to report for duty at Camp Callan, California, which was about four miles north of La Jolla (Torrey Pines). Camp Callan was a brand new camp and I was the first chaplain (later there were eight) to report for duty. It was a Coast Artillery Replacement Center. Every 13 weeks we received 7,000 men. These were given basic training and sent onto various Coast Artillery posts. The C.A.C. is, of course, a defunct corps. Early in 1943 they converted from the role of Coast Artillery to anti—aircraft. I reported for duty at Camp Callan on March 31, 1941.

It would take too long to relate what happened at Camp Callan on “Pearl Harbor Day”. About New Year’s Day, 1942, I wrote to the Chief of Chaplains and requested overseas duty. As usual, orders were slow in coming. Finally, on April 5, 1942, I went north on a train to the Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason, California, and we sailed for the Hawaiian Islands on April 7.

There were 17 ships in the convoy, including the escort vessels, and it took 10 days to reach Honolulu. (A convoy travels as fast as its slowest ship.)  It was April 17 and by evening of the same day I was in the field, assigned to the 25th Infantry Division and attached to the 35th Infantry.

I was with the 35th at Ewa Plantation for about three weeks when an Assistant Hawaiian Department Chaplain in charge of Catholic Chaplains unceremoniously bounced many of us around. I was transferred to the 19th Infantry, 24th Division, bumping a chaplain who had come over on the same orders! Our mileau was the north shore of Oahu with 1st Bn. Hq. in the Kahuku area. I remember that one of the First Bn .s duties was to guard Kahuku Air Base.

It was sometime in September that Father Terrence Finnigan, 25th Divison Chaplain contacted me and asked if I was interested in returning to the Division. They were short six chaplains, 3 Protestant and 3 Catholic, and the Division would be pulling out shortly for action. I was glad to volunteer because I had become a little tired of the “Rock” and partly because I was still smarting from the original transfer.

On November 7, 1942, I reported for duty with the 25th Division and was attached to the 27th Infantry Regiment, the Russian Wolfhounds. (There are Irish wolfhounds, you know). We sailed with the second echelon on December 5 and arrived at Guadalcanal on December 30, 1942. As I recall, six days later on January 5, we relieved the First Marine Divison and began our push on Kokumbona. I remember one of the Marines saying that they had not advanced an inch for four weeks. We rolled up the Japanese flank and took their Hq. and landing beach at Kokumbona in about 15 days.

Let the above suffice for personal history for now.

Father Scannell, like most extremely brave men, was reticent to talk about his bravery.  He became a legend among the Wolfhounds.  Here are his decorations for heroism:

The Legion of Merit

The Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster

The Purple Heart

The Bronze Star (more…)

Published in: on October 20, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off  
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The Mass on Mount Suribachi

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Iwo Jima probably has the sad distinction of being the most expensive piece of worthless real estate in the history of the globe.  Expensive not in something as minor as money, but costly in something as all important as human lives.  In 1943 the island had a civilian population of 1018 who scratched a precarious living from sulfur mining, some sugar cane farming and fishing.  All rice and consumer goods had to be imported from the Home Islands of Japan.  Economic prospects for the island were dismal.  Eight square miles, almost all flat and sandy, the dominant feature is Mount Suribachi on the southern tip of the island, 546 feet high, the caldera of the dormant volcano that created the island.  Iwo Jima prior to World War II truly was “of the world forgetting, and by the world forgot”.

The advent of World War II changed all of that.  A cursory look at a map shows that Iwo Jima is located 660 miles south of Tokyo, well within the range of American bombers and fighter escorts, a fact obvious to both the militaries of the US and Imperial Japan.  The Japanese forcibly evacuated the civilian population of Iwo Jima in July of 1944.  Awaiting the invading Marines was a garrison of approximately 23,000 Japanese troops, skillfully deployed by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi  in hidden fortified positions throughout the island, connected in many cases by 11 miles of tunnels.  The Japanese commander was under no illusions that the island could be held, but he was determined to make the Americans pay a high cost in blood for Iwo.

