Keeping the Peace

Sorin Wm

Small as it was, Notre Dame was nevertheless a national institution when the Civil War broke out. As such, the differing political viewpoints of the time were represented in the student body. Catholics from the North and South sent their children to Notre Dame during the war, at least partially because of a perceived buffer of safety being located in northern Indiana. 

Fr. Sorin demanded the community focus on their studies, and prohibited discussion of current events. He had to know this was wishful thinking: pro-Union students had formed militias on campus several years prior. As the war progressed, students and alumni would enlist on both sides. Fr. Sorin himself expressed strong support for the Union.

Immediately after the fall of Fort Sumter most on campus heeded Sorin’s request, though the inevitable fights did eventually come, sometimes with fisticuffs. Over at St. Mary’s, Gen. William T. Sherman’s daughter Minnie got into a fracas when a pro-Southern girl ripped Ms. Sherman’s Union flag from her hand and destroyed it. Nevertheless, Sorin and the Holy Cross sisters were largely successful in maintaining a level of normalcy.

A letter from Fr. Sorin to President Abraham Lincoln requesting draft exemption for the order of the Holy Cross

NOTRE DAME, IND., September 28, 1863.

His Excellency ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of the United States:

Sir: The order of the Holy Cross, consisting of priests, brothers, and sisters, and whose principal house in the United States is situated at Notre Dame, State of Indiana, humbly appeals to your justice and goodness for a kind hearing.

We most respectively venture to ask of Your Excellency the privilege of being exempted from the military service, or rather from bearing arms. Not, indeed, because we are opposed to the measures which our rightful Government thinks proper to adopt and enact for the vigorous prosecution of the war—for that is, we sincerely believe, the speediest way to effectually crush down rebellion and restore peace to the nation—but on account of our true devotion to the Union and the constant support we have willingly and cheerfully given to the Government in sending with our armies six priests as chaplains (one died in a hospital a victim of his devotion to his country's cause, and three others went at the expense of the order), and in our army and navy hospitals nearly forty sisters as nurses. To serve as chaplains or nurses we always willingly do, as it is in conformity with our vocation; but to bear arms even in a war we deem right and just is very repugnant to our religious and sacred calling; nay more, priests or clerics cannot shed blood without incurring ipso facto the censures of the church.

It is true that we may be dispensed from bearing arms in procuring substitutes, but we respectfully represent to Your Excellency that individuals in religious orders do not possess anything, and our house cannot possibly procure substitutes for all the priests, clerics, and brothers that will soon be drafted without exposing our establishments in the United States to inevitable ruin.

In consideration of these facts, we are fully confident that Your Excellency will grant our petition, and in so doing acquire our lively and eternal gratitude.

With great respect, we are, most respectfully, sir, your humble and obedient servants.

E. SORIN, C.S.C. Prov.
J. C. CARRIER, C.S.C. Assistant Superintendent.


[First indorsement.]

I concur, but do not commit myself as to the legal questions involved.

W. T. SHERMAN, Major-General, Commanding Fifteenth Army Corps.


[Second indorsement.]

HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF THE TENNESSEE, Vicksburg, Miss., September 28, 1863.

I would respectfully represent that the order herein applying for exemption have contributed largely of their services to the support of the war, and if any class is to be exempt from the present or any future draft, they have fully entitled themselves to such benefit. Respectfully referred for the consideration of the President, hoping that, if not inconsistent wiht law or the policy of the Government, that the favor asked will be granted.

U. S. GRANT, Major-General.


Excerpt from The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.