The Congregation of Holy Cross in the Civil War

Chaplains Wm

When war broke out in April 1861, Notre Dame and St. Mary’s Academy were fledgling schools. So too was the Congregation of Holy Cross in the U.S. There were 199 nuns, 18 priests and 80 brothers in the country at the time. 

In October 1861, Indiana governor Oliver Morton requested of Fr. Sorin 12 nuns to work at field hospitals in the war. Sorin quickly agreed, noting the opportunity for service but also something more. Anti-Catholic (particularly Irish Catholic) sentiment ran high in the United States in part as a response to the influx of immigrants in the 1850s, and Sorin saw in the war a chance to prove the resolve of the Church in America, and the Holy Cross order in particular.

By the end of the war 80 nuns would serve as field nurses, performing some of the most morbid and grim tasks associated with 19th century warfare. In addition, seven Holy Cross priests served as chaplains during the war: Rev. James M. Dillon, C.S.C. (63rd New York Regiment, Irish Brigade, October 1861—October 1862); Rev. Peter Paul Cooney, C.S.C. (35th Indiana Infantry Regiment October 1861—June 1865); Rev. Joseph Carrier, C.S.C. (6th Missouri Infantry Regiment, July—October 1863); Rev. Paul Gillen, C.S.C. (170th New York Infantry Regiment, October 1862—July 1865); Rev. William Corby, C.S.C. (88th New York Infantry Regiment, Irish Brigade, December 1861—September 1864, when Sorin called him back to Notre Dame). Fr. Sorin did not send all these men at once; like most in the North, he did not think the conflict would last very long. Two priests died serving as chaplains during the war: Rev. Zepherin Leveque, C.S.C. and Rev. Julian Bourget, C.S.C., both in 1862.

The Holy Cross contribution is significant: Roughly 40 percent of the Congregation’s nuns in America served during the war. Four became the first U.S. Navy nurses in history. As for the priests, only about 40 Union army chaplains were Catholic priests (of 2,300). Considering one in every six Union soldiers was Catholic, the priests were extremely overworked.