Father John Ireland and the Fifth Minnesota



One of the titans of the Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century in the United States was Archbishop John Ireland, the first Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota.  Future blog posts will cover his career as Archbishop.  This blog post is focused on his service during the Civil War.  Ordained a priest only a year, Father John Ireland at 24 in 1862 received permission of his bishop to join the Fifth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.  He joined the regiment immediately after the battle of Shiloh.

At the battle of Corinth on October 4, 1862 the Fifth Minnesota saved the day for the Union with a charge that stopped a Confederate breakthrough of the Union lines.  Running short on ammunition, the troops received additional cartridges from Chaplain Ireland who ran down the line dispensing ammunition.  When the fighting was over, the soldiers noted that their chaplain tirelessly tended the wounded and administered the Last Rites to soldiers whose wounds were beyond human aid.

The troops were very fond of their young priest and built him a portable altar from saplings.  His sermons were popular with the men, being direct, blunt and brief.  He was noted for his sunny disposition, quick wit  and his courage.  He was also an enthusiastic chess player, and would take on all comers in the evenings in camp.

Before battles he would hear the confessions of huge numbers of soldiers, with some Protestant soldiers often asking for admission to the Church.  He was always ready to pray with any soldiers no matter their religion, and give them what comfort he could in reminding them that God was ever at their side during their time of peril.  On one occasion he went to the side of an officer who had been shot and was bleeding to death and had asked for a chaplain.   the Archbishop recalled the scene decades after the War.   ‘Speak to me,’ he said, ‘of Jesus.’ He had been baptized — there was no time to talk of Church. I talked of the Savior, and of sorrow for sin. The memory of that scene has never been effaced from my mind. I have not doubted the salvation of that soul.”

Father Ireland was mustered out of service in March of 1863 due to ill-health, but he never forgot his time in the Union Army.  He was ever active in the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization,   and would write about his experiences as a combat chaplain.  Unlike most Catholics of his day, he was a firm Republican, the friend of Republican presidents including McKinley and Roosevelt, and never forgot why the Civil War had to be fought, as this statement by him regarding the rights of blacks indicates:

There is but one solution of the problem, and it is to obliterate absolutely all color line. Open up to the Negro as to the white man, the political offices of the country, making but one test, that of mental and moral fitness. Throw down at once the barriers which close out the Negro merely on account of his color from hotel, theater, and railway carriage. Meet your Negro brother as your equal at banquets and in social gatherings. Give him, in one word, and in full meaning of the terms, equal rights and equal privileges, political, civil, and social. I know no color line, I will acknowledge none. The time is not distant when Americans and Christians will wonder that there ever was a race prejudice.

In his old age, Archbishop Ireland, after a life marked with many accomplishments, looked back upon his time as a chaplain with the Fifth Minnesota as the most fruitful part of his ministry.  In 1894 he gave a speech on patriotism to Union veterans.  This section of his speech I think is just as relevant today as when he gave it:

There is a danger  and a most serious one  in corrupt morals. A people without good morals is incapable of self-government. At the basis of the proper exercise of the suffrage lie unselfishness and the spirit of sacrifice. A corrupt man is selfish ; an appeal to duty finds no response in his conscience ; he is incapable of the high- mindedness and generous acts which are the elements of patriotism ; he is ready to sell the country for pelf or pleasure. Patriotism takes alarm at the spread of intemperance, lasciviousness, dishonesty, perjury; for country’s sake it should arm against those dire evils all the country’s forces, its legislatures, its courts, and, above all else, public opinion. Materialism and the denial of a living, supreme God annihilate conscience, and break down the barriers to sensuality ; they sow broadcast the seeds of moral death : they are fatal to liberty and social order. A people without a belief in God and a future life of the soul will not remain a free people. The age of the democracy must, for its own protection, be an age of religion.

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  1. Thanks for this post. Attended the same College where one of our professors upheld his memory for us. His last quote is as you said so relevant. It also echoes the views of the Founders, a civil-non-sectarian virtuous patriotism, with out being denominational. They of course would throw a fit if they were faced with today’s acceptance of abortion and same gender unions, including equating them to “marriage,” which are so accepted by today’s “Christian” leaders in State, Court and some Church bodies

  2. It should be noted that this bishop’s name is still mentioned with some rancour in Greek Catholic circles. He being the cause for the largest mass conversion to Orthodoxy in hundreds of years (from Wikipedia):

    In 1891, Ireland refused to accept the credentials of Greek-Catholic priest Alexis Toth, citing the decree that married priests of the Eastern Catholic Churches were not permitted to function in the Catholic Church in the United States, despite Toth being a widower. Ireland then forbade Toth to minister to his own parishioners, despite the fact that Toth had jurisdiction from his own Bishop, and did not depend on Ireland. Ireland was also involved in efforts to expel all Eastern Catholic clergy from the United States of America. Forced into an impasse, Toth went on to lead thousands of Greek-Catholics to leave the Catholic Church to join the Russian Orthodox Church. Because of this, Archbishop Ireland is sometimes referred to, ironically, as “The Father of the Orthodox Church in America.” Marvin R. O’Connell, author of a biography on Ireland, summarizes the situation by stating that “if Ireland’s advocacy of the blacks displayed him at his best, his belligerence toward the Greek Catholics showed him at his bull-headed worst.”

  3. Joseph: You’re correct about the Greek Catholic problem. And Archbishop flirted with Modernism. But this article is on the Fifth Minnesota. “This blog post is focused on his service during the Civil War.”

  4. I believe that Archbishop Ireland’s treatment of Fr. Toth is fair game for discussion, his service in the Civil War notwithstanding.

    Pittsburgh, where I live, is the home of the Byzantine Ruthenain Archeparchy. The Rusyns have suffered through two schisms in the USA. First, there was the lousy treatment of Fr. Toth that led to the establishment of the Orthodox Church of America. Second, the Latin bishops of the USA petitioned the Holy See to ban married clergy in the Eastern Churches in the USA in the 1920s, which was approved. A second schism occurred, and the American Carpatho-Rusyn Orthodox Diocese (based in Johnstown, PA was established.

    I was unaware of Archbishop Ireland’s service in the Civil War, and I found Mr. McClarey’s post to be informative. I was aware of Archbishop Ireland’s role in the construction of the magnificent cathedral in St. Paul. However, having worked for several years volunteering with the Sisters of St. Basil at Mount St. Macrina in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, I learned firsthand that Archbishop Ireland’s words and deeds regarding the Byzantine Church caused a great deal of harm.

  5. Why do you believe that your issue is important in response to a post about Father Ireland in the Civil War? What if I decided that you can’t post because the Greeks are virtually bankrupt today? That would be just as valid as your change of the subject, wouldn’t it?

  6. I would ask that comments regarding Archbishop Ireland and the Uniates (Eastern Catholics) be left for future posts. I will have several more posts on this remarkable man in the months to come. I find him fascinating, and I will treat his career in full, including the controversies raised in this thread. For now please focus on his role as a chaplain in the Civil War and his thoughts regarding patriotism.

  7. During my research for an upcoming book tentatively titled “Pro Deo Pro Patria::The Life and Death of a Catholic Military School,” I learned that one of the few remaining Catholic military schools St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota is an archdiocesan school founded by Bishop Ireland.

  8. I deleted your comment Seraphim. The controveries you alluded to in your comment will be dealt with in a future post, but for now I must insist that my wishes be respected in this thread.

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