Tasked with the mission of seizing the island was the V Marine Amphibious Corp, under the command of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, consisting of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Divisions.

On February 18th, 1945 Navy Lieutenant, (the Marine Corps, although Marines are often loathe to admit it, is a component of the Department of the Navy, and the Navy supplies all the chaplains that serve with it) Charles Suver, Society of Jesus, was part of the 5th Marine Division and anxiously awaiting the end of the bombardment and the beginning of the invasion the next day.  Chaplain Suver was one of 19 Catholic priests participating in the invasion as a chaplain.

Father Suver had been born in Ellensburg, Washington in 1907.    Graduating from Seattle College in 1924, he was ordained as a priest in 1937, having taught at Gonzaga University in Spokane.   Prior to the war, while teaching at Seattle Prep, he rigorously enforced the no running rules in the hall, even going so far as to tackle one errant student!  Father Suver was remembered as a strict disciplinarian but also a fine teacher. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he joined the navy as a chaplain.  (more…)

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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POW Servant of God

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In the midst of a World War, Emil Kapaun was born in peaceful Pilsen, Kansas on August 20, 1916.  His parents were Czech immigrants and virtually everyone in the area spoke Czech.  From an early age Emil knew that he wanted to be a priest and would play mass with his younger brother.  Graduating from Conception Abbey seminary college in Conception Missouri in 1936,  Emil attended Kendrick Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Wichita in June 1940.  Father Kapaun returned to his home parish Saint John Nepomucene in Pilsen as an assistant to Father Sklenar who, together with his Bishop, had paid the cost of his attendance at the seminary.  During these years Father Kapaun was also an auxiliary chaplain at Herington Air Base.  After the retirement of Father Sklenar in December 1943, Father Kapaun became pastor of his boyhood parish.  Receiving permission from his Bishop, Father Kapaun joined the army as a chaplain in July 1944.

Chaplain Kapaun’s intial assignment was as chaplain at Camp Wheeler in Georgia.  In April 1945 he was sent to the C-B-I (China-Burma-India) theater of operations.  While in the C-B-I he traveled over 2000 miles by jeep to say mass for the troops in the forward areas.  Arriving in India he served as a chaplain for the troops on the Ledo road from Ledo, India to Lashio, Burma.   Chaplain Kapaun became friends with the Catholic missionaries, priests and nuns from Italy, at Lashio.  Taking up a collection for the missions from American troops, who responded generously, Father Kapaun also prevailed upon American combat engineers to construct a building in Lashio to be used as a school and a church.  Here is a picture of Father Kapaun, viewer’s right, along with his trusty jeep, while he was in the C-B-I.

father-kapuan-c-b-i

Promoted to Captain, he remained in the C-B-I until May of 1946 and was mustered out of the Army in July 1946.  With the approval of his Bishop, Father Kapuan enrolled at Catholic University in Washington on the G.I. Bill, and obtained a Master’s degree in education in February 1948.  In April his Bishop appointed him pastor in Timken, Kansas in April 1948.  Believing that he was called to be a chaplain for the troops, and with the consent of his Bishop, Father Kapaun rejoined the army as a chaplain in September 1948.

Serving as a chaplain at Fort Bliss, Father Kapaun was ordered to Japan in 1950.  Upon the outbreak of the Korean War, he was assigned to a front line combat unit, the 3rd battalion, 8th cavalry regiment, 1rst Cavalry Division. (more…)

Published in: on February 27, 2013 at 5:35 am  Comments (3)  
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Angel of the Trenches

Joao Baptista DeValles was born in 1879 in Saint Miquel in the Azores.  At the age of 2 his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts.  His first name anglicized to John, he quickly proved himself a brilliant student, eventually being fluent in six languages.  Ordained a priest in 1906 he served at Falls River at Espirito Santo Church, founding the first Portuguese language parochial school in the United States while he was there.  He later served at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in New Bedford and was pastor at Saint John the Baptist Church, also in New Bedford.

After the entry of the US into World War I, he joined the Army as a chaplain, serving with the 104th regiment, a Massachusetts National Guard outfit, part of the Yankee (26th) Division, made up of National Guard units from New England.  The Yankee Division arrived in France in September 1917, the second American division to arrive “Over There”.

The 104th was a hard fighting outfit, serving in all of the major campaigns of the American Expeditionary Force.  For heroic fighting at Bois Brule in April, 1918 the French government awarded the regiment a collective Croix de Guerre, an unprecedented honor for an American military unit.  There were quite a few very brave men in the 104th, and among the bravest of the brave was Chaplain DeValles.  For his heroism in rescuing wounded, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest decoration for valor in the United States Army.  Here is the text of the citation:

104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, A.E.F.
Date of Action: April 10 – 13, 1918
Citation:
The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to John B. De Valles, Chaplain, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in action near
Apremont, Toul sector, France, April 10 to 13, 1918. Chaplain De Valles repeatedly exposed himself to heavy artillery and machine-gun fire in order to assist in the removal of the wounded from exposed points in advance of the lines. He worked for long periods of time with stretcher bearers in carrying wounded men to safety. Chaplain De Valles previously rendered gallant service in the Chemin des Dames sector, March 11, 1918, by remaining with a group of wounded during a heavy enemy bombardment.
General Orders No. No. 35, W.D., 1920 (more…)

Published in: on September 26, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off  
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Padre of Guadalcanal

BE058992Frederic Gehring was probably lucky that he was born and reared in Brooklyn.  It has always been a tough town and it prepared him for the adventurous life he was to lead.  Born on January 20, 1903,  he went on to attend and graduated from Saint John’s Prep.  Setting his eyes on being a missionary priest, he entered the minor seminary of the Vincentians, Saint Joseph’s, near Princeton,  New Jersey.  Earning his BA in 1925, he entered the seminary of Saint Vincent’s in Philadelphia.

Ordained as a priest on May 22, 1930, he was unable to immediately go to China due to military activity of the Communists in Kiangsi province.  For three years he traveled throughout the US raising funds for the missions in China, and, at long last, in 1933 he was able to pack his bags and sailed for China.  Laboring in the Chinese missions from 1933-1939 in the midst of warlordism, civil war and the invasion of China, commencing in 1937, by Japan must have been tough, but Father Gehring was always up to any challenge.  For example,  in 1938 Japanese planes strafed a mission he was at.  Father Gehring ran out waving a large American flag in hopes that the Japanese would not wish to offend a powerful neutral nation and would stop the strafing.  The Japanese planes did fly off, and Father Gehring was pleased until someone at the mission pointed out that maybe the Japanese had simply run out of ammo!  In 1939 Father Gerhring returned to the States to raise funds for the missions.

Immediately following Pearl Harbor, Father Gehring joined the Navy as a Chaplain.  In September 1942 he began an unforgettable six month tour of duty with the First Marine Division fighting on Guadalcanal.  Marines, although they are often loathe to admit it, are a component of the Department of the Navy, and the US Navy supplies their support troops, including chaplains.  (One of my friends served as a Navy corpsman with a Marine unit in Vietnam.  After his tour with the Navy he enlisted with the Marines, was commissioned a Lieutenant, and spent his entire tour with a detachment of Marines aboard an aircraft carrier.  As he puts it, he joined the Navy and spent his time slogging through the mud with Marines.  He then joined the Marines and spent his time sailing with the Navy.)

Guadalcanal marked the turning point of the war in the Pacific.  In August 1942 the US went on the offensive for the first time when the First Marine Division, the Old Breed,  landed on Guadalcanal and took the Japanese air base there.  This set off a huge six month campaign, where US forces, often outnumbered on land, sea and in the air, fought and defeated the Imperial Army and Navy.  The importance of Guadalcanal is well captured in this quote from Admiral William “Bull” Halsey: “Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours”.

Guadalcanal

Upon arrival on Guadalcanal, Lieutenant Gehring quickly became known as “Padre ” to the men of the Old Breed, the title usually bestowed upon chaplains, especially if they were Catholic priests.  He soon became known for wanting to be where the fighting was in order to help the wounded and administer the Last Rites.  Initially this took some of the Marines by surprise.  Jumping into a foxhole during a heavy fire fight, a shocked Marine already in the foxhole, noticing the crucifix dangling from his neck, cried out to him, “Padre, what are you doing here?”  Gehring calmly replied, “Where else would I be?”  He would routinely say Masses so close to the fighting, that the Marines said that he would say Mass in Hell for Marines if he could drive his jeep there.  The Marines quickly decided that it was a lost cause asking the Padre to stay behind the lines.  They were doing well if they could convince him to stay within friendly lines!  Three times he went out on behind the line missions to rescue trapped missionaries on the island, mostly Marist priests and sisters, rescuing 28 of them, assisted by natives of the Solomons.  For this feat he was the first Navy chaplain to be awarded the Legion of Merit by the President. (more…)

The Four Chaplains

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John Washington first saw the light of day on July 18, 1908 in Newark, New Jersey.

One of seven kids in a poor immigrant family, John as a boy had a newspaper route to help bring in money for the family. Singing in the choir at mass, John decided by the seventh grade that his goal in life was to be a priest.

Graduating from Seton Hall with an A.B. degree in 1931, John entered Immaculate Conception Seminary in 1931 and was ordained a priest on June 15, 1935. Father Washington ‘s first assignment was at Saint Genevieve’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, followed by service at Saint Stephen’s in Arlington, New Jersey. Father Washington, having grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in Newark, knew how important proper guidance was for kids. He would play baseball with them on the streets and organized youth baseball teams at the parishes to which he was assigned.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor Father Washington joined the Army as a chaplain. On May 9, 1942 he was named Chief of the Chaplain Reserve Pool at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. In June he was assigned to the 76th Infantry Division and in November 1942 attended the chaplain course at Harvard. There he first met three other chaplains: George L. Fox, a Methodist minister, Clark V. Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister and Alexander D. Goode, a Jewish rabbi.

Fox was the oldest of the chaplains having been born in 1900. This was his second World War, having served in World War I where his courage was acknowledged by being awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart and the French Croix de Guerre. On August 8, 1942 he went on active duty as a chaplain, the same day his son joined the Marine Corps.

Poling was born in 1910. His father had served as a chaplain in World War I. When he went off to the Army Poling told his father: “Dad, don’t pray for my safe return, just pray that I shall do my duty and something more, pray that I shall never be a coward. Pray that I shall have the strength, courage, and understanding of men, and especially pray that I shall be patient. Oh, Dad, just pray that I shall be adequate.”

Goode was the youngest of the four chaplains having been born in 1911. The son of a rabbi, he also became a rabbi.   He attempted to become a chaplain with the Navy in January 1941. Not accepted at that time he entered the Army as a chaplain on July 21, 1942. (more…)

He Outranked Stonewall

James B. Sheeran knew many roles in his life:  husband, father, Catholic priest and soldier, and whatever his role he gave everything he had.  Born in Temple Mehill, County Longford, Ireland, in either 1814 or 1818, he emigrated to Canada at the age of 12.  Eventually he settled in Monroe, Michigan and taught at a school run by the Redemptorist Fathers.  He married and he and his wife had a son and daughter.

Tragedy stalked the family.  Sheeran’s wife died in 1849 and his son also died of illness.  His daughter became a nun, but also died young of an illness.  Rather than retreat into bitterness, always a temptation for a man afflicted with so much sorrow, Sheeran decided that God was calling him to a new path and joined the Redemptorists, being ordained a priest in 1858.  He was sent to a parish in New Orleans.  In the Crescent City he found that he liked the people and became an ardent Southerner.  When Louisiana seceded, he became a chaplain in the 14th Louisiana, which served in the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee.

Father Sheeran was a priest who believed in speaking his mind.  An example of this was caused by his habit of helping enemy wounded after he had helped the wounded Confederates.  His unit had captured a Union field hospital and Father Sheeran went over to it and was appalled to see that the wounded were not being cared for.  He kept a diary throughout the War and he recorded the following: (more…)

Published in: on December 2, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off  
